First: Stop

SIFT - "Stop" When you initially encounter a source of information and start to read it—stop. Ask yourself whether you know and trust the author, publisher, publication, or website. If you don’t, use the other fact-checking moves that follow, to get a better sense of what you’re looking at. In other words, don’t read, share, or use the source in your research until you know what it is, and you can verify it is reliable.

Investigate the Source

second, investigate the source

When investigating a source, fact-checkers read “laterally” across many websites, rather than digging deep (reading “vertically”) into the one source they are evaluating. That is, they don’t spend much time on the source itself, but instead they quickly get off the page and see what others have said about the source. They open up many tabs in their browser, piecing together different bits of information from across the web to get a better picture of the source they’re investigating.

"You don’t have to do a three-hour investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you’re reading a piece on economics, and the author is a Nobel prize-winning economist, that would be useful information. Likewise, if you’re watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption, you would want to be aware if the video was produced by the dairy industry. This doesn’t mean the Nobel economist will always be right and that the dairy industry can’t ever be trusted. But knowing the expertise and agenda of the person who created the source is crucial to your interpretation of the information provided."

The following short video [2:44] is a demonstration of "Investigating the Source." Pay particular attention to how Wikipedia can be used to quickly get useful information about publications, organizations, and authors.

Source: "Online Verification Skills — Video 2: Investigate the Source" by CTRL-F, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Note: Turn on closed captions with the “CC” button or use the text transcript if you prefer to read (below).

When to change your mind about a source? - Use 'surprise' as a guide!

Not sure what to look for when 'Investigating a Source?' As you look at other information (like a Wikipedia page), ask yourself:

  • Is the site or organization I am researching what I thought it was?
  • If not, does it make it more or less trustworthy?

If you thought something was from a straight news site and it turns out to be from a conspiracy site, that should surprise you. And given your new knowledge, your initial impression of the trustworthiness should plummet. If you thought you were looking at a minor, unknown newspaper and it turns out to be a multi-award winning national newspaper of record, maybe your assessment of its trustworthiness increases. The effects on trust are contextual as well: a small local paper may be a great source for local news, but a lousy source for health advice or international politics.

There is no "hard and fast rule" that makes a source great in all situations -- how you judge the source will depend on the type of information you require. Be open to judging a source as less trustworthy if you start to doubt the claims it is making, or more trustworthy if you find the source is a good fit for the type of information and authority you need. 

Is this claim valid?: Find Better (or Similar) Coverage

Find Better CoverageWhat if the source you find is low-quality, or you can’t determine if it is reliable or not? Perhaps  you don’t really care about the source—you care about the claim that source is making. You want to know if it is true or false. You want to know if it represents a consensus viewpoint, or if it is the subject of much disagreement. A common example of this is a meme you might encounter on social media. The random person or group who posted the meme may be less important than the quote or claim the meme makes.

Your best strategy in this case might actually be to find a better source altogether, to look for other coverage that includes trusted reporting or analysis on that same claim. Rather than relying on the source that you initially found, you can trade up for a higher quality source.

This video [4:10] shows you how fact-checkers would find a better source for a claim, and how you might begin to build a list of 'trusted sources' on a topic:

Source: "Online Verification Skills — Video 4: Look for Trusted Work" by CTRL-F, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Note: Turn on closed captions with the “CC” button or use the text transcript if you prefer to read (below).

If needed: Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media to the Original Context

Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context

If you feel uncertain about the "full story" of a fact or claim, or you suspect someone might want to mislead you (as when controversial issues are presented), you will want to trace the claim, quote, or media back to the source, so you can see it in its original context and get a sense of whether the version you saw was accurately presented.

"Much of what we find on the internet has been stripped of context. Maybe there’s a video of a fight between two people with Person A as the aggressor. But what happened before that? What was clipped out of the video and what stayed in? Maybe there’s a picture that seems real but the caption could be misleading. Maybe a claim is made about a new medical treatment based on a research finding—but you’re not certain if the cited research paper actually said that. The people who re-report these stories either get things wrong by mistake, or, in some cases, they are intentionally misleading us."

The following video [1:33] discusses re-reporting vs. original reporting and demonstrates a quick tip: going “upstream” to find the original reporting source.

Source: "Online Verification Skills — Video 3: Find the Original Source" by CTRL-F, is licensed under a Standard YouTube License.

Note: Turn on closed captions with the “CC” button or use the text transcript if you prefer to read (below).

Mike Caulfield, Washington State University digital literacy expert, has helpfully condensed key fact-checking strategies into a short list of four moves, or things to do to quickly make a decision about whether or not a source is worthy of your attention. It is referred to as the “SIFT” method:

SIFT = stop, investigate, find (other sources), trace claims back to original reporting

Sources - SIFT Method & Material