In 2017 we have unprecedented access to information via the web. When anyone can create a website or post to a blog, the web becomes a virtual playground for false information. “Fake news” has received a lot of hype recently, especially in terms of politics. This trending topic points to a bigger issue. We live in an age of unverified sources. How do we sort through all this information? And how do we provide reputable, well-researched web content?
Be A Source People Can Trust
If you want to seem credible, speaking and writing the truth matters. Most often fake news gets out of control because of our own personal biases, like the truth bias.
The truth bias is fundamentally based in trust. We want to believe those we engage with are trustworthy, honest people. According to experts, trust is crucial in all relationships, including customer-business relationships.
Imagine you’re running a non-profit for stray animals. You post a statistic about how many strays are euthanized each year. You read the stat on a blog you’re not too familiar with, but the information seems right to you, and it’s sure to bring in donations. Then one of your followers calls you out. Your statistic was not only wrong, but heavily inflated. How will this affect your non-profit? If your statistics aren’t trustworthy, what else isn’t? Maybe people will worry you’re a scam and stop donating.
When we don’t fact-check before posting online we aren’t deliberately lying, but when people see you promoting false information, they will stop trusting you.
It’s time to stop seeming like you know what you’re talking about, and start actually knowing what you’re talking about. The key to this? Careful, thorough research.
Finding the Truth
Most news sources or companies like to appear as experts, but they all use data to fit their bias.
For example, two different television stations could do a story on homelessness in your city. They both get the same facts about the percentage of people living in shelters (3% of population), how it’s compared to the other cities your size (yours has 30% more), and the amount of nonprofits helping the issue (6).
Station 1 angle: We have 6 nonprofits helping the 300 people living in shelters. They provide most of these people with food, showers, and clothing.
Station 2 angle: Compared to other city our same size, we have 30% more homeless people. That’s 3% of our population. Why does our city have such a big problem?
Say you come across this tweet: “New studies say coffee drinkers live longer.” Does this mean you should start downing extra coffee? Depends. Was it a study from their own company? How did they collect their data (was it self-reported or were doctors involved)?
When online quickly assess a website’s credibility by:
- Looking for websites with print counterparts (ex. Psychology Today).
- Avoid poorly built/designed websites, as they were probably built quickly and cheaply to appear legit.
- Read the author bio to ensure the author is someone in the field/industry.
Using Credible Sources Accurately
Some resources may leave out crucial information, conduct surface-level research, and cherry pick for the information they wanted. Below are three tips to find credible sources (for anything).
- Look for (and Include) Counter Arguments
You’ll find on CNN and CNBC that the coffee fact you read on Twitter is true. Sort of. While both articles point to new research that says coffee drinkers live longer, they also both point out that drinking coffee may not be the cause of long life, but rather a habit indicative of an already healthier lifestyle.
Show your readers you’re trustworthy by including credible counter arguments and mentioning any uncertainty in the data.
- Track Information Back to the Primary Source
News sites generally provide an overview of the research, but if you want more than surface-level information, you need to go back to the original source (who conducted/found the information). In the case of our tweet, this would be the original studies conducted on coffee drinkers, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
How to Access Original Studies:
- Local libraries with access to databases such as EBSCOhost.
- Paid subscription to the journal in question.
- Free pdfs of articles searchable via Google.
- Be Aware of Your Bias
You’ve probably heard at least once in your life that pink is a favorite color of women. A google search of, “why women like pink,” produces a fairly reputable Time article which summarizes a study that suggests women may be biologically programmed to prefer pink. It is human nature to stop research here: confirmation bias shows that people give more credence to information that confirms what they already believe, while doubting information that contradicts their beliefs.
If you search further (maybe typing in the opposite of what you believe) you’ll find that, despite this biological predisposition, pink ranks very low among women’s favorite colors.
To keep your confirmation bias in check:
- Keep searches general enough that you’ll be able to easily find all the information you need—not just that which confirms your bias.
- Avoid scrolling through the Google results and clicking on links that ONLY confirms what you already think you know.
Hold integrity at its highest, and be willing to shift your beliefs based on fact. Because if you’re not trustworthy, your customers won’t think your business will be either.