New media has changed the way people, authors and authorities get their information. On one hand it has opened the door to a wealth of information that was difficult to access in the pre-internet era. On the other hand, it has opened the floodgates to fictitious “news” sites and blogs that lack credibility. Here are questions to ask yourself in your quest for citing credible sources.
How Close is the Source to the Information?
First hand information from direct witnesses is always more reliable than second hand information. When a media source features a quote, is it the entire quote or just a part that may be taken out of context? Citing credible sources can be difficult if you cannot pinpoint where the information originated, especially when media outlets merely quote other media outlets.
Is it Information or Just PR?
Sometimes features or even news segments on TV newscasts are designed to cleverly promote a product that isn’t an obvious part of the story. Movies, even documentaries, have used “product placement” of brand names for years as a sneaky form of paid advertising by big companies.
What is the Source’s Slant or Agenda?
It’s no secret that most major newspapers slant their news toward a certain political party. The New York Times, for example, leans Democratic, while the Washington Times leans Republican. Regardless of ideological slant, many media outlets will only go so far when it comes to reporting on studies that may hurt the image of their sponsors.
Who Owns the Media Source?
The public is bombarded with propaganda on a daily basis from corporations, advertisers, government and other institutions that promote themselves and their clients to the masses. It’s always worth checking who owns the source you are thinking about quoting. Politifact, for example, is owned by Tamp Bay Times, a Democratic newspaper, which is owned by Times Publishing. Here are owners or controllers in parentheses of America’s top media companies:
- NBC, MSNBC (Comcast/GE)
- CBS, Viacom (National Amusements)
- ABC (Disney)
- CNN (Time Warner)
- Fox (News Corp)
What is the Content Style?
Media spans a wide variety of communication styles. AP style, which is supposed to stick with answers to “who, what, where, when and why” questions, is a popular journalistic approach. But even AP has admitted publishing errors. Other writing styles include scientific studies, investigative reporting, commentary, blogs, reviews and gossip. Be aware of how editorials may be more wishful thinking than factual.
How Scientific is the Study?
When you are citing credible sources related to scientific studies, pay close attention to who funded and conducted the study, how many people participated, when the information was collected and whether or not control groups were used. Remember that one small study of 10 people 10 years ago doesn’t prove much. But repeated studies of thousands of subjects with consistent findings will be much more credible.
What else should one look for?
It’s easy for a non-authoritative source to appear credible. To make sure your sources are as respected as they say they are, consider the following:
- the source’s and its publisher’s reputation
- specific sources as opposed to “sources say” or “according to officials”
- credentials of the writer
- who is the target audience?
- will the source be used for primary or secondary support?
Citing credible sources involves research and should not be taken lightly. The old saying “don’t believe everything you read” has merit, as does “believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” Until information is verified, it may be written off as hearsay by many people for good reasons. When information cannot be verified, it should be reported in a matter that lets the audience know it leans toward speculation.