How to Accurately Source and Critique Media Information: Staying Well-Informed vs. Falling Prey
We live in an age that is glutted with information of every kind. Growth advances and options increase. Data and information flood media portals everyday.
You must choose wisely. Do you know how to do that?
As a professional Nurse, coupled with my studies in English, Literature, Linguistics, and Journalism; research and journalism are key areas which bore repeating in my educational background. That is the platform from which I speak. Researchers and journalists alike both adhere to strict ethical guidelines when sourcing information. It cannot be understated: Knowing your source is essential to credible research and reporting, even as it is for information sourcing as an everyday consumer.
There are many voices across all types of media that lure us to click, read, view, and believe what they are telling us. If we don’t know how to accurately source and critique the information we receive, we are at risk for falling prey to misinformation and subsequent deception. Once that happens we are no longer well-informed and educated individuals. Instead we become confused, deceived, and misled members of society. What’s more is we ignorantly propagate the lies told to us very innocently by sharing them with others, unless we know how to weigh, measure, test, and critique them and their sources.
In this post we’re going to discuss how to properly source and critique media information. If you understand what’s happening in the media today and know what questions to ask, you can be spared the dangers of misinformation.
#1. Critical Questions You Need to Ask of Yourself and Be Able to Readily Answer
If you’re an information consumer who views, reads, or listens to media, it’s time to start asking yourself these critical questions:
• By what measure or standard is your interest gained by any given source?
• What specific criteria do you look for before granting them permission to speak to you on any given topic?
• How do you arrive at your conclusion or decision to trust? What does that trust look like for you?
• How does anyone gain your time and attention by which you choose to click, read, view, or listen?
• How does anyone gain your trust by which you choose to believe or share their material?
• Why do you follow or subscribe to certain people or companies?
• If the source satisfies your interest, by that standard does it also gain your trust?
Do you know the answers to these questions? If not, then you should.
If you cannot answer the above questions, it’s time to begin. These decisions should not be emotionally driven or automated. They should be intelligently and decisively made very carefully and strategically. The sad truth is, most people have lost the ability to use sound discretion when it comes to their daily diet of information. Even if they want to, they don’t always know how. Being able to test, prove, weigh, measure, and discern their source appropriately is all but lost. It’s become a guessing game. The result is a generation that is not only misinformed, but also dangerously confused.
Our goal is to remedy that today by teaching you how to use sound critical judgment when information is offered to you, and how to properly source information you’re actively seeking.
But first, we must understand what is really happening among media outlets and how their marketing agenda works if we’re going to gain the advantage. Just because they are a big name or a powerful entity with a broad influence does not mean they are legitimate. Nor does it mean they are trustworthy. It simply means they have money and power. Money and power do not equate with credibility or trust.
#2. Understanding the Media’s Mode of Operandi
It sounds cliché, but the old adage, “Don’t believe everything you see, hear, or read,” is very true.
Monetary gain is often the end goal of the information afforded to us by media companies, regardless of their kind, although we may never see it missing from our bank accounts. Most of you understand that. However, in order to obtain those dollars, media companies must first obtain our trust — that is their central mode of operandi. Sadly, that is where many people become prey.
Being taught how to think (not what to think) is the key factor in being able to properly judge the information that begs for your attention. When you know how to think you can begin making wise, informed, educated, and strategic decisions with respect to whom you give your ear, time, and attention — and furthermore, what you believe, trust, and share.
Before anyone can gain your trust, they must first get your attention. Let’s talk about how they accomplish that initial task. Media companies heavily rely upon an emotional response for the success of any campaign. Marketing firms go to great lengths in studying human psychology for this sole purpose. They know how most people think and how their feelings are formulated. They know which emotions solicit the response they desire. They understand what motivates people. Armed with this information, they wield it at their will.
Most of the studies done are heavily reliant upon the human emotional response. The human emotional response is universal, which is why social media companies have global success irrespective of race, age, and ethnic culture. It’s largely instinctual, and it does not require a logical thought process. It merely requires conscience and the basic element of interest. That’s it.
The mode of operandi is to obtain your trust.
Once that is gained — the rest is easy.
USE WISDOM and LEARN TO REFRAIN.
Although God commands us to live by our will, which is designed to align with His, most people make their decisions emotionally, or by way of motivations stimulated by their carnal needs and fleshly desires. Human wills are actually quite weak unless there is a known gratification with a high probability of being met. With that said, motivation and perseverance are directly related to gratification. Through the ages marketing firms have proven this is the key in advertising any product or service successfully. Understanding emotion, human needs and desires, intrinsic vs. extrinsic drives, motivation, cause and effect, human rationale, temptation, gratification, and their synergistic functions are vital components in any marketing strategy.
Conversely, living by your will requires another set of human capabilities and skills that are built more on character and intellect than desire or instinct. The will is primarily constructed of conscience, rationale, strategy, reason, intellect, knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, all which are virtues governed by a set of moral standards, laws, and principles. Decisions based on the will are not merely intuitive — they are intentional. They are highly moral with distinct and deliberate purpose, having set goals, and clearly desired outcomes or objectives. When our will is aligned with God’s, the LORD’s prayer is rightly prayed: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” His obedient children become active (not passive) participants in fulfilling that prayer.
Actions demand accountability. If we are responsible adults, we are accountable for our decisions and actions — because they not only affect us — they affect those around us. When asked why, people who make decisions based on their will always know the answer. Their response is immediate and clear. Whereas those who make decisions based on their emotional or instinctual drives may not readily know. Clarity wanes. This is why children, who have not yet developed their moral character or will, often do things they for which they can give no answer. Their behaviors and actions are largely driven by instinct and emotion. When parents ask, “Why did you do that?” children often reply, “I don’t know.” And that answer is often accompanied by tears fraught with confusion and dismay. When forced to reckon with their actions, their confusion becomes apparent. What we must understand is they are giving an honest answer. They truly do not know. There was no rationale behind their decision to act. It was impulsive, emotional, and instinctual. As adults we can then train them to better understand how to make wise, moral, and rational decisions with respect to consequence when these age-appropriate opportunities are afforded. However, what we fail to realize is that we can easily and readily default into that childlike pattern as educated, intelligent, and morally responsible adults — if given the right stimulation or solicitation — and that is precisely the human response the media is counting on. And they have only seconds to do it.
With that said, the following are the most common methods used in media solicitations to this day:
(1) Unmet needs: There is a legitimate (or urgent) need they seek to satisfy which is commonly shared among the majority.
(2) Unmet desires or lust: These appeal to the five senses. They also appeal to the common goals, ambitions, or the secret intrinsic desires of most people.
(3) Allure of entertainment: Things that generate excitement, play, fun, or leisure.
(4) Eye-catchers (a.k.a. “eye candy” or “glitter”): Incredibly strange or beautiful things, places, or people; anything appealing to the eye. These are often hard to ignore or look past. They may cause people to stare, or to become rapt with distraction. These provoke an “ooh” and “ahh” factor.
(5) Inflammatory content: Things that make you say, “Wow!”, appear difficult to believe, the unknown, rare finds, or outrageous claims.
(6) Curiosity: Things that generate intrigue. There is an element of mystery. These cause people to wonder, ponder, or want to know more. They stimulate the desire to either discover or understand. People will seek more simply to satisfy their curiosities.
(7) Urgency and/or Survival: These are actually anxiety and fear-provoking, creating a sense of desperation or urgency. They play upon human instinct and strong natural drives to preserve, protect, and sustain. It can’t wait. There’s no time left. It must be done now. Promises are made predicated upon a sense of dire urgency or emergency.
Whether it’s breaking news, the latest gossip column, or a fad commercial, we can now better understand why and how “click bait” is crafted. We’ve all fallen prey to it. With that said, boring forthright headlines that make no high claims, which don’t prey upon human emotion, instinct, or motivational drives, may actually be worth your time, offering something valid.
Most people are emotionally vulnerable to these means without giving them much thought, which is very sad, and actually a means for concern, especially in this media-focused generation. People are easily lured in and before they know it, hours have passed in absorbing information that is often a waste of time. It has no legitimacy, validity, and is unworthy of our trust. Yet we consume it avidly affording these companies the information they seek about us, and the subsequent monetary gains that accompany sharing and profiling. It generates billions of dollars. How that money is accumulated is often obtained in ways that are either obscure, undisclosed, and at times even illegal or malicious. This is why transparency among media companies (of all kinds) is so crucial.
Knowledge is power, and it’s something we all rightly seek. But we must be wise in obtaining it. The knowledge in which we place our trust is often sadly permitted without any act of our discretionary intelligence — even when it’s afforded with written policies that are contrary to our security, privacy, and fundamental interests.
Now that we understand the Mode of Operandi, let’s take a look at how to properly source our information.
Knowing how to source critical information you can trust, believe, and share is imperative when becoming a learned, educated, and responsible adult:
A reliable source is one that provides a thorough, well-reasoned theory, argument, discussion, etc. based on strong evidence,” (University Libraries, University of Georgia, guides.libs.uga.edu).
There are also five levels of accuracy in properly sourcing information. When gathering information it’s expedient to understand what level of trust your source provides:
1.) Scholarly, Peer-reviewed Articles or Books: These are the authorities on any given subject matter. These are the gold standard providing the best, most excellent means of accountability, verifiability, and trust, all which are evidence-based. These articles are labor-intensive, and very expensive to produce. Extensive amounts of research, time, skills, resources, and money are invested toward these research projects. Furthermore, these scholarly articles require peer review (accountability) to be verified and/or endorsed and published. Although these are the most trustworthy source of information available, these are not readily accessible to laity or public arenas, except at great cost or via subscriptions held within academia or by professionals who serve within specific memberships, industries, and/or professions (there are only five professions). Textbooks can fall within this category, and do qualify as a peer-reviewed source, which gives credence to their enormous cost being hundreds of dollars.
2.) Trade or Professional Articles or Books: These are written by practitioners (lawyers, doctors, etc. — anyone currently practicing). They speak as an authority on any particular matter or subject with respect to their profession. They may or may not not be peer-reviewed. These are often priced, and can be available via search engines online. However, beware of articles that appear to be professionally written, yet are unreliable in content, credentials, or citations.
3.) Magazine or News Articles: From Oprah to Vogue — From Fox News to The New York Times magazines and news media come in every brand. There is something for everyone. News articles are published by various outlets who have differing ethical standards of practice, which are held accountable to their editorial board. Despite the ethics of journalism (to which none are legally beholden), some are biased while others are objective. Magazines often speak to a very specific niche (i.e. beauty, fashion, gardening, etc.). Although they do provide writings by those who are expert in a specific craft or industrial arena, they do not adhere to the gold standard set by researchers, which is evidenced-based. Understanding the difference is important. Magazines and news articles have a standard of verifiability and accuracy with their editorial board which is largely reliant upon the individual who writes the content and their individual expertise in a subject matter, for which little or no accountability may be attributed. Editors vary in type, and many writers contribute content in the form of opinion. Research may be conducted, including investigative efforts. However, not all research is conducted in the same manner; nor is it always peer-reviewed. Be cautious of content that is not verified or properly credentialed. Context, content, and bias should also be considered. Newspapers and magazines alike often require paid subscriptions.
4.) Social Media, Websites, and Blogs: These have a broad spectrum of reliability and are subject to freedom of thought and expression of the author or content creator. They could be entirely trustworthy or complete rubbish. Knowing how to identify a trustworthy source within this sphere is critically important (more on this below) and lies solely within the realm of the media consumer. Caution is strongly advised. These types of media are very prevalent today, canvasing the internet far and wide, and may or may not bring monetary gain by the placement of ads. Social media and big tech portals provide large swaths of information to billions worldwide with virtually no accountability to the consumer. These are open-source platforms with known bias among both their users and developers. Such portals and the information they provide are in a constant flux of change which can make sourcing unreliable at best. Sadly, the consumer bears the burden of fact-checking the information received far too often due to poor citations and credentialing among content creators.
5.) Wikipedia: Wikipedia is the modern-day encyclopedia. The encyclopedias of the past such as the Brittanica are long gone. Wikipedia, although modern and vast, is never a reliable source. It is a quick reference, and may be used among laity. However, it is a strictly forbidden source for professionals and among academia. It is a global open-source platform with zero accountability. Any individual may contribute authorship. Therefore, information is difficult to fact check despite open sourcing and the referencing of links or articles, which may or may not be reliable sources. Many articles on Wikipedia are unfinished and remain unverified. These are considered living (alterable) documents that are subject to constant evolving change. The layers of sourcing can indeed be egregious, inconsistent, and contrary to one another, making validation difficult at best. Wikipedia is funded by donations, being free of advertisements.
There are five standards in properly evaluating information resources known as AAOCC (Authority, Accuracy, Objectivity, Currency, and Coverage).
#1. Authority: The author or creator of the intellectual content or property should have proper credentials which are noted or cited within the body of work. Authors who do not provide background or credentials do not hold authority. Authority, by virtue, conveys trust. The authority of the author or creator of the content should befit the subject matter. For example, journalists who interview Hollywood celebrities for their opinion on a matter hold no objective authority, although they may have influence. Appropriate authority should always accompany the subject matter.
#2. Accuracy: Accurate data is verifiable, specific, and is properly cited. Accuracy is the means by which truth is measured.
#3. Objectivity: Bias is mutually exclusive to objectivity. The more objective a report; the more impartial it is, meaning it is not biased. Objective reports include all probable views, abstaining from inflammatory language that could lead the public toward a specific view or biased opinion.
#4. Currency: In a world where things change and evolve, staying current is expedient to accurate reporting. This means precise dates and times are disclosed and ledgers are accurately kept. Any updated reports are noted as well. Currency is also a means by which accuracy is measured. Something outdated is no longer accurate. With respect to research evolution is constant and therefore the fields of Medicine and Journalism are in a flux of constant change, requiring currency. Currency is one of the most difficult measures to keep, as change is rarely something anticipated or controlled.
#5. Coverage: Excellent and accurate reporting is thorough and should be compared with alternative sources. Good coverage means all the cards are on the table. Full disclosure is the thrust of good coverage. Coverage should be more than adequate, offering the public a means by which to validate and make an educated decision about their opinion or conclusion on a matter. Data is more than sufficient — it is ample. Coverage includes the five W’s and H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How). If these elemental questions cannot be answered, or are neglected, coverage is construed as insufficient. In the case of a developing story, coverage may not yet be sufficient to answer the elemental questions. Yet good journalism will update until full coverage is obtained.
#4. Measuring and Moderating Truth
Truth is an ethical standard in the industry by which media reporting, research, journalism, and sourcing is performed. We all want truth. But do we know what truth is, and how to measure it? That is the standard we all seek to obtain when sourcing credible information.
Absolute truth is only revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ and His Word. Again, absolute truth is only known in the person of Jesus Christ and His Word. He is the only One who can make such claims of Himself. Truth is not something He merely offers — it is who He is. It is synonymous with His Person and His identity.
Understanding that biblical standard, we must understand the difference between absolute truth and relative truth when it comes to research, journalism, reporting, and media sourcing. Absolute truth gives no room for change, growth, or error, because with absolution there is also finality. However, relative truth allows room for growth, change, and error. Relative truth is based upon the truth as we presently know it. Absolute truth in the world of journalism and research should be met with skepticism. If such claims are made, proving those claims can become nearly impossible, very risky, and come at a high price with a measure of liability toward those served.
Therefore, the standard by which relative truth is reported to the masses is accuracy. What is accurate? Accuracy is based upon factual evidence. Accuracy therefore, is the standard accepted among the five professions (Law, Medicine, Divinity, Architecture, and Engineering).
[The five professions require institutionalized training or education, a formal code of ethics, regulatory oversight by a governing body, statutory qualification, formal apprenticeship, and membership within a professional body which affords accountability.]
Journalism and research are vital parts within the five professions, both which rely upon the ability to source information accurately. Therefore, understanding truth is relative. Therefore, understanding relativity is vital. Stories develop. New data emerges. Research evolves. What was thought proven may later be found disproven. We can only know truth as far as it depends upon us and what we presently know, can obtain, or prove. Is there more to be discovered? Have we ruled out all potential error? Are there exclusions by which bias, outliers, or unknowns are afforded in our final conclusion? So let us understand, truth is relative by virtue of statistical data and factual evidence which is presently known and proven.
The opining and bias so prevalent in media sources today is a horrific breach of the ethical standard for truth and accuracy which has been long upheld within the industry. The prevalence of biased reporting and further opining gives credence to the media’s attempts of swaying the masses toward a specific conclusion.
Accurate reporting should always be objective (unbiased) and based upon factual evidence (what is presently known or proven), leaving the burden with the public to conclude what is finally true. That truth should be understood as relative. It is rarely absolute.
#5. Critical Questions You Need to Ask of Your Source
When viewing, reading, or listening to information we need to learn to ask critical questions of our source. That means taking the necessary time to research them accordingly:
1.) Who is this person? Who is this company? “Who are these people???” What makes them an authority on this topic? What gives them the right to be an informant? Being able to both identify and define a source is where you officially begin. Articles for which there is no author, companies who do not disclose ownership or founding, or their credentials, and the like should not be trusted. Being able to vet a source begins with transparency and full disclosure with respect to identity, credentials, and their authority on a topic. These are fundamental to any trustworthy source. They should have an introductory page, an about page, or welcome page disclosing such information readily and thoroughly. There should be no ambiguity. Knowing the author, the company, and understanding their formation and founding are essential. Look for full names, credentials, disclosure of origin, founding, ownership, etc.
2.) What is their mission, vision, and purpose? A legitimate source will practice transparency and full disclosure with respect to their mission, vision, and purpose. They may even go the extra step of disclosing certain public policies in addition to privacy (which is a legal mandate). Every company who is worth their salt has a mission or vision statement. If they don’t that should raise a red flag. Many companies purpose or mission statement is used as a tagline in their logo or title which is then broadened or clarified in a separate yet distinct statement. These should be clear, concise, and easily found. Also, their work should be able to prove or give adequate credence to their mission, vision, and purpose.
3.) Do they practice transparency? Transparency is a central key to integrity. Have you ever found yourself asking, “Who are these people?!” If you have to ask, there is likely a problem. Again full disclosure and transparency are a must for any media institution. Transparency is a sure sign of integrity, which is noted in the following elements: personhood, founding, vision and/or mission, contact information, and privacy policies (in the very least).
5.) Who is endorsing them? What is their reputation? People are known by the company they keep. It’s no different with companies or organizations. Do they have alliances, affiliates, or parent companies? Do they hold memberships? Has anyone of significance endorsed them? Are there reviews? If so, are those relationships readily disclosed, and who are the individuals associated with them? What do they have to say? Do they have complaints lodged against them? Open court cases? Do some research if you’re still in question. What you find may surprise you.
6.) Do they source their information appropriately? Or are they merely a talking head? Sourcing information goes both ways. Every one of us, whether we are a consumer or a media publisher (either end), must source our information accurately and ethically. If an author or media source is offering information, they need to source it appropriately with proper citations. Is it second-hand information? Third? Fourth? Unknown? Is it verified? Anonymous? Is anything plagiarized? Is it hype and gossip? Are these people a talking head with zero credentials or accountability? Anything that is not the intellectual content property of its author needs to be sourced, cited, quoted, and referenced appropriately either in footnotes or with direct links. There are many styles and options in how to cite information. However, when information claims or news is being published without credible citations, it cannot and should not earn your trust or your time. Furthermore, when cited — what sources are they referencing? Are they credible? Are they legitimate? No wiki links. No op-ed.
It is your responsibility to make absolutely certain that you know to whom you are granting your solemn trust. Remember, truth is always relative to what we can presently know or prove, and accuracy is the best means by which truth can be measured. Credibility can only be evaluated with a proper understanding of AAOCC. Please do your due diligence in asking critical questions of yourself, and of anyone by whom you source media information.
Stay on guard and keep the faith. Let no man deceive you (see Matthew 24:4).
Cheers & Shalom,
Image Credit: LoboStudioHamburg | Pixabay
Updated: November 1, 2020