We are surrounded by information – television, radio, the internet, books, magazines, podcasts, … How do you recognise reliable sources when you see them?
As people living in this information-saturated world, we need to have ways of navigating it and deciding what to engage with and what to ignore. As writers, we have a responsibility to our readers to filter out unreliable information when we choose what sources to use in our books, blogs, and articles.
What is are reliable sources?
Reliable sources are ones that you can trust. They are created by authors with actual knowledge of the topic under discussion, and they rely on facts and well-reasoned arguments to make their points rather than sensationalism or emotion.
Some examples of reliable sources include:
- academic books and journals (these undergo a rigorous review process in which other experts weigh in on their credibility);
- major news outlets like The New York Times, CNN, and the BBC (professional journalists are trained to present facts in a fair and balanced way);
- sites like MindBodyGreen (they expect their writers to be trained professionals who support their claims with credible research).
What is an unreliable source?
Unreliable sources take many forms. Some are not necessarily created to obscure the facts or fool the reader; we’ll call these benign. Meanwhile, others are created to fool the reader; we’ll call these malignant.
Benignly unreliable sources
A popular unreliable source that wasn’t created to fool anyone is Wikipedia. Much of the information on Wikipedia is true, but anyone in the world can edit a wiki entry for any reason. This simple fact makes Wikipedia suspect as a source. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should never read wikis, but you do need to be careful and use them with caution.
If you find interesting information on Wikipedia that you want to use in something you’re writing, find out where it came from. Many wiki entries list their sources; if those sources are reliable, you can use them to support your claim in whatever you’re writing. If they’re not reliable, move on.
Malignantly unreliable sources
Clickbait is an obvious example of an unreliable source that is created to fool the reader. If you click on it and use it to waste a little time, no harm has been done. However, if you use the clickbait claims in your own writing and present them as true, you risk damaging your credibility and at the very least annoying your reader.
Other malignantly unreliable sources include propaganda and those social media posts that look like news stories but aren’t. These kinds of sources rely on emotional and sensational claims to convince the reader of something.
Recognising these can be difficult. The best way is to look objectively at what claim is being made and ask yourself whether the writer is using fact and reasonable argument, or emotion to make their point.
How do you vet your sources?
If you find an article (or other source) that’s not from an obviously credible source, you need to vet it to determine whether you want to use it or not.
Who wrote it?
To do that, you should first find out who wrote it. Is there a full author bio or link to the author’s other work? Once you find out who wrote it, find out whether they’re experts in the field. What are their qualifications and relevant experience? What else have they written?
Some credible sources don’t list individual sources, so don’t be too alarmed if you can’t find the author’s name. In these cases, you need to determine what organisation produced the source and ask questions like these: Are they credible? Are they likely to have hired professionals to write for them? What else have they produced?
What kind of language does it use?
Look at the language. Is it emotive or rational? If it’s emotive, ask yourself why it is. Is it trying to persuade you of something or is it simply on an emotionally charged topic?
For example, if the piece is on the writer’s experience of losing a loved one, the language will be emotive. But, importantly, the writer won’t be trying to convince the reader of anything. This means the source is likely reliable.
When was it written?
Depending on your topic, the age of your source could be important. If you’re writing about how the Victorians responded to the introduction of anaesthesia (as I will be in my next book!), sources from the nineteenth century are valid. However, if you’re writing about how your reader can treat a medical condition, your sources should take current research into account.
Let me know if you have any questions
If you come across sources you’re not sure about, contact me; I’ll be happy to have a quick look and help you decide whether they’re credible or not. Part of my PhD training was in how to evaluate and responsibly use sources.