How Do You Find Trustworthy Sources?

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Whether you're conducting research for a book report, an essay, or a news article, finding trustworthy sources of information is essential. This is crucial for a few reasons. First, you want to be sure that the information you're using is based on fact and not on opinion. Second, your readers are placing their trust in your ability to gauge a source's reliability. And third, by using legitimate sources, you're protecting your reputation as a writer.

An Exercise in Trust

It can be helpful to put the topic of trustworthy sources into perspective with an exercise. Imagine that you are walking down a neighborhood street and you come upon a disturbing scene. A man is lying on the ground with a leg wound and several paramedics and police officers are buzzing around him. A small spectator crowd has gathered, so you approach one of the bystanders to ask what happened.

"This guy was jogging down the street and a big dog came running out and attacked him," the man says.

You take a few steps and approach a woman. You ask her what happened.

"This man was trying to rob that house and a dog bit him," she replies.

Two different people have given different accounts of an event. To get closer to the truth, you'll have to find out if either person is connected to the event in any way. You soon discover that the man is a friend of the bite victim. You also realize that the woman is the dog's owner.

Now, what do you believe? It's probably time to find a third source of information and one who is not a stakeholder in this scene.

Bias Factors

In the scene described above, both witnesses have a big stake in the outcome of this event. If the police determine that an innocent jogger was attacked by a dog, the dog's owner is subject to fines and further legal trouble.

If the police determine that the apparent jogger was actually involved in an illegal activity at the time he was bitten, the wounded man faces a penalty and the woman is off the hook.

If you were a news reporter, you would have to determine whom to trust by digging deeper and making an assessment of each source. You would have to collect details and determine if your witnesses' statements are trustworthy or not. Bias can stem from many causes:

  • Stakeholders' ambitions
  • Preconceived beliefs
  • Political designs
  • Prejudice
  • Sloppy research

Every eyewitness account of an event involves points of view and opinion to some degree. It is your job to assess each person's trustworthiness by scrutinizing their statements for potential bias. 

What To Look For

It is nearly impossible after an event has occurred to determine the exactness of every detail. The following tips will help you determine the trustworthiness of your sources:

  • Every writer, lecturer, reporter, and teacher has an opinion. The most reliable sources are straightforward about how and why they are presenting their information to the public.
  • An Internet article that provides news but does not provide a list of sources is not very trustworthy. An article that lists its sources, either in the text or in a bibliography, and places those sources into context is more reliable.
  • An article that is published by a reputable media organization or reputable institution (such as a university or research organization) is also trustworthy.
  • Books are generally considered more trustworthy because the author and publisher are clearly stated and they are held responsible. When a book publisher publishes a book, that publisher takes responsibility for its truthfulness.
  • News organizations are generally for-profit businesses (there are exceptions, such as National Public Radio, which is a non-profit organization). If you use these as sources, you must consider their many stakeholders and political slants.
  • Fiction is made up, so fiction is not a good source of information. Even movies based on real events are fiction.
  • Memoirs and autobiographies are nonfiction, but they contain a single person's point of view and opinions. If you use an autobiography as a source, you must acknowledge that the information is one-sided.
  • A nonfiction book that provides a bibliography of sources is more trustworthy than a book that does not.
  • An article that is published in a scholarly journal is usually scrutinized for accuracy by a team of editors and fact-checkers. University presses are particularly good sources for nonfiction and scholarly works.
  • Some sources are peer-reviewed. These books and articles go before a panel of non-stakeholding professionals for review and assessment. This body of professionals acts as a small jury to determine truthfulness. Peer-reviewed articles are very trustworthy.

Research is a quest for truth. Your job as a researcher is to use the most trustworthy sources to find the most accurate information. Your job also involves using a variety of sources, to reduce the chances that you are relying on tainted, opinion-filled evidence.