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Journalism & Media Studies

Why you need to evaluate your sources



"Don't just teach your children to read ... teach them to question what they read, teach them to question everything."
          --George Carlin, American stand-up comedian, actor, social critic and author (1937-2008)
  • Creating Web sites is easy, cheap (sometimes free), unregulated, and unmonitored.
  • The burden is on the reader to establish authorship, validity, timeliness, and integrity.
  • It’s easier to be taken in than we think.  Read about the attempt in Aliso Viejo to ban water.
  • New ways to manipulate information:
    • Astroturf Web sites & astroturf lobbying; artificial grassroots campaigns.(1)  Read about Faces of Coal and Count on Coal examples of astroturffing.
    • Crowdturfing; ”weaponized crowdsourcing” with large scale paid shills/ringers/plants to spread malicious URLs, rumors and misinformation, manipulate search engines.(2)  Read about the TripAdvisor example.
    • Echo Chamber advocacy: "information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an "enclosed" system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed or otherwise underrepresented."(3)  Read the Phillip Morris memo describing this type of advocacy.
    • Fake news: Websites and social media that intentionally post disinformation, hoaxes, propaganda.  Read Nieman Reports, Election '16: Lessons for Journalism for an ongoing series of practitioner articles and Journalist's Resource, Fake news and the spread of misinformation for a list of peer-reviewed articles.

Caveat lector!  Let the reader beware!

(1) "Public relations' role in manufacturing artificial grass roots coalitions." Public Relations Quarterly 43.220-23. Find Full Text

(2) Caverlee, J., & Lee, K. (2015). Weaponized Crowdsourcing: An Emerging Threat and Potential Countermeasures. In Transparency in Social Media (pp. 51-65). Springer International Publishing.

(3) Wikipedia, Echo Chamber (media).

How do you evaluate a source?

It's important to evaluate the quality of the sources you use in your research.  There are plenty of sources that are a bad fit for your research purpose. For example, Wikipedia is a great place to start and can be a useful tool to help you learn more about a publisher, website, or author, but it is a horrible place to stop. Even Wikipedia says so!

So how do you evaluate a source?  Is there a difference between evaluating print and online sources? 

When evaluating a source, you will go through a similar process for both print and online. The criteria can be applied equally across print and digital sources, although the application may be a little different (journal vs. website for example). You can use several different frameworks to evaluate the quality of the sources you use in your research. The subpages in this guide explore a few in detail, so check them out. 

  • For websites and online resources, we highly recommend incorporating the SIFT method into your everyday life. 
  • SDSU Library recommends students apply the ACT UP evaluation criteria:  Read through the evaluation criteria to see how to apply it to the sources you are considering choosing for your research.