Bad content floods the web. It’s so bad that schools are giving out guidelines for sites to avoid when collecting information for reports. Many writers also use the web to research information, but how can we know if it’s someone else’s unreliable content rewritten 10 times or if it’s a realistic investigation or expose?
Distinguishing between unreliable content and credible investigations can be difficult. We need to evaluate credibility, consider the author’s expertise, the publication’s reputation, and cross-reference information with trusted sources—among other things. Cultivating critical thinking skills is crucial—beware of biases, misleading tactics, and sensationalism. Compare multiple sources, look for consistent reporting, and assess content coherence to make informed decisions about trustworthiness.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Look for these things in an article to tell if it is reliable
1. The article contains verifiable and checkable facts
Speculation isn’t fact, it’s speculation. Magazines and reputable websites have fact checkers on hand to check sources and content. Every important bit of information needs backup. If there is no basis for a statement or idea, move to an article written by someone who can put his money where his mouth is and back up his facts with proof. Look for studies, surveys, and interviews as the basis for an article.
Aim to cite original sources as much as possible and not articles that aggregate statistics. Here are some reputable sources:
- World Bank Open Data offers a wide range of global development data, including economic, social, and environmental statistics.
- United Nations Statistics Division provides comprehensive global statistical data on various topics, including demographics, economics, and social indicators.
- OECD Data presents data and statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on a range of economic, social, and environmental topics.
- Pew Research Center conducts surveys and studies on various topics, including social trends, demographic changes, and public opinion, with a focus on the United States and global issues.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers reliable health-related statistics, studies, and reports, including data on diseases, public health, and epidemiology.
- Statista offers a vast collection of statistics, market research, and business intelligence across various industries and topics. It provides access to quantitative data, infographics, and reports from reputable sources.
2. The article presents a balance of the pros and cons
Even in-depth investigations leading to a negative result will list the positive plus the negative. If an article is angry in tone or sounds like a perky sales pitch, you’re not receiving all sides of the story. A good writer will present ALL the facts and let the audience draw their own conclusions.
3. Sources are real people, not initials or ” word on the street”
Citing vague sources such as “some people say” or “experts claim” doesn’t prove anything.
Who are these people? Who are these experts?
Look for specifics, “according to a study at the Mayo Clinic…” or “SmartBlogger founder Jon Morrow says…”
These are sources you can check. You can make sure the facts are correct. Vague information only leads to more vague information. Testimonials by unnamed, anonymous sources only tell you they may not be true. Real names back up real facts.
4. Interviews are conducted with all parties involved
If an article presents interviews backing up one side of the story but glaringly omits interviews backing up the other side of the coin, you have to wonder if the author is stating all the facts. A good writer knows his story won’t be hurt by presenting both the pros and the cons. In fact, a good writer knows if he leaves out important bits of information, his reputation is on the line.
5. The investigation contains actual information instead of handpicked letters from disgruntled sources
If an “investigation” consists of nothing but quotes or email excerpts from angry, no-name people, consider the validity of the argument. A good writer isn’t afraid to interview all parties involved for an article, investigation, or report. A good reporter doesn’t shape facts for his benefit. If you’re reading an investigative piece that isn’t fair and balanced, move on to the next article.
6. References are provided
As mentioned above, a reliable article includes references so the reader can verify facts and draw his own conclusion. Sources can include reputable university studies, reports, and articles from government organizations, books, and articles in well-known magazines.
Using vague web content on free article sites probably isn’t a good idea because many of these articles are written to create traffic for the writer’s website or blog. Always consider the source and check references before making a decision about whether or not an article contains reliable information.
7. Does the author have an agenda?
Does the article sound like an angry, bitter hate piece? It’s probably not a reliable article.
Does it sound like the author is trying to drive traffic or promote a product or service? It’s probably not a reliable piece.
If an article seems slanted in one direction or another, you’ll have to ask yourself if the author has an agenda. Sometimes it’s so obvious you can spot the agenda a mile away. A good, reliable article will be even in tone without trying to sway the reader to one side or the other. Readers should always be left to make their own decisions.
8. The author of the article has a reputation for presenting fair and balanced information
Certain authors build trust among their readers. Good authors sell newspapers, magazines, and books and drive traffic to websites. If an author has a reputation for presenting a fair, balanced, and reasonable point of view, it’s easier to trust their articles as containing reliable information.
9. The article contains information not found in every single other article on the web
You can tell when an article is googled and rewritten over and over again. The articles all sound the same, and all contain the same information. Look for articles that present new facts and arguments. Look for articles that are written to inform rather than to bring in advertising revenue.
10. The article is hosted on a website or in a publication with a good reputation for providing quality content
Always consider the source. If the article is hosted on a website you haven’t heard of, research its hiring policies.
Does it accept anyone without an audition, or do writers and editors have to submit to testing?
Does the website or publication have a good reputation for presenting facts without a lot of spin?
These are the sources to trust. Don’t blindly accept an article as fact, always consider the source.
Make Sure You’re Using Reliable Sources
Writers are smart people. We can tell if an article is written in five minutes or if the author has an agenda. We can spot rewritten content a mile away. Always use reliable sources for your research because it’s your reputation on the line.
Just because it’s written, doesn’t make it so. Use your gut and get out your magnifying glass. If it smells rotten, it probably is.
Where do you go for your information —and how do you know it’s correct?
[First published in November 2009; updated May 2023]