There have been a lot of stories about “fake news” and “alternative facts” recently. Such stories naturally beg the question: How do you determine trustworthy news sources from the untrustworthy? Popularity is not always the best clue; there are plenty of popular websites that are better known for their entertainment value than their accuracy. Readers trying to determine the trustworthiness of a source should instead consider the following:
1) What type of article is it?
Is it really a news piece, or is it an editorial or other opinion piece? Is it an advertisement? Is the article really intended to inform the reader, or is it trying to sell something? A news article should explain an event without trying to persuade the reader to a given point of view. It should be as objective as possible, and it should use verifiable sources.
2) Consider the author.
Who wrote the article? An article written by an author with the appropriate credentials will be more credible than one written without such credentials. For example, an article about climate change by a climate scientist is going to be more credible than one written by a non-scientist.
“A news article should identify the writer; articles by anonymous sources should be viewed with suspicion,” said MeriTalk. Ideally, the article should include the author’s name and an “About the Author” blurb describing their background. That description should mention organizations, businesses or websites the author has written for most often. It should also mention the type of articles the author usually writes.
The reader should then look up both the author and their websites, especially if they are unfamiliar. They should pay attention to the domain name’s suffix, which will tell the reader what kind of organization owns the website. The most common suffixes include the following:
- .org = organization or non-profit
- .mil = military
- .gov = government
- .edu = educational
- .com = commercial
Many political sites will have domain names ending in .org, while businesses, including newspapers and magazines, will have domain names ending in .com. Most websites run by individuals will also have domain names ending in .com.
Social media like Facebook is not a good source of news. The people who post things on such sites are more likely to post things they find entertaining rather than factual. They will also tend to post articles that fit their political or societal views regardless of their veracity.
3) How long has the new source existed?
The best and most reliable sources will be associated with institutions that have existed for years and have proven track records of trustworthiness. A source that has existed for a long time will have established a reputation, one way or the other. Some news sources have won awards for their journalism, while some have been busted for printing hoaxes.
In 2015, for example, an Internet rumor about a giant asteroid striking the Earth that fall made the rounds. The story claimed that NASA knew and was maliciously covering it up. It also originated from a site called “Before It’s News” that has earned a reputation for posting pseudoscience and conspiracy theory stories.
By contrast, some newspapers like the “New York Times” and magazines like “The Economist” have built up reputations for careful research and fact-checking. Such sources can therefore be trusted. The “New York Times,” for example, has won journalism awards and was established in 1851. “Before It’s News” was established in 2008 and takes pride in accepting articles from anybody, regardless of their knowledge or credentials.
4) Does it use sources?
News articles should typically have sources. A few will not; these will be public events like a speech given by the President. Most news articles, however, should use and mention sources, and the sources themselves should have a good reputation for trustworthiness.
News articles about science or medicine should ideally quote peer-reviewed journals that have been carefully vetted by scientists. Such stories should also include data from reputable sources, as should stories describing any type of trend, like a decrease in the crime rate or an increase in the population. Trustworthy new sources use verifiable facts and figures and avoid vague weasel words like “many” or “few.”
5) Is there bias?
Many commercial sites are trying to encourage people to buy a product or service, while political sites are generally pushing a specific point of view. Articles from such sites should therefore be taken with a grain of salt.
Good news sources also avoid false equivalencies. If all the facts or evidence are actually one side, they should say so, and they should be thorough and scrupulous in their explanations.