Investigating the source means knowing what you’re reading before you read it. This doesn't mean you have to do a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation into a source before you engage with it. But taking sixty seconds to figure out where information is coming from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.
The following video (3:15) highlights how many of the things we think will make us better at the web—raw intelligence, critical thinking skills, familiarity with technology—don’t necessarily help when investigating a source:
The Wikipedia Trick
Why did the fact-checkers perform so much better than the other test groups in the video above? They used a simple, quick technique called the “Wikipedia Trick.” The two videos below (2:45/1:47) will introduce you to the Wikipedia trick and show you how effective it is for investigating sources.
The Wikipedia Trick Continued
In the videos above, we opened a new tab and fired up a search result page, typing a domain plus “Wikipedia” into the search box. In this next video (4:31), we use this technique to show how it is particularly helpful for quick research on sources.
What exactly do you look for on the Wikipedia page? It varies. Sometimes, what sticks out most is the agenda of the group, e.g. something you thought was a research group turns out to be a political advocacy group with ties to the industry. Sometimes, it's the fact that a source has a history of unreliability. And many times (most, actually!) it will turn out the source is just fine.
But rather than a checklist of things to look for on the Wikipedia page, we want you to focus on two organizing questions:
If you thought something was from a straight news site and it turns out to be from a conspiracy site, that should surprise you. And given your new knowledge, your initial impression of the trustworthiness should plummet. If you thought you were looking at a minor, unknown newspaper and it turns out to be a multi-award winning national newspaper of record, maybe your assessment of its trustworthiness increases. The effects on trust are of course contextual as well: a small local paper may be a great source for local news, but a lousy source for health advice or international politics.
What if—instead of researching an organization or website—your investigation requires you to evaluate the expertise and trustworthiness of an individual person? The video to the right (4:32) will show you how to use the Wikipedia Trick to further investigate your sources.
While it is not the most exhaustive way to evaluate the authority of an individual, the method demonstrated in the video to the right allows you to “sanity-check” expertise. In other words, it allows you to quickly see if someone is known to have expertise in their area.
The SIFT Method portion of this guide was adapted from "Check, Please!" (Caulfield). The canonical version of Check, Please! exists at http://lessons.checkplease.cc (CC-BY). As the authors of the original version have not reviewed any other copy's modifications, the text of any site not arrived at through the above link should not be sourced to the original authors.