- 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.”
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.
This video explains strategies for investigating sources online.
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?
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.
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.
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.
- Hector St. Jean de Crèvecœur, Letters from an American Farmer (New York: 1904), 49-56. ↵
- Branstiter, Callie, and Peter Bobkowski. “Evaluate Information Vigorously.” Be Credible. August 20, 2018. https://oen.pressbooks.pub/becredible/chapter/evaluate-information-vigorously/. ↵