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How to Distinguish between Reliable and Unreliable Sources Online

Unreliable Sources — If you’re a student, you’ve probably heard or read this term every time you write an academic paper, especially for research papers since credible sources must be used as evidence. With the Presidential Election right around the corner, both reliable and unreliable websites have been primary sources of information for voters. In fact, the New York Times has a section titled ‘Tracking Viral Misinformation About the 2020 Election’. This brings a few questions to mind: do we know how to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information online? The following outlines how to identify reliable information. 

How to Distinguish between Reliable and Unreliable Sources Online

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Differences Between Reliable vs. Unreliable Sources:

  1. Reliable sources have links to verifiable, current evidence, unreliable sources do not.

    Reputable news articles usually link their sources within the paragraphs and the links should take the reader to the main source of information, which itself is also a reliable source. This shows that the article was well researched and gives credit to ideas or findings that were incorporated. Most importantly, it illustrates whether the article is accurate, not plagiarized and is the work of the author. The age of the sources are also important, as new information (especially during the election period) can be presented quickly. Thus, reliable sources also must be active and updated frequently.

    A source that has no citations at all, or those that present non-verifiable links (broken, in-active links, or links that lead to unrelated material) as evidence should be an immediate red flag. These links should be questioned because it proves that the source was not well-researched or updated and hints that it is based on opinion or made-up information, and not facts.

  1. Reliable sources use language that is clear of bias, unreliable sources do not.

    As the purpose of journalism is to provide the reader with information to help them make the best decisions in their lives, reputable sources will be unbiased and focused on reporting the facts. They will not contain any personal opinions from the author unless it is an opinion article. In unreliable sources, bias and offensive language can be seen because they are usually not written for the purpose of informing. If the source only evokes emotion in the reader (such as anger), it’s likely an unreliable source.

How to Distinguish between Reliable and Unreliable Sources Online

Image Source: Wizard’s Tower

  1. Reliable sources mention the author’s name and information, unreliable sources do not.

    Having the author’s name and information at the end of the article gives credit to the author and can indicate whether they are qualified to write an article about the given topic. Writers will often include their contact information so that readers can contact them to ask questions. Having no information about the author is a sign of unreliability because anyone can write articles and post them.

  1. Reliable sources have clear motives, unreliable sources are not.

    The motive of the source provides insight about reliability. Reliable sources should have their viewpoints clearly stated in their “about us” section and most sources will follow the purpose of journalism mentioned above. As such, even if there are multiple news sites covering the same topic, reliable sources will still follow their motives and report honestly on topics that are of interest to the reader instead of creating ‘fake news’ or articles with clickbait headlines. If there is a lack of coverage, it could mean that the news is not legitimate.

  1. Reliable sources are written with professionalism, unreliable sources are not.

    Reliable sources are reviewed before they are published, which means that they should not contain any grammatical errors as edited material increases accuracy and makes it easier to read. They also shouldn’t include profanity, discrimination or bias against anyone or anything, and shouldn’t try to look like a reliable source. Unreliable sources usually try to look professional by having a domain name very similar to a reputable source, having “sensationalist headlines” to increase traffic, and trying to imitate professionalism with “amateurish design.” Examples of suspicious domain names include “lo” or “.com.co”, which should be avoided because they are often imitations of reputable sources designed to mislead readers. 

How to Distinguish between Reliable and Unreliable Sources Online

Image Source: Hague University

Examples of Reliable Sources: 

  • Reputable news outlets (CNN, The Star, The Globe and Mail, National Post, The New York Times, etc.) Most of them are free to read (on a limited number of articles) and provide up to date information 24/7.

  • Agencies/sites run by the government (WHO, CDC, NHS). These are the go-to resources especially for news regarding COVID-19 as it is run by the Government.

  • Textbooks or certain books with reputable publishers such as commercial publishers that focuses on academic titles (SAGE, Routledge), professional organizations (American Psychological Association), and University presses (Oxford University Press)
  • University sources that end in .edu (U of T’s library, University of Maryland’s library, Georgetown University’s library, etc.) These university websites are usually reliable as they include information for their students. However, people should still check the credentials as certain websites can use these suffixes on purpose in an attempt to mislead.

  • Academic articles from research databases such as Google scholar and JSTOR. Google scholar is a bibliographic database where anyone can search for scholarly literature. Unfortunately, it does guarantee full access to the material but it’s a great way to search for reliable sources. JSTOR is similar, where it’s a digital library that allows anyone to search for scholarly literature as well. It also does not guarantee full access, however, there is an Open Access Content section so it may be possible to find reliable sources for free. While both databases are excellent, I prefer JSTOR as it’s easier to navigate, and it also has the open-access content section. Furthermore, JSTOR was strongly recommended by my professors for writing academic papers. 

Examples of Unreliable Sources: 

  • Various social media sites (Facebook, blogs, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc). As mentioned above, these can be written and published online by anyone. Regarding COVID-19, these posts usually incorporate truth and nonsense and mentions a family member, friend, a “member of the Stanford Hospital Board”, or a Japanese / Taiwanese doctor to create false credibly and ultimately circulate misleading information.

  • Websites and blogs with news that is based on opinion (Medium, Natural News). These websites have articles that are written by ordinary people. While they that they are not meant to replace medical advice, they look otherwise identical to reliable sources.  

  • Fake news outlets with no links to other sources (Empire News). 

  • Sites designed to look like reputable sources (CNSNews.com). CNS news promises to provide “demonstrative facts based on transparent sources” however there are multiple articles where they fail to link to an external source. For example, the article ‘Stimulus Slush Fund for Housing Entitlement Thugs‘ presents multiple claims but links no evidence and they refer to the welfare recipients/liberals as ‘thugs’. Furthermore, the exact same article is in The Patriot Post, and the author was fired in 2019. Other examples include Off Guardian, which is obviously an imitation of the well-known news and media website The Guardian, and The Freedom Articles‘ website looks very similar to The New York Times‘ website. However, if you actually read the material, you will be able to tell that it’s not a reliable source. For example. both Off Guardian and The Freedom Articles published an article regarding COVID-19 and concluded that “there is no hard physical evidence that COVID-19 is deadly” and “The virus has never been proven to exist” respectively.

So What Reliable Sources Should Be Used for Learning About Political Candidates?

For political news, the easiest way is to stick to well-known reliable news outlets as all of them will include the characteristics of reliable sources mentioned in this article. The published articles of these news outlets will also be easy to find on common search engines. If you’re still unsure, going to the actual source (i.e. the actual presidential debate videos) is also a good option, along with the federal agency (Federal Election Commission) as it will include reliable information regarding current and past presidential elections. Finally, the official websites of the presidential candidates is also an option.