Ages 13+
The Critical Mind

Ages 13+
The Critical Mind

Case Study 7

Verifying Sources

Young people receive information from everywhere (social media, emails, texts, newspapers, television, online videos). Given the wealth of information coming in, much of it coming through or recommended by friends whose judgment and endorsement we are inclined to trust, it is easy to passively accept what we see or read. Young people should learn through examples how to resist this tendency and how to conduct thorough analyses of the media they are exposed to everyday.

It is important for parents to accompany them in conducting this sort of analysis so they can teach them how to critically evaluate these sources of information and how to avoid being misled. Below is a set of questions that you can apply to news sources with your children. They can be applied to any media source (the internet, printed media, TV/radio, etc.). We’ve divided these sets of questions into two sections: questioning the source and questioning the content.

1. Questioning the Source

1.    What is the source? Is it reliable?
It is often possible to cast doubt on a source simply by looking at surface features.
There are numerous fake news websites with unusual names or urls (like, for example, worldnewsdailyreport.com) that should tip readers off to their unreliability. In addition, if a website looks poorly designed and managed, contains typos or formatting errors, this is also an important indicator that it is likely unreliable, if not intentionally false. Fake news also may also come under more plausible publication names, like, for example, the “Denver Guardian,” and with more convincing design. A simple internet search can usually bring up information from credible sources alerting the reader to the fraudulent nature of the source. Here is a list of unreliable news sources from Factcheck.org. With your child, practice determining the reliability of different kinds of information.

 

2.    Who owns the source? Is the content sponsored?
When evaluating a source, it is also possible to do research into details about the source, such as who owns the source or who is funding the content or supporting it via advertising. It is often possible this way to identify potential biases or attempts to influence readers that may not be immediately clear at a first reading. Reliable sources may also sell space in their publications or websites to sponsors, who have obvious interests in what information is presented and the slant with which it is presented. See for example this “China Daily” paid post in the New York Times, which is placed on the Times website by Chinese state media. Exploring how and why information like this is presented can be a good learning experience. It is also useful to discuss how sponsored content is marked on this and other websites.

 

3.    Who is the author of the content? What are their credentials?
What possible biases may they have? 
In addition to asking questions about publications, it is important to know who has written a given article or op-ed, what their reasons for doing so may be, and what expertise they have in the given area. Doing so can help determine the reliability of the information offered, the possible slants or biases with which the information is presented, and any financial or other interest the writer may have in the matter discussed. Most reliable websites will offer at least some of an opinion writer’s background, but an internet search can often return more detailed information. It is also important to help students recognize that an editorial author’s potential biases do not necessarily render the content absolutely unreliable. Critical thinking should not lead to knee-jerk rejection of all potentially biased opinions. Rather, a fair-minded independent thinker takes potential bias into account in evaluating content, weighing it along with other factors, like the strength of the argument and the evidence put forward.

2. Questioning the Content

1.    What type of content is being offered? What is the issue under discussion?
Before we embark on an analysis of the content of a given source, it is important to identify what type of content is being offered. The way we approach analyzing an advertisement will be very different from the way we analyze a news story or an opinion piece. It’s also important that students be able to identify when a particular source is purposefully blurring the lines between categories. For example, so-called “advertorials” can disguise advertising or promotion in the guise of opinion pieces or feature articles. News stories may likewise present information in a particular misleading or biased manner, trying to persuade the reader of something, but without making it clear that they are actually offering an opinion, not simply news.

2.    What sources are drawn on for the information or argument given?
Are they reliable?
Even when we are satisfied that a source we are reading is generally reliable, it is worthwhile to pay attention to its own sources of information. If a particular piece of content cites facts without providing sources there is good reason to question the information. Moreover, students should get in the habit of following links and citations to verify that the secondary information comes from a reliable source and that the original content is characterizing it accurately.

3.    What are the main arguments being offered? Are they strong and sound? Are they consistent with each other?
Media sources use a variety of means to try to convince the audience of a particular point or point of view. It is important to train ourselves to be conscious of what these means are and whether they are valid. If an article or video simply relies on emotional reactions or strong images to prove its point, without trying to put forward an argument, we should be skeptical. On the other hand, if there is an argument presented, we should begin training children to break it down and analyze it. Parents and their children can practice breaking down the argument into premises and conclusions, evaluating whether the evidence for the premises is strong and the conclusions follow rationally from them.

4.    How might one argue against the position put forward?
Another important exercise to carry out, even if you generally agree with a position put forward, is to ask how it might be opposed. This can help identify weak points in the argument and show where evidence, even if it’s reliable, may not fully support the point of view being put forward. To this end, it can be helpful to research articles with opposing points of view, but which rely on the same set of facts. Discuss the merits of each article and how you would argue for and against each of them.