Here's How To Tell If A Source Is Reliable—This Is Important

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How To Tell If A Source Is Reliable—Without A Media Bias Infographic
Scary Mommy and Matthew Henry/Burst

We’ve all seen those infographics that tell us whether various publications lean right or left or land squarely in the middle with regards to their bias. There’s a tiny group of publications that land in that coveted green box of reliability.

Source: Ad Fontes Media

Wikipedia also has an excellent article that details an alphabetical list of publications and rates them according to reliability. As maligned as Wikipedia is for being unreliable due to its public editability, this page in particular is remarkably reliable and commonly used as a source guide for publications looking to cite other publications as sources as they report on related stories.

The interesting thing that has been happening lately, though, is that an entire alternate reality has come gurgling to the forefront—a reality that says that the fact checkers and media bias analysis sites are themselves biased. But if a person can’t even trust the fact checkers, how can they possibly determine what’s real and what is “fake news”? High schoolers and college students are taught to “consider the source,” but what happens when the sources you have always considered reliable are now called into question? Where do you turn?

I have found the graphic above to be accurate as far as its assessment of which news publications are the most neutral and thoroughly reported. But there are other ways to tell if a text you’re reading is biased.

You know how, in poker, if you study the facial expressions and body language of the other players, you eventually begin to pick up “tells” that clue you in to the kind of hand they have? Well, news publications have “tells” too. Every unreliable or untrue story has clues laced throughout its text that reveal its bias. If you get familiar with what these clues are, you’ll be able to quickly tell whether the publication you’re reading can be taken at face value, or whether you need to dig deeper for a more accurate account of the story—regardless of what you’re reading.

So let’s talk about four ways to quickly identify biased reporting without consulting an infographic.

Use of incendiary language, especially when coupled with caps.

Incendiary language is the most obvious sign that an article or publication is biased. Headlines with provocative adjectives and verbs like “RADICAL,” “DESTROY,” and “HUMILIATE” are a sign that the publication you are reading is extremely biased—whether it’s biased toward the left or to the right. This type of language appears in media on each of the far sides of the political spectrum, so don’t assume your “side” is immune. If you want to remain as unbiased a consumer of news as possible, avoid publications that include this kind of shouty, inflammatory rhetoric. Or at least read it with the knowledge that you’re not getting all the facts.

Advising readers to “do their own research.”

This is another tell that the article you’re reading is providing suspect information. Good journalism requires that writers provide clear, specific information, and for that information to be backed by sources. If an article fails to provide specific, detailed data and facts and instead provides vague clues, asks more questions than it answers, or directs you to “do your own research,” you can be sure you are getting played. Don’t take the bait.

Now, does this mean you shouldn’t do your own research? That you should simply trust what a publication tells you? Absolutely not. But it does mean that you should demand specifics, both in terms of information provided and where that information is sourced. You should be able to corroborate any facts presented in an article via other publications which must stand up to the same scrutiny.

Does the article you’re reading cite reliable sources?

This is different from “knowing your source,” as in, checking an infographic to determine whether a publication is right- or left-leaning. This is about the embedded links within the article itself—the article’s sources. It’s also about checking which experts the author of the article consulted.

If an article cites a source, check it. If it’s a link, click on it and see if it stands up to the analysis of the previous points. If the source cited is an expert, copy and paste the expert’s name into a search engine. Are they an expert in the field pertaining to the subject of the article, or are they merely tangentially related—someone who simply shares the opinion of the writer and agreed to a quote to make the article’s claims appear more valid? I once searched for a psychologist quoted in an article, only to find the psychologist had no online presence whatsoever. I immediately discarded everything else the article said.

Is the piece you’re reading in the opinion section?

Many otherwise reliable news publications have opinion sections that publish articles which are openly biased. There is nothing wrong with this; it’s fine to write opinion articles and it’s fine to read them. But we need to understand that these articles are often not written by journalists (though sometimes they are) and are not sourced and fact-checked as thoroughly as journalistic news pieces (though, again, sometimes they are). The point is, when we read an opinion article, we must do so with an awareness that we are reading someone’s opinion.

Now more than ever, Americans need to be cynical and meticulous in how they gather information. There are bad players out there deliberately trying to mislead the American people and convince them to turn against one another. We must become savvy, journalism-literate consumers of information. We cannot allow ourselves to be misled by half-truths and incendiary rhetoric meant to divide us. Our future literally depends, as it always has, on our ability to distinguish fact from fiction.

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