With the proliferation of both information sources and mis/disinformation, it's crucial to be able to distinguish a reliable source from one that might be untrustworthy. There are questions to ask about every source, especially those that aren't part of the library's collection, and this page has a compendium of those questions as well as a collection of common red flags for fake, malicious, or simply misinformed books, articles, websites, or other media.
This page is only an overview of an extensive and many-faceted issue. For an in-depth look at the problem, read our research guide, Misinformation, Disinformation, and Fake News. This guide contains a wealth of real facts about fake info, as well as strategies for recognizing and combating it.
The business of news is a business of credibility and reputation. Legitimate news organizations and publishers are very conscious of maintaining their integrity, and it is fairly easy to find clues to a content producer's standards if you know what to look for.
Following is a helpful though not absolutely comprehensive list of factors to check in evaluating a source's credibility. Be aware, however, that none of these factors are conclusive in and of themselves; an untrustworthy source can measure up to some of these standards, and a reliable source might not meet them all.
Who wrote or published the information? Does that individual or entity have a proven track record, or are they unknown or unnamed?
Is there an editorial board or some other vetting process? Major newspapers and magazines have layers of editorial staff to consider and check the content they produce, and they also have editorial guidelines that include standards of accuracy and ethical behavior. Even if they fall short on occasion, having a stated commitment to fact is important.
All publications and all people make mistakes. Ethical entities recognize, acknowledge, and correct those mistakes. If a publication or author has never admitted to an error, that is a serious cause for concern.
This is a straightforward item. Can you find a clear, verifiable path to contact the organization? Is there a real-world phone number and/or address? A legitimate source will make it easy to connect with them; a shady operation will not.
Is the publication transparent about where its information comes from? If it quotes sources or cites data, are the sources named and can they be confirmed? (There are legitimate reasons for occasionally using anonymous sources. A trustworthy publication, however, will have a policy covering when and how such sources are used, and will not rely exclusively on unnamed informants.)
Consider the words and images used to present information. Is the information couched in terms that are extreme, inflammatory, or hyperbolic? Are images illustrative, or are they calculated to shock or outrage? Some subjects are, of course, inherently shocking and outrageous; a report of a genocide isn't appropriately conveyed with photos of peaceful landscapes. Even coverage of a terrible, tragic event should not manipulate the reader or viewer, however.