If you’re anything like me, you’re probably an avid consumer of digital media. Videos, movies, books, articles — anything and everything is inside the internet’s treasure chest. But, with this overabundance of information come new challenges when trying to create new pieces of value for consumers. After all, we want to provide our readers with valid takeaways, and we can’t really do that unless we draw from an authoritative source. Today, you’ll learn why it matters to source our information accurately and reliably when making content.

If you’ve been awake for the past four or five years, you’ve heard the phrase ‘fake news’. Regardless of your personal views, it would be hard to argue that we’re experiencing a period of far-reaching skepticism regarding the role of legacy media, science, social media, and other big information providers. While in and of itself this is not a bad thing, it can lead to issues down the line.

While before it was simply easy to trust authority, now there’s an almost knee-jerk reaction to certain outlets. Today, we’ll also get into how to use critical thinking and one’s own discernment to parse sources. Not all information is made equal, and not everything that comes from “reputed” sources is beyond scrutiny. But, here are some rules of thumb when analyzing data:

  • Where does the information come from? Who’s writing?
  • What are their views, background, and qualifications?
  • What is their track record?
  • Is their information verified independently by other organizations or qualified individuals?

So, as you can see, the provenance of information is important. But we can’t just stamp on a ‘verified’ checkmark and just be done with it. We need to dig a little deeper, so let’s take it from the top!

The Quest for an Authoritative Source

Here’s a definition of what constitutes an authoritative source from Piedmont College:

An authoritative source is a work known to be reliable because its authority or authenticity is widely recognized by experts in the field. (Reitz, Joan. Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science: Accessed 7/17/2019

(…) Using Google (and other search engines on the Web) for research is risky. Free internet resources are sometimes authoritative (especially if they are offered by government agencies or academic institutions), but usually are not. Wikipedia, for example, is not authoritative because there is no way to verify authorship and anyone can edit an entry at any time.

Now, this definition is not perfect or foolproof, but it’s a great place to start. An authoritative source, thus, relies on:

  • Authenticity.
  • Independently verified data.
  • Experts in the field seeing it as valid.

Now, you may be thinking about closing this article and saying “done”. After all, it’s all about going with what the experts think and calling it a day, right? Well, yes and no. Knowledge is constantly in flux, so there is no one “true” provider of information that dispels all doubt. This is doubly so with Google, which has its own preferences as to what constitutes valid sources. Or Wikipedia, where lobby groups can edit information so quickly it’s impossible for others to change it back.

But, before we get into nuances and nitpicks, let’s start with the simple part.

authoritative source

The Straightforward Side

The authoritative source debate is a complex one. Still, that doesn’t mean that you should overlook the basic rules of thumb that just simply work. For instance, the complexity of whether something constitutes an authoritative source or not is relative to the subject. If you’re looking for articles about grammar to make a blog post about the present tense in English, you’d hardly need to go all Noam Chomsky on us.

But, that doesn’t mean you can slack off either. Even when a topic is straightforward, you should try drawing from the best sources available. That means going for material that is accurate, researched, and vetted. But, the more “settled” or simple an issue is, the more you might get away with just using B-list sources. It’s not a practice that I would recommend getting used to, though.

The main takeaway here is that the simpler what you’re looking for is, the simpler it is to find a good source. The more settled or “closed” an issue, the better for you. If you’re trying to broadly define a topic, then even better, because you won’t have to dig quite as deep.

So, in general, here’s what to look for when looking for an authoritative source:
  1. It’s recognized. That means not just fame, but a certain level of prestige and credibility, a proven track record. The Daily Sun is very well-known, but you could hardly call it an authoritative source. Established institutions, scientific organizations, researchers, or media outlets may have a much more favorable hit to miss ratio. That includes .gov and .edu websites, belonging to government and educational institutions respectively.
  2. It has a proven level of scholarly rigor. While I can go on and on about how nothing is really ever “proven” in science, you can rely on scholarly publications much more than those that aren’t. Even for hotly-debated issues, rely on PubMed, ScienceDirect, and JSTOR rather than the National Enquirer.

Now, to expand on point #1, it should be noted that the credibility of a publication will vary from person to person. For instance, the value of the NY Times as a news outlet may vary dramatically depending on whether you’re Left or Right-leaning in the political spectrum. In our age of increasing polarization and echo chambers, it’s harder than ever to provide unqualified trust. But more on that later.

How to Sort the Wheat From The Chaff

There are some easy-to-follow rules when going source-fishing. Let’s take a look at some of our champions in the quest for truth and objectivity:

  • Smart Searches

In this world, smarter beats harder almost every time. So, instead of searching a lot, try to look for exact matches of the subject of interest. Use quotes (“) to get an exact match of a term in Google, such as “highest mountaintops”. You can also search within domains of your interest (or that you feel are more adequate and reliable) by using the “site” command. For example.

“highest mountaintops” site: .gov

You can also use the site command to search within specific sites. While most sites already have a search bar that utilizes this very feature, I’d just go with Google. You can also use a tag called “filetype” (such as pdf) to if you want Google to return a specific file type. Many scientific abstracts and articles only come in .pdf form.

If you’re looking for scholarly articles, just head directly to scientific databases. If you can, skip the pop-science articles unless you want the simplified, to-the-point version. When in doubt, always head for the source itself, especially when credibility and authority are of the essence.

  • To Wiki Or Not Wiki

This is a debate that continues to rage on. Wikipedia is a great site for basic stuff, and it’s no harm to use information from there when it comes to settled, undisputed claims. But the negative aspect of the ‘Pedia is that anyone with enough time and dedication can contribute. And that leads to lobby groups or organizations with vested interests that can have a virtual army of editors ready to remove anything that doesn’t agree with their narrative. Moreover, if someone is dedicated enough, they can undo any of your edits almost before anyone’s had time to read them at all.

I said I was going to touch on this issue above, didn’t I? Basically, the more hot-button the issue, the more likely any science and opinions on it are going to be divided. And while that’s perfectly understandable in the realm of science — where arguments can rage on for decades or more — it’s not so good when you want to inform the public. Therefore, what ends up happening in Wikipedia is that the group who arrives first or has the most dedication (and manpower) often ends up having the de facto opinion.

So, on any hotly-debated issue, like fringe science, the paranormal, UFOs, political theories, etc., things can get heated fast. This can lead to a uniformity of bias towards one side of the other, and it can be presented as fact. Thus, anything on it — including the sources, which are actually much more useful — should be viewed critically.

authoritative source

  • C.R.A.P?!

The site WordAgents has a pretty handy method for utilizing discernment when looking for an authoritative source. While the acronym “C.R.A.P.” is not very family-friendly, it makes for a handy mnemotechnical help:

  • Currency – How recently was the information published or updated? Is this date current enough for your topic?
  • Reliability – Can you trust the accuracy of the source? Does the source include evidence and references, and can you verify information through other sources?
  • Authority – Who is the author, and are they an authoritative expert on your topic, industry, or field? Who were the publishers of the piece, and are they reputable?
  • Purpose – Why was this information published? Was it to inform, teach, sell, persuade, or entertain?
  • Money Talks

All news outlets and media sites are money-centered. Meaning, that while many employ reputed journalists and expert sources, this is not a golden rule. Or in other words: they have sponsored content that is wildly opinionated or biased as well. And thus, you need to use your own critical thinking skills to understand which is which.

You should view commercial sites with even more suspicion. While many have the veneer of credibility, they’re always trying to cleverly steer you to use their own products. While this is not bad in and of itself, take any information about their product with a grain of salt unless it’s independently verified.