Social media has had a profound influence on the way we receive information. Messages can be formulated by anyone and distributed to millions instantaneously. Social media creates an environment where we have access to virtually unlimited information from around the globe. But, how do we vet this information? How do we ensure that the messages we receive are accurate? This is no easy task. In fact, it is becoming increasingly common for professional news outlets, in their quest to be the first to break news, to report false or misleading information which originated from social media. During the news following the Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, the New York Post published a picture of two ‘suspects’ “on its front page, who had nothing to do with the bombings” (Vis, 2014). In this environment, we must remain skeptical of the information we receive. A close examination of an article’s sources will reveal much about the validity of the information provided.
To begin with, we must ask ourselves, how credible is the author? In today’s blogosphere, anyone can create a website or a blog. Bloggers include many professional writers and experts in their field. On the other hand, they also include amateurs with no training in fact checking and activists with a set agenda. The conscientious reader will examine the author’s credentials before trusting the information provided.
As an exercise in vetting media sources, I examined “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher,” appearing in the New York Times, to determine the credibility of the authors. The article, written by Justin Gillis and John Schwartz, discusses the publication of documentation which suggests that Dr. We-Hock Soon, an outspoken climate change skeptic, received fossil fuel industry money to publish papers “[claiming] that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming” (Gillis & Schwartz, 2015). At the outset, the piece seems a bit biased. The title itself suggests the article’s subject, Dr. Soon, is a fraud. The authors quote Kert Davies who is an activist (with a definite anti-fossil fuel agenda), not an expert (Who We Are, n.d.). In addition, both Gillis and Schwartz are science writers who report specifically on climate change. However, as the subject of climate change is fairly cut and dry (the vast majority of scientists believe human pollutants have significantly affected our atmosphere), it would be hard to present ‘both sides’ of the argument in this case. An examination of journalistic standards may be necessary to determine the overall credibility of this piece.
Using evaluative criteria from Kovach and Rosenstiel’s Blur, as well as guidelines from the University of Oregon Library and former George Mason University Professor Virginia Montecino, I sought to determine how the authors sourced their article (Critical Evaluation of Information Sources, n.d.; Helpful Hints to Help You Evaluate the Credibility of Web Resources; n.d.; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010). The documentation (correspondences and grant agreements) supporting claims within the article was published alongside the piece offering readers the opportunity to see source material first hand (Gillis & Schwartz, 2015). The authors also interviewed highly credible sources (aside from Kert Davies) to quote within the piece. Here is a rundown of expert source credentials:
- Naomi Oreskes is one of the leading climate change scientists in the country, if not the world. She has authored numerous scholarly papers and books. Oreskes’s 2004 essay, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” has been cited in films, publications and books worldwide. She is also the 2011 recipient of the Watson-Davis Prize from the History of Science Society. (Naomi Oreskes, n.d.)
- Gavin A. Schmidt is the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He has been published in numerous scholarly articles, given a TED talk, appeared in documentaries and appeared on both The Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show with John Stewart. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, n.d.)
In an effort to remain balanced, Gillis and Schwartz gave Dr. Soon and Southern Company, who funded much of Dr. Soon’s research, the opportunity to respond to developments (Dr. Soon did not respond and Southern Company declined to comment on Dr. Soon’s research specifically, but stated “Southern Company funds a broad range of research on a number of topics that have potentially significant public-policy implications for our business”) (Gillis & Schwartz, 2015).
Because Gillis and Schwartz conducted thorough research, relying on multiple sources, and were completely transparent with their sources and findings, I would argue that “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher” offers the reader a credible account. The articles outlet, the highly regarded New York Times, also lends credibility to the piece.
Critical Evaluation of Information Sources. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://library.uoregon.edu/guides/findarticles/credibility.html
Gillis, J., & Schwartz, J. (2015, February 21). Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher. Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/us/ties-to-corporate-cash-for-climate-change-researcher-Wei-Hock-Soon.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage®ion=CColumn&module=MostEmailed&version=Full&src=me&WT.nav=MostEmailed&_r=0
Helpful Hints to Help You Evaluate the Credibility of Web Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/web-eval-sites.htm
Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2010). Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload. New York: Bloomsbury USA.
Naomi Oreskes. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/bios/oreskes.html
National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.giss.nasa.gov/staff/gschmidt/
Vis, F. (2014). How Does False Information Spread Online? Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2014/04/how-does-false-information-spread-online/
Who We Are. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.climateinvestigations.org/who_we_are