Basic Tenets of Evaluating an Information Resource
by Jess Denke, Muhlenberg College (PA) Librarian, with responsibilities and expertise including Public Outreach and Information Literacy Services
Information is generated through a number of different processes and for various purposes. Parsing out these details will help us make responsible decisions as information consumers. To that end, be prepared to ask:
- When was this information created? Is it an announcement immediately following an event, an in-depth long-form story, or a research report? Might a different story be released over time? Identifying when helps us know what information we can expect to see within the article.
- How reliable is this information? What information does the story rely on to support its main idea? Is some information missing? Is the information included cited? For news stories, this can be difficult to evaluate—resources like Snopes and PolitiFact can help. However, you can also rely on these other questions to guide you in critical thinking.
- What kind of authority does the information rely on to support its credibility? Are we reading interviews of individual's personal or work experience, hearing reports from people in positions of social leadership, or hearing the conclusions of scholarly work? Each of these is a valued type of authority. However, be aware if authoritative statements are being made by someone who does not possess the corresponding level or type of authority.
- What is the purpose for which the information was created? Are the authors trying to convince us of something, sell us something, provide information or education? Money is almost always a partial motivator (see advertising), but are there structures in place to support investigative reporting (salaries for reporters?), or is the content generated through a call for submissions? Language can also be a good indicator of purpose. If the language is emotional, or the headline doesn't match the evidence, we may begin to wonder about the true purpose of publication.
We need to become comfortable asking these questions and thinking critically when we read, listen, or watch anything within this (overwhelming) information landscape. All information can be useful, but it matters how we are going to use it. Asking these questions in conversations can result in productive dialogue without beginning by devaluing an individual's reading choices.
For further insights, check out the following (and feel free to comment and suggest other resources we might include here):
This is the University of Washington’s “LibGuide” (a subject guide that compiles all types of information about a particular subject or course of study) on how we can best evaluate the credibility and fairness of articles and other resources, with explanations of the terms “fake” and “biased.”
A (nonpartisan, nonprofit) Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, holding politicians accountable.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the Tampa Bay Times and its partners is designed to help you find the truth in politics.