Writers, I know you’ve had this problem.
You’re searching around for a source—a statistic, a quote, anything to back up your argument—and you come across something that looks okay.
But is it? How do you know? Who’s to say whether this source is worthwhile?
This is the life of a writer. It’s SUCH a problem in today’s media—anyone can say anything online, and it’s not always clear how to judge an article’s usefulness. I consider myself a skeptical person, but I really do love finding a good source, and so when I’m on a tight deadline, everything starts looking like an acceptable source. (BAD BAD BAD)
I’m sure many of you have experience in this area, but here’s what I try to ask myself. These 3 questions have saved me when it’s 2AM and I need to finish a research paper on zero sleep. (They’ve also been great for when I’m just reading online in general—media literacy for the win!)
1. Can I find the same information elsewhere?
Ideally, on a more trustworthy site.
2. How many links does the article use?
If they’re a newspaper, they likely won’t have many third-party links immediately visible within the article. But if they’re quoting a statistic, they better have the source to back it up (ideally, a link to a trustworthy website!), or you shouldn’t use this article as proof of anything.
If you’re reading a personal blog, always, always, always look at their sources. Where are they linking you to? What does that tell you about what the blogger believes? Do they link to other places at all? If they don’t, then it’s probably an opinion blog, and that means it’s probably not a great unbiased source of information.
3. What does my gut tell me?
If you feel uncomfortable about using a particular link in your story, don’t use it. Simple as that.
A few red flags to be aware of: Is the website loaded over with ads? Is this a personal blog? Does it look like this writer or website is being paid to advertise to you? Does that fact the writer shared look like an opinion?
Are you being asked to believe something that seems incredible? Does the writer make several uncorrected spelling errors, or is it impossible to find out how to contact the writer? You want to have transparency in all you do, as a writer, so if you can’t see where a “fact” is coming from, you should question it pretty closely. (That’s not to say it’s a lie, it’s just an unsupported fact! Which, as a writer, is just as bad to use in an article.)
Remember, if you have serious concerns about an article or link, always feel free to ask. (Ask the writer, ask your teacher/professor, ask a friend, ask me!) There’s no shame in getting clarification, and it’s better than telling a lie in a story. You want your reader to trust you, so taking the extra few minutes to do your research is always worth it.
What are your favorite rules for writing, researching, and gathering sources? Let me know in the comments!