In the modern world, it can be difficult to know who to trust. With independent media outlets popping up all over the place, gatekeepers non existent and claims of authority everywhere, we’ve gone from a world with a few mainstream sources to one where everyone and their dog is sharing their thoughts with the world.
And this means the standard methods of judging trust just don’t work any more. Without gatekeepers, there’s no way to tell the difference between a multi million dollar publishing company and a lone writer. Without time, research and fact checking can often be left ignored. Plus with even previously respected brands like the New York Times and BBC sacrificing their credibility for clicks and page views, often you can’t even really trust the outlets that marketed themselves on trust to begin with. It’s chaos, and its a situation which many have struggled to cope with.
So in this article, I’ll be exploring a few ways in which you can fight back. About how you can move beyond brand names in a world with infinite sources of information at your fingers.
And most importantly of all, just how you can measure an outlet’s reputation in a time where it’s the only thing that really matters any more. Interested? Let’s get to it!
Starting with the whole issue of reputation and how to measure it. No, you don’t use the site’s ‘page rank’ (does that still exist any more), their Alexa ranking, their domain authority (sorry Moz) or their number of social media shares. These are flawed metrics, which are easy to game and don’t really reflect very much of importance to the average user.
Instead, from what I’ve found, the best strategy is to go by the number and quality of citations and references towards the site. So if you’ve got say a fishing blog you’re interested in, you may look up the site’s name in search engines like Google or DuckDuckGo. If after doing this it turns out this blog is being linked as a source from major publications in the field (like say, Field and Stream and National Fishermen for fishing), then it’s a good sign that authorities in the area likely consider it a reliable enough source to trust.
And if you need some examples of how this works in real life, look no further than Serebii.net. At first glance, this Pokemon fan site seems to be like any other; a one man project with a 90s aesthetic that should probably be taken with more than a fair pinch of salt.
However, when you look into the site and its online reputation, you realise that it’s trusted by virtually all the fandom, and that its been referenced by more large gaming news sites, mainstream media outlets and other such publications than you can shake a stick at. If every gaming news site from GoNintendo to Kotaku to IGN to Nintendo Life considers this a credible source, and news stories from it got into newspapers like the Guardian, that’s a pretty good sign they’re not some fly by night operation with zero credibility.
That said, it’s not perfect. Unfortunately, one of the realities of the media in today’s world is that it’s good business to jump on rumours and random speculation without social media without regards to its accuracy due to the number of social media shares and clicks it brings in. That’s one reason I’ve seen literal ‘fake news’ make it into newspapers (quoting from those online satire sites) and why virtually everything even remotely related to Super Smash Bros, Pokemon or the Legend of Zelda (and other major series) will get picked up by half the internet in no time.
But it’s a start none the less.
One that can be continued by looking into other indicators of a source’s reputation as well. For example, what do the communities in a field think of the site on their forums, subreddits and social media profiles? If they’re pretty positive about it and generally consider the stories accurate, that’s obviously a better indicator of quality than dozens of angry responses and debunking videos would be.
Note: Keep in mind however that inaccuries aren’t the only reason a community can dislike a source. Sources that take credit for a community’s work also tend to be hated among said communities. Doesn’t mean they’re inaccurate, though it does mean you should avoid supporting them cause of their plagiarism.
Another thing you can do is ask the skeptics what they think of a source. Again, this isn’t perfect and it mostly works in scientific fields, but a lot of those do have credible sources of knowledge dedicated to debunking falsehoods and calling out quacks. For example, evolutionary biology has Talk Origins to refute creationist arguments, the martial arts community has Bullshido and its investigations, medical science has the aptly named ‘Quackwatch’ and miscellaneous stuff has the likes of the International Skeptics Forum (previously the James Randi Education Foundation forum) and Bad Science.
Note: You may want to check multiple fact checking sites too, since those too can make mistakes.
If sites like those have giant warning signs and repeated references to lies from a publication, that should be a hint to at least look into their background a bit more, and generally choose somewhere else to get your information from.
Additionally, make sure to fact check at least a sampling of the stories on the site or in the publication thoroughly. Look up what their competitors are saying about the same things. Look at what wikis and community groups and academics are saying about them.
Is there a huge divide there? Maybe a ‘this is something the government/big business/big media/the Illuminati don’t want you to know’ angle? If so, be very skeptical, that’s a pretty sure sign of a conspiracy theorist right there.
And don’t just look for differences in facts either. Look for deliberate inclusions or omissions too. What exactly is this organisation focusing on in their stories? What bits are they leaving out?
That’s as important as their accuracy right there, and gives away the ‘narrative’ they may be trying to push. If there’s a huge focus on some ‘other’ group, that’s a sign of political extremism. If every horror story about the far left is highlighted, that’s an indication the source is on the right, and vice versa for the far right. They’re not lying per se, but they’re giving a distorted picture by choosing to focus on atrocities committed by their enemies and giving their ‘allies’ a free pass.
It’s the difference between a blatantly biased news source (which will lie and create ‘fake news’) and a subtly biased one (which will lie by omission/inclusion). Neither are good, but one is a lot better at sneaking past a casual fact check than the other.
Finally, remember that no source is perfect. Regardless of the field its in, its reputation, its author and its credentials, every news source you can imagine has the potential to be misleading, to make mistakes or push a narrative or agenda at some point or another.
So when it comes to judging media credibility, the best solution is not to take any one source as an authority in all situations, but to read as many different viewpoints about a topic as possible, and to maintain a list of generally credible sites, channels and creators you can cross check between when suspicious.
Take Snopes’ advice here, and don’t believe everything you read, regardless of the source. Maintain a balanced diet of news and information, and if you get suspicious you’re being played, look up what other generally credible competitors are saying about a topic rather than taking anyone at their word.
Do that, and you’ll be much more informed in this perilous internet age.