First of all, I want to thank everyone who answered last week’s question about the reliability of Wikipedia. The discussion there was one of the most vibrant of the blog so far. Between that and the subsequent post about Fox News, it made me realize that there is a larger question we need to address here: What does it mean for a source to be reliable?
The answer may be changing with the culture, and some quick background reading may help support that potentially controversial claim. Cynthia points us to the article in the The Chronicle for Higher Education The Intellectual in the Infosphere, which hits a lot of key issues in a short space and is definitely worth checking out. I also have an earlier post about the changing nature of information in the digital age. And then there’s the Karl Fisch video.
So with all that in mind, it’s as important as it’s ever been to ask what it actually means for a source to be reliable. Does it simply mean that we can count on it for accurate facts? Or do we require more from our sources than just fact checking?
Is it important for a source to give us balance between different points of view? Or can a source be reliable and just give us one point of view? And if the source only provides one point of view, how important is it for the source to share our values? Could different sources be reliable for different people, or is reliable meant to be an objective term?
Is a source that provides a more depth of coverage always more reliable than a superficial one? Does quality of writing affect reliability? Does a proven track record count for anything? Or do these factors co-exist with reliability without affecting it? Is a primary source always more reliable than a secondary source? Or can secondary sources bring qualities to the table that can increase reliability?
And does reliability cover just facts? Or can sources also provide opinions? Are you more likely to be persuaded to share an opinion that’s expressed by a source you already trust? Is that a part of reliability? Is it even possible for a source to be value neutral? Or does a source always have an inherent value system by the choices it makes in what information to present? If a source presents information in a way that doesn’t fit your worldview, which sources can affect your willingness to reevaluate that worldview, and which sources would simply make you doubt the source?
Does the element of time affect reliability? The book you purchase in the book store may have been written months ago, while a website might be updated while you’re reading it. Does this affect reliability, and if so, in which direction?
Once you’ve answered these questions for yourself, I’d like you to consider the relative reliability of the following twenty sources when it comes to information, perspectives, and opinions about, say, the Bush administration:
A. Joe Biden on This Week with George Stephanopoulos
B. Wolf Blitzer on CNN
C. Dick Cheney on Meet the Press
D. Noam Chomsky in a new book published by AK Press
E. Katie Couric on The CBS Evening News
F. The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 2007 edition (Hardcover)
G. Thomas Friedman in a New York Times Op-Ed
H. Seymour Hersh in the current issue of The New Yorker
I. Brit Hume on Fox News
J. Russ Kick in a new book published by the Disinformation Company
K. Rush Limbaugh on his radio show
L. Michael Moore in a new documentary
M. Sean Penn while accepting an acting award
N. Tony Snow from the White House briefing room
O. Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show
P. The White House website
Q. Christie Todd Whitman on Real Time with Bill Maher
R. Wikipedia in an entry with no controversy alerts
S. Bob Woodward in a new book published by Simon & Schuster
T. Markos Zuniga on his blog The Daily Kos
I lettered them instead of numbering them because you may wish, as part of your answer to the question below, to rank some or all of these twenty sources in order from most reliable to least reliable. If two of these sources gave conflicting information, which would you be more open to, and why? What if their information didn’t conflict, but they selcted facts that promoted different biases? What if their facts were the same, but they presented conflicting opinions?
What does it mean to you for a source to be reliable?