Once you’ve located your sources, you have to determine whether or not you can trust them. The wrong sources can weaken the ethos of your argument, so it’s important to fact check your sources thoroughly.
In this section, we’ll provide two models: The CRAAP test, and the SIFT test. You can choose which one you feel is most helpful. The CRAAP test shows you a series of questions you can ask yourself to determine whether you a piece of information is trustworthy and useful. The SIFT test is a series of “moves” you will take to evaluate information.
The CRAAP Test
Sarah Blakeslee and the librarians at California State University, Chico, came up with the CRAAP Test to help researchers easily determine whether a source is trustworthy. You can download a handout that explains the CRAAP test here.
There are five parts to the CRAAP Test:
- CURRENCY: When was the information published? For some topics, it’s okay if you use an older source. For example, if you want to know what DNA is, it’s okay if the source was published five years ago. But, if you’re researching what the latest DNA discoveries, a five-year-old source wouldn’t be helpful.
- RELEVANCE: Does this information meet your needs? For example, an article aimed at educating young children about DNA would probably not be a relevant source if you work for a tech firm and are writing a report about whether to acquire some DNA technology. It’s okay if a source isn’t perfectly relevant to your research question, since that’s where analysis comes in. For example, if you were researching the Housing Crisis in Vancouver, you might read about how expensive cities like San Francisco and Hong Kong are dealing with their own housing crises in order to get ideas.
- AUTHORITY: Who wrote this information? Your source should be written by someone who has the authority to speak on the matter. For example, you might come across a blog that offers natural health remedies for cancer or depression written by someone who says they’re a doctor. If they’re a doctor because they have a PhD in English Literature, however, then they wouldn’t have the authority to offer medical advice. (You would, however, be able to trust their opinion on depictions of natural remedies in novels). To determine how trustworthy an online source is, you can also look at the URL. If it comes from a .gov or .edu website, you would probably trust it.
- ACCURACY: How reliable or trustworthy is the information? Specifically, you should examine how the source uses evidence. Does the source link to other trustworthy sources? Does the source support its claims with evidence? How reliable is that evidence?Tip: If you’re not sure whether a source is reliable, try Googling the source’s claim plus “criticism” or “hoax.” For example, if you read that baking soda cures cancer, you should Google “baking soda cancer cure hoax.” Sometimes, untrustworthy websites take up the top spots in Google, so if you simple Google “baking soda cancer cure,” you’ll find other untrustworthy websites telling the same lies.
- PURPOSE: Why was this information published? You should be able to identify how the author benefitted from publishing this information. Specifically, consider how the author makes money from putting this information out there. Sources that make money aren’t necessarily untrustworthy, but following the money gives you a clue if the author in
The SIFT Test
The SIFT test was developed by Mike Caulfield. Instead of giving you a list to think about, it gives you some practical steps you can take to figure out if you can trust a source.
The first move is the simplest. STOP reminds you of two things.
First, when you first hit a page or post and start to read it — STOP. Ask yourself whether you know the website or source of the information, and what the reputation of both the claim and the website is. If you don’t have that information, use the other moves to get a sense of what you’re looking at. Don’t read it or share media until you know what it is.
Second, after you begin to use the other moves it can be easy to go down a rabbit hole, going off on tangents only distantly related to your original task. If you feel yourself getting overwhelmed in your fact-checking efforts, STOP and take a second to remember your purpose. If you just want to repost, read an interesting story, or get a high-level explanation of a concept, it’s probably good enough to find out whether the publication is reputable. If you are doing deep research of your own, you may want to chase down individual claims in a newspaper article and independently verify them.
Please keep in mind that both sorts of investigations are equally useful. Quick and shallow investigations will form most of what we do on the web. We get quicker with the simple stuff in part so we can spend more time on the stuff that matters to us. But in either case, stopping periodically and reevaluating our reaction or search strategy is key.
Investigate the source
We’ll go into this move more on the next page. But idea here is that you want to know what you’re reading before you read it.
Now, you don’t have to do a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you’re reading a piece on economics by a Nobel prize-winning economist, you should know that before you read it. Conversely, if you’re watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you want to know that as well.
This doesn’t mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can’t be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. Taking sixty seconds to figure out where media is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.
Find trusted coverage
Sometimes you don’t care about the particular article or video that reaches you. You care about the claim the article is making. You want to know if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint, or if it is the subject of much disagreement.
In this case, your best strategy may be to ignore the source that reached you, and look for trusted reporting or analysis on the claim. If you get an article that says koalas have just been declared extinct from the Save the Koalas Foundation, your best bet might not be to investigate the source, but to go out and find the best source you can on this topic, or, just as importantly, to scan multiple sources and see what the expert consensus seems to be. In these cases we encourage you to “find other coverage” that better suits your needs — more trusted, more in-depth, or maybe just more varied. In lesson two we’ll show you some techniques to do this sort of thing very quickly.
Do you have to agree with the consensus once you find it? Absolutely not! But understanding the context and history of a claim will help you better evaluate it and form a starting point for future investigation.
Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context
Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of context. Maybe there’s a video of a fight between two people with Person A as the aggressor. But what happened before that? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there’s a picture that seems real but the caption could be misleading. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment based on a research finding — but you’re not certain if the cited research paper really said that.
In these cases we’ll have you trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in it’s original context and get a sense if the version you saw was accurately presented.
It’s about REcontextualizing
There’s a theme that runs through all of these moves: they are about reconstructing the necessary context to read, view, or listen to digital content effectively.
One piece of context is who the speaker or publisher is. What’s their expertise? What’s their agenda? What’s their record of fairness or accuracy? So we investigate the source. Just as when you hear a rumor you want to know who the source is before reacting, when you encounter something on the web you need the same sort of context.
When it comes to claims, a key piece of context includes whether they are broadly accepted or rejected or something in-between. By scanning for other coverage you can see what the expert consensus is on a claim, learn the history around it, and ultimately land on a better source.
Finally, when evidence is presented with a certain frame — whether a quote or a video or a scientific finding — sometimes it helps to reconstruct the original context in which the photo was taken or research claim was made. It can look quite different in context!
In some cases these techniques will show you claims are outright wrong, or that sources are legitimately “bad actors” who are trying to deceive you. But in the vast majority of cases they do something just as important: they reestablish the context that the web so often strips away, allowing for more fruitful engagement with all digital information.