Question the Source

If there is one concept among the many pearls of wisdom shared during the Ethics in the New Media World teletraining on June 17, 2013 it is this: we all need to look more critically at the content available online. This doesn’t mean we need to find more fault in it. It just means we need to ask more questions about it, whether we are readers, bloggers or journalists.

Two of the most important questions we need to ask are:

  • What is the source of the information? Where did it come from?
  • How did the source obtain the information?

Where information comes from speaks to the credibility of content and sometimes the quality. Information from a major news organization, government, academic institution, church or corporation are generally considered more credible. In a nutshell, the larger an organization is, the more trustworthy the information is likely to be. That isn’t because these entities can’t make mistakes. They do. They just have more quality checks in place than smaller organizations so that (hopefully) mistakes and inaccuracies are caught before they are made public.

Knowing the source of content can also help you identify potential bias. For instance, would you trust tobacco company to tell the truth about the dangers of smoking or a factory to reveal all the data about an accident or the Russian government to tell the truth about corruption? Big businesses and nations have a lot to lose if negative information gets out. Therefore they are likely to release content that shows them in a positive light. They also want to sell, or at least advance, their products, whether that is an actual product like a candy bar or magazine or something intangible like a form of government or a law.

It’s worth noting that just because information appears to come from a credible organization doesn’t mean that it does. Impersonators abound, especially online. The more important the information is to more people, the more important it is to verify the source of the information.

Knowing the source of the information isn’t always enough. You also need to know how the source obtained the information so you can assess the quality of the information. For instance, did the source conduct a survey or scientific study? Did they personally witness an event or were they just told about it by someone? Are they speaking from personal experience? Are they an expert or have they spoken with experts? Is the information common knowledge? Has it been verified by independent sources? Can it be?

Asking how a source obtained the information is something we all need to do more, whether we are readers, blog for a hobby or are professional journalists. It is also a vital question to ask anonymous sources, before you reject the information as biased or false. Knowing a source personally witnessed something can help you decide whether or not to use the information.

If all of this sounds like a lot of effort, it is. Traditional journalists, however, have been doing things this way for a long time. Most continue to practice their craft this way even when they are blogging. The Internet has sped up the news cycle. Some would argue it rush to publish has also lowered the bar when it comes to professional ethics, credibility, quality and accuracy by introducing a flood bloggers who have not been part of traditional media organizations or had any formal training in journalism. This argument is true only if we allow it to be. If we strive to be accurate and produce the best quality content we can, we are not just doing ourselves a favor, we are doing our readers , our community and our fellow bloggers a favor. Isn’t that worth the extra effort?

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