Investigate the Source

Detective

The second move is to Investigate.

We’ll go into this move more in the Find and Confirm section. But the 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.

Look for evidence of bias in your sources.

Clues About Bias

Examples

Review your articles, websites, social media, or other sources and look for evidence of bias. You will then need to determine if the bias interferes with the evidence.

Coverage
Unbiased: This source’s information is not drastically different from the coverage of the topic elsewhere.  It doesn’t seem as though the information has been shaped to fit. Biased: Compared to what you’ve found in other sources covering the same topic, this content seems to omit a lot of information about the topic, emphasize vastly different aspects of it, and/or contain stereotypes or overly simplified information. Everything seems to fit the site’s theme, even though you know there are various ways to look at the issue(s).
Citing Sources 
Unbiased: The source links to any earlier news or documents it refers to. Biased: The source refers to earlier news or documents, but does not link to the news report or document itself.
Evidence
Unbiased: Statements are supported by evidence and documentation. Biased: There is little evidence and any documentation presented are just assertions that seem intended to persuade by themselves.
Vested Interest
Unbiased: There is no overt evidence that the author will benefit from whichever way the topic is decided. Biased: The author seems to have a “vested interest” in the topic. For instance, if the site asks for contributions, the author probably will benefit if contributions are made. Or, perhaps the author may get to continue his or her job if the topic that the website promotes gets decided in a particular way.
Imperative Language
Unbiased: Statements are made without strong emphasis and without provocative twists. There aren’t many exclamation points. Biased: There are many strongly worded assertions. There are a lot of exclamation points.
Multiple Viewpoints
Unbiased: Both pro and con viewpoints are provided about controversial issues. Biased: Only one version of the truth is presented about controversial issues.

Making the Inference

Consider the clues. Then decide the extent that the bias you detected in the source is acceptable for your purpose. It might help to grade the extent that which this factor contributes to the site being suitable on a scale like this one:

  • A – Very Acceptable
  • B – Good, but could be better
  • C – OK in a pinch
  • D – Marginal
  • F – Unacceptable

You’ll want to make a note of the source’s grade for author and/or publisher so you can combine it later with the grades you may give the other factors such as images, statistics, charts, tables, etc.

License

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Critical Thinking in Academic Research by Cindy Gruwell and Robin Ewing is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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