Evaluating the Credibility of Information Sources: An Important Procedure to Managing News and Information in the 21st Century

Here’s the basic premise I’m operating from: There’s too much information for even the most rigorous critical thinker to evaluate each news item or issue on a case by case basis. As a result, everyone has to rely on shortcuts or heuristics to evaluate information. One common approach is to rely on certain sources, while ignoring others. A source can be an individual, group or institution. It may be someone we know personally or strangers we see on TV or the internet. It may be mainstream or fringe outlets. In some cases, we just accept information from sources we trust at face value, without any scrutiny. For this approach to be sound, an individual has to effectively identify and separate reliable from unreliable sources of information. This is key. However, in a democracy, it is also crucial that consensus forms about credible and trustworthy source from across the political spectrum. If every political or social group makes different determinations about trusted sources, I don’t see how we can operate from a common set of facts and norms; and without this, I don’t think we can have a functioning democracy.

Because of all of these factors, I think we should put more time and effort into a thorough evaluation of the people and institutions that play a major role in providing information to the public sphere. This process should be based on similar, if not the same, type of standards journalists and academics use, and can be put into a table or scorecard. This would be easier to read, allow for regular updates, and provide a way to hold pundits and news outlets accountable. The reputation and trust of those who score highly should increase, while the opposite should occur for those with low scores.

By the way, a recent article on Bill Barr, specifically making a case that the public should not trust his pronouncements, made me think of this topic. Spending time and energy building a case for an individiual’s or institution’s credibility, based on previous comments and actions–and then presenting this in an easy-to-digest form–seems like a more useful way to use resources and an effective way to help citizens to sift through information. Ultimately, I think the approach will be crucial for creating a healthy public space for debate and discussion of critical issues–at least if we want a functioning democracy. On a sidenote, I recommend reading the Bill Barr piece. At the same time, when I imagine indifferent news consumers reading it, I tend to think they would think it’s just partisan attack on Barr. What I’m suggesting could get around this–as long as casual news consumers of all political stripes view the process of evaluating news sources as trustworthy and credible. One thing I forgot to mention: The people evaluating sources should represent major political groups, and being diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, age, sexual orientation, religion would be great as well.

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