Ditching the checklist: Evaluating information

Evaluating sources requires nuance, contextual understanding, and time to explore and validate the information. So, it’s not surprising a lot of us take shortcuts to determining what sources are credible. And shortcuts we take: See the just published study that found that humans (not bots) share fake information more often than true information.
Ryan McGeough and C. Kyle Rudick recently investigated reasons students gave in an introductory level communication course for selecting sources they used in a persuasive speech. They published their findings in a 2018 Communication Education article, “‘It was at the library; therefore it must be credible’: Mapping patterns of undergraduate heuristic decision-making” (also available freely through an author’s copy on ResearchGate).
While heuristic strategies help simplify the decision-making process (think: checklists), over-simplifying or heavily relying on one characteristic can lead to using inappropriate or unreliable sources.
McGeough and Rudick’s research found four main reasons college undergraduates gave for why they chose a source. 
1. Authority – perceived reputation of an organization or search tool (e.g. library database or Google Scholar)
A simplified way of using authority is to say that all material found through a reputable search tool will be credible, or that all articles published by a news organization or government agency are equally reliable. But, authority is constructed and contextual, so we need to consider the context of the sources, the different genres that are published by the same entity, and how we assign authority to a person or group. In other words, do the authors actually have authority in this particular context? Says who?

2. Form – the way information is presented
The study found that students believed if a source used statistics, it was deemed more credible, despite not researching to find where the statistics were coming from, or the methodology. Other students wanted a date and author for any source, and preferred sources in print. Form can definitely matter, but it’s important to acknowledge that information creation is a process, and different genres require different formats, delivery methods and publication methods.

3. Popularity – credible because it’s well known
Popularity led students to selecting a source because they’d heard of it before, and because the audience the students were presenting to would also be familiar with it, so they reasoned, more likely to buy in to their argument. But, popularity is problematic because it’s often the loudest and most traditional sources that are valued instead of underrepresented authors or formats, which can be just as, if not more, credible.

4. Ideology – fits our narrative or already held beliefs
Often we don’t see a bias until a source disagrees with us. As the authors put it, a student “conflated [their] ideology with ‘true’ or ‘neutral’ knowledge.” Instead of letting our questioning drive our research, and therefore allowing us to be more open to a wide variety of viewpoints, pre-determining our conclusion creates an artificial credibility level by which we judge sources. It’s dangerous because it eliminates good information that disagrees with us.
Which set of keys is the right one?

So where does this leave us? It moves us away from checklists to having some not-so-black-and-white conversations about how we evaluate information, and practicing good information literacy habits, so whether we’re retweeting or formally citing, we know what is credible.
All images from pixabay.com, Creative Commons License 0

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