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(Possibly) Reliable Source: How to Know if Info You Find is Trustworthy

by Scott Langer on April 7, 2020


Far-reaching, fast-changing new stories in the digital age mean a deluge of coverage from many perspectives, coupled with millions of people adding their voice to the story. Right now, many of us are closely following the current global health crisis and its impact on business, employment, and the economy, but in the past other major news has caught the nation’s attention too. And make no mistake, there will be more big stories in the future. There’s so much information to absorb that it can be hard to filter what’s based in fact, what’s speculation or rumor, or what’s flat out wrong.

It’s not always advisable, or even possible to rely on a single source of information, but neither is it helpful to attempt to read every single piece of information out there. During times of national or global crisis, such as the current worldwide COVID 19 pandemic, it can be helpful to refer to official websites including (but not limited to):

Sourcing Your Information

We all know there are far more places than those listed above to find information, including television, books, magazines, and newspapers. But these days many of us get the vast majority of our information online. And because it’s so easy for almost anyone to publish and share information digitally, the risk of stumbling on questionable information is high if you’re not careful (sometimes even if you are).

What makes the Internet great, namely the ability to quickly share and update information to a large audience, also makes it a challenge. You’ve probably experienced how hard it can be to tell where one post, website, or ad begins and another ends – that makes it hard to know who the information comes from.

Some sites are cleverly designed to look official when they aren’t, or may have a bias or other agenda. In other cases, it may not be possible to tell if an author is an expert on the topic or how extensive or relevant their background is. All of this can affect the quality and reliability of the claims these sources make.

As a case in point, some media outlets employ staff writers and paid subject experts but also host content created by guest posters. While staff-written articles or blogs are often edited or fact-checked, guest content may not be. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is the reality of digital media today.

What about social media? It’s fast and extremely popular, but it’s not really known for its fact-checking or objectivity. One reason is because it’s so easy for just about anyone to create an account and post information with minimal oversight or editing, if any. It’s difficult to know if individuals are sharing facts or their personal interpretation, and if they’re in any way qualified to say what they’re saying. And who would be able to verify every single Tweet or Instagram post anyway?

It’s true any reputable sources now have Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts and use them to share reliable information. Just remember how easy it is for the actual news get drowned out by commenters, reTweeters, and even those looking to stir up controversy by “trolling” web and social media sites.

So how can you protect yourself from misinformation and stay focused on reliable sources? Build your information literacy skills!

Information Literacy: It’s Your Call

If you’ve ever found yourself thinking “they wouldn’t let people put untrue information online,” or “they check that information before it goes up,” it’s time to realize there is no “they” that oversees information that goes online. generally speaking, people can say whatever they want in blog posts, websites, or social media with very little recourse if they’re wrong. It’s a big shift from the rigors of print publishing many of us grew up with in newspapers, books, and magazines. Bottom line: the burden of vetting the information we read is squarely on us, the readers.

Here are tips for finding and evaluating information on the COVID 19 pandemic, or any other topic you read about online:

  1. Who said it? Check the website URL and the source you’re reading to see where the information is coming from. Always question if the person or source is likely to have the authority and expertise to be making a claim.
  2. Can you verify it elsewhere? Even if it seems like a reasonable statement from an expert, double check the info by verifying it elsewhere. “When you run across a new claim about a topic like coronavirus on social media, don’t try to evaluate it on its own terms. It’s both faster and more effective to evaluate it by cross-referencing — that is, looking elsewhere on the web for confirmation or debunkings,” notes this article from Medium in reference to a social media post with a claim about hand sanitizers.
  3. What’s the context? It can be difficult to evaluate information presented without context, so ask yourself if there is background or additional information missing from a claim. For example, if you see a picture of a train transporting military vehicles, does that mean a mass deployment is coming? Or is it just a picture of standard military operations (which includes moving vehicles from place to place)? Consider if posters have jumped to conclusions based on incomplete information or an assumption.
  4. Is this the full story? Sometimes a blog or social media post only tells part of the story, or omits critical details or evidence. It’s easy for a game of “telephone” to develop, in which the story or facts change as people hastily pass along information. Whether on purpose or by accident, you may be left with insufficient detail to evaluate the claim. Ask if there could be more to the story before trusting or sharing.
  5. What else should I do? For a thorough but simple set of guidelines, check out Sifting Through the Pandemic by digital information literacy expert Mike Caulfield of Washington State University.

Bonus tip: information overload is stressful and hard to avoid so consider spending some time curating your own personal set of authoritative and reliable sources and limit yourself to those. This strategy ensures you still receive the critical information you need without the fatigue of trying to verify or vet everything you see.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed about dealing with employee payroll and HR issues in these rapidly changing times, or just have questions about next steps, please contact us – Horizon is here to help.