Get to Know Your Sources

Some are much more trustworthy than others.

Dear Daughters,

I’ve written before on this blog about the difficulty of finding truth. Today, I want to talk about a related problem–the ease of finding untruth.

Untruth is nothing new, of course. People have been lying to each other at least since the dawn of recorded history. But today’s technologies have vastly increased the availability of untruth, not to mention the speed at which it travels.

Indeed, the technologies that have powered the recent explosion in the flow of information have also powered an equal (and arguably much greater) explosion in the flow of misinformation–which, let’s face it, is often much sexier than the substantive stuff it imitates. To protect yourself in this (mis)information age, you need to follow one of the commandments drilled into me by an editorial mentor long ago: get to know your sources.

The Pros and Cons of Traditional Human Sources

Knowing your sources has always been important, but it’s become a trickier problem than it once was. Until about 100 years ago, most people got most of their information directly from folks they already knew—members of their (actual or metaphorical) tribes who created, channeled, and sometimes restricted the flow of information to them. Those who were lucky enough to learn to read exponentially extended their informational horizons. But most people only knew what they were told (in addition to what they saw for themselves, of course).

This circumstance had many downsides:  Much of most people’s mental potential went to waste, and a few key sources were able to exert too much control over the flow of information. Those sources had tremendous power to mislead, and they sometimes took advantage of it. One upside, however, was that people tended to actually know the sources who were telling them what they were told. They could interact with them, ask them questions, and gauge the sorts of things an editor wants to know about a source: 1) whether they really know the truth, 2) whether they’re telling it, and 3) what ulterior motives, if any, they have.

In Western cultures, the sources in question included parents, teachers, preachers, friends, and neighbors–not to mention authority figures like bosses and politicians. All relied for their own information upon higher authorities (both worldly and divine) as well as longstanding cultural traditions and narratives. Such human sources still have tremendous influence, of course, but their control over the flow of information is far less complete than it once was. For both good and ill, they have been doubly displaced, first by the mass media of the 20th Century and subsequently by the internet.

The Limits of Digital Sources

As the digital era begins to come of age, the effects of this double displacement are becoming clearer. Among them: the original mass-media usurpers, who often at least aspired to editorial values like truth and objectivity, are themselves being usurped. Some of their usurpers are folks who mean well but may not know what they’re talking about. Others are sources that proffer little more than propaganda. And all are now sorted and ranked by the interest algorithms of Google and the major social media outlets, which privilege recency and “likability” over anything as hard to measure as truth.

The digital media revolution has thus created an all-too human contradiction. On the one hand, we now have access to vastly more information than any other people in history. On the other hand, we’re increasingly ceding editorial control over our attention to technologies that are basically designed to feed us each whatever we like to “like.” The problem isn’t with those technologies, per se; they’re just doing what they were built to do. The problem is that they were built to keep us clicking and scrolling, not to make us better informed–much less better people.

Notably, they weren’t designed to do the work of holding and extending our attention, of teaching us to think harder and deeper about important topics, or of developing our minds and our souls–the hard, extra-informational, and not always entertaining work traditionally assigned to sources like parents, teachers, and preachers. We still need to do all of that work, of course, if we want to become intelligent individuals and citizens. But now we’re more distracted than ever, sometimes by highly questionable sources.

Why This Matters

Since time immemorial, the people who have controlled which information reaches us and how have been able to shape our thinking. That’s no less true today than it always has been. The digitization of our information supply chains has changed the points of influence and the ways what we’re fed gets assembled, but it hasn’t made us inherently wiser or better able to tell truth from untruth. In many ways, it’s made the latter task even harder: Alongside traditional human sources (whose trustworthiness we still have to weigh), we now have continuous digital feeds, which we know for certain are designed to deliver something other than “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Your ability to think for yourself now depends, to no small degree, on developing an appropriately critical stance toward such feeds. You need to understand who or what is devising and filling them, what their interests and biases are, and how to appropriately correct for the latter. In other words, you need to know your sources–in roughly the critical, skeptical way a good editor would demand that you know a human source.

Toward that end, a few suggestions:

  • Remember that human beings are “informavores”: we tend to feast on information indiscriminately. One of the biggest problems we face in the (mis)information age is just overabundance. We need to consume less and digest more. We need to produce less and reflect more. But the feeds keep getting refilled, and we all keep racing to see what’s next. You’ll have to keep reminding yourself to slow down, take a deep breath, and think before you believe what you read and see. Ask yourself where each story came from, who validated it, and how they knew enough to validate it well.
  • Remember that the current media environment rewards those who tell us each the stories we want to hear more than those who tell us what we actually need to know. Your feeds and screens are mainly feeding you what you like to “like”, and those same sources are feeding other people different stories even now. Any source that tells everyone what they want to hear is questionable at best.
  • Remember that all sources are partial, both in the sense that no one has the complete picture and in the sense that everyone operates from their own unique (and biased) perspective. But remember that this doesn’t imply that all sources are equally partial in either sense. One of the most important questions you can ask is how hard a source has worked to get the complete picture, correct for its own biases, and (only then) report as honestly and clearly as it can.
  • Remember to corroborate your sources. Check them against each other, as well as against other inputs, including your own good sense. For example, check what you read online against what you’ve been taught and seen before, and never assume that the latest report is the greatest one available.

Perhaps most importantly, seek out sources that sometimes disagree with you. Not fools or propagandists, but fair-minded people with different values and perspectives. The conversations between you and them–or, better put, among all of us who are seeking the truth and fighting the good fight–are the places where we stand to learn the most. Such conversations are a means for better knowing not only our sources but ourselves and each other, and thereby beginning to unlock the potential on the far side of (mis)information.

Of course, if you have any questions along the way, feel free to ask your official source of Truths & Wonders …




4 thoughts on “Get to Know Your Sources

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