Investigating the Source

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the expertise and agenda of sources of information

The second step in the SIFT method requires some simple investigation.

The key idea of investigating is to know what you’re reading before you read it. This doesn’t mean that you always have to do an intensive investigation into a source before you engage with it. But if you’re reading a piece about the economy that is written by a Nobel prize-winning economist, you should know that before you read it. Conversely, if you’re watching a video on the many benefits of milk consumption that was put out by the dairy industry, you probably want to know that as well.

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 source is crucial to your interpretation of what they say. Taking sixty seconds to figure out where it is from before reading will help you decide if it is worth your time, and if it is, help you to better understand its significance and trustworthiness.

For example, imagine you were writing about professional life and perspectives in early America and you found this passage about life in colonial America. Would it be an accurate or trustworthy representation of life back then?

“The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself.”[1]

In order to know if this is a credible statement, you will need to know some details about its context—for example, who wrote it? When? Where did they live? Perhaps with some basic research, you discover that this was written by Hector St. Jean de Crèvecœur, a French-American farmer in a fictional work, Letters from an American Farmer in 1782. With this quick investigation, you decide that the work, though fictional, is considered a reliable description of life in early America, at least for those in positions similar to de Crèvecœur. You could use it to strengthen your argument about the work ethic of early Americans.

Watch It

This video explains strategies for investigating sources online.

You can view the transcript for “Investigate the Source with Jane Lytvynenko” here (opens in new window).


As mentioned in the video, to investigate a source, consider the following:

  • Who is responsible for this information?
  • What is the source’s or author’s reputation?
  • Check out the user profile. Does this person or organization seem to be an expert in the field, and is it a legitimate organization or a reputable media outlet?
  • What is their purpose, or agenda, in publishing this?
  • What does Wikipedia say about this organization or publication? Most major organizations and publications have a Wikipedia page. Wikipedia can often tell you what is the purpose of the organization and any political slant it may have that might color the information it disseminates.

Let’s give this a try. Investigate the following article. Click on the hotspots to learn more.

Investigating a Source

Is this a trustworthy article?

Try It

How did you know which organization to trust in the question about milk above? A quick Wikipedia search could do the trick! A great tip here is to simply search the domain name, or in this case, the organization name + Wikipedia. The following video explains how to do this.

Watch It

In this video, Mike Caulfield, who created the SIFT method, explains how a quick search about the publishers of information can help you determine whether or not something is credible.

You can view the transcript for “Online Verification Skills – Video 2: Investigate the Source” here (opens in new window).


An important step in investigating a source is something known as sourcing. This means getting down as close as you can to the original source. In history class, we call this original source the primary source. As you have learned, a primary source is produced at the time of the event. Examples of primary sources include diaries, interviews, photographs, letters, newspaper advertisements, news or audio footage, official records, and some government documents. Secondary sources cite information from primary sources or provide interpretation or analysis of primary sources. Examples include most news articles, books, and editorials. As a fact-checker or as a historian, you want to get as close as you can to the primary sources in order to get the unfiltered information.

Historians aim to get as close to the original source as possible. They analyze primary source documents such as letters, speeches, interviews, and news articles in order to make sense of historical events. By doing so, they can get the unfiltered, unbiased information “straight from the horse’s mouth.” The closer we can get to the original source of information in historical research, the better. Consider each of the following resources and determine which would be the primary source of information.

Try It

Imagine you are gathering information about Washington’s leadership during the Revolutionary War. Is the following image, Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, a helpful primary source? Before you answer, remember to STOP and do a quick INVESTIGATION. (Hint: use Google and Wikipedia to do a quick search about the image).

Washington crossing the Delaware painting. Washington stands heroically towards the front of a small boat, filled with soldiers rowing across the river. The American flag is raised.

Figure 1Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze

Try It

Investigating the Source: Agenda and Bias

All sources, whether a news source, a primary source, or a secondary source, are created for a purpose, or with a specific agenda. Agenda is about what a news or research organization is set up to do. Related to agenda is bias, which is an inclination, leaning, tendency, predisposition, or prejudice towards something.

In other words, bias is a point of view that may influence how information is conveyed. This does not mean that the information in and of itself is incorrect, but the information may be presented in a way that it aligns to certain values or it can be interpreted to mean something else.

When investigating a source, consider the agenda of its author. Some sources are designed to inform, some are designed to persuade, and some are even designed solely as clickbait to generate revenue. For example, Columbia Journalism Review reported that Slant magazine incentivized their writers to generate clickbait and offered writers $5 for every 500 clicks their articles generated.[2]

As a historian, when you read through sources consider the author, their expertise, their audience, their purpose in writing, and whether or not they have an agenda or a bias that might be apparent in the source.

Chart showing news sources and their "leanings", listed either as neutral, leaning right or left, or more extreme right or left on the x-axis. The y-axis reports on their reliability. Cites like the Associated Press and Reuters are found top Center, with cites like CNN slightly left and MSNBC more left, and Fox News leaning right.

Figure 2. This news media bias chart shows how media sources fall on the political spectrum, with right-leaning media organizations holding more conservative views about societal topics, and left-leaning media organizations holding more liberal views about societal topics.

Try It

  1. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecœur, Letters from an American Farmer (New York: 1904), 49-56.
  2. Branstiter, Callie, and Peter Bobkowski. “Evaluate Information Vigorously.” Be Credible. August 20, 2018.