February 10th, 2021

How I identify and vet credible information sources: an example

Others have already posted about methodologies for evaluating information, especially with regard to information published on the web. I’d like to chime in with an example of a recent interaction in which I used a combination of lateral and vertical reading.

Someone asked me my views on election fraud. When I replied that I didn’t believe there was any significant fraud in the recent election, the person responded with generalized statements and accusations. Here’s an outline of what I did in response.
1. Focus on specifics, don’t respond to generalities. I asked the person to give me one or two specific news items that they believed to be truthful, which I would evaluate and then share my findings.
2. Read carefully to establish what’s really being said. Between them, the two articles I was given contained all these flaws:
• Attention-grabbing headlines not adequately supported by the content of the article.
• Red herrings or emphasis on secondary issues in great detail while omitting primary facts.
• Confusing presentation that makes it hard to follow what the point of the story is.
• Images or videos not clearly showing what the article says they show, even if the visual itself is authentic.
As I read the articles, I made a list of the specific alleged facts as I could understand them.
3. Corroborate, using fact checkers, primary sources, and other media accounts. (I used Snopes, PolitiFact, FactCheck, and LeadStories. For fact-checking background and a list, I recommend the International Fact Checking Network (https://ifcncodeofprinciples.poynter.org .) In the cases I analyzed, the fact checkers all rejected the articles’ major claims. The fact checkers did not always address all the alleged facts point by point. I found that other media accounts provided specific relevant information refuting key claims, and in one case a primary local government source also refuted the claim.
4. Check reputation. I used AllSides (https://www.allsides.com ) to determine that the sources were in the most biased group on their side of the spectrum. That doesn’t in itself mean the content is false, but I take it as a caution flag. Also, I found that Wikipedia had detailed articles on both sources, including lists of past false stories they had published.
5. Make a judgment. In these cases, both publishers had reputations for publishing false stories (backed up by specific examples), and key claims of the articles were refuted by secondary and primary sources. I concluded that the articles were not believable.

Since presenting my review, I haven’t heard any more about election fraud from the person who confronted me. I don’t know if they’ve changed their mind. I hope I was able to show them what a rational, thoughtful analysis is like. The story isn’t over…

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