The way we get information has changed over the years. Today, we get information whenever we want it. What is being discussed on the news one day is long forgotten by next week. Even who delivers the information has changed. Credentialed media personnel are not the only ones writing the stories. And even organizations historically credited with being reliable sources of information have changed how they deliver messages and from what perspective. While getting information about health conditions or finding answers to questions may seem easier, now you need to more critically evaluate available information. This means building a skill set to sort through all that is presented.
Like other health topics, information about vaccines and vaccine safety is not “immune” to these issues. In fact, there is much disinformation regarding the science and safety of vaccines. With that in mind, the Vaccine Education Center has developed several resources aimed at helping readers sort through vaccine info. The five tips described here can easily be applied more broadly when traversing today’s information environment.
Evaluate who is providing the information.
It is important to determine who is delivering the message or story because that will help you determine the reliability of the message as well as assess whether it might be unduly biased.
- Is an individual or an organization disseminating the information?
- How is that individual or organization funded or sponsored?
- Is the source of content and funding easy to find or identify?
- What qualifies them to deliver the message?
Consider their purpose for sharing the information.
Regardless of whether you are online, reading printed information, or perusing social media, it is important to not only think about who is offering a message, but why they are sharing it.
- Who is the intended audience?
- Is the message framed to inform or persuade?
- What is the tone of the message?
- Are pros and cons presented?
- Is it one-sided?
Establish the type of information being presented.
People tend to respond with emotion, so often stories are framed with this in mind. While it is OK for a story to have emotional appeal, it is important to evaluate what takeaways are in the story and whether they are grounded in facts or anecdotes.
- Is the information anecdotal in nature?
- Does it present a personal story?
- Is the personal experience backed up with factual information?
- What or who is the source of the facts?
- Is the story about a scientific study? If so, does it provide enough information about the study for you to accurately assess the study findings?
- Does it provide details about how the study was conducted or give enough information for you to find the study and look at its methods?
- How was the study conducted (double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled)?
- Are there other studies that found the same thing or is this a new finding that has yet to be substantiated?
Seek multiple sources about the same topic.
Most of us have our favorite news shows, but it is important to review stories from multiple sources to get different points of view.
- Are different sources providing similar information on the same topic?
- What were the differences between the stories?
- Are the differences substantive or superficial?
- Is the information substantiated by a larger body of evidence?
Grade the quality of the information.
Finally, look at the publication, website or post critically to determine its quality.
- Is it well-written or well-produced?
- Is the story grammatically correct?
- Is the video edited and presented in a professional manner that is clear and appropriate for intended users?
- Are the arguments sound or do they employ logical fallacies?
- If a website, is it reviewed by anyone and updated regularly? Can you tell?
- If a news article, when was it published?
- Was it too soon after an event to have enough context and information?
- Was it too long ago to have the most current information?
So, the next time you’re scrolling through your news feed or flipping channels, ask yourself some of the questions outlined here. You can also use this printable PDF version. The more you do this, the more second nature it will become. Since we know the amount of information will never decrease, we can rely on this self-check to ensure we’re using good information to make important decisions moving forward.
- Evaluating scientific information and studies (webpage | PDF)
- Find resources and tips to scrutinize scientific information presented in various formats.
- Logical fallacies: What you should know (PDF)
- Read about the different types of logical fallacies and see examples of how each is used to argue against vaccines.
- World Health Organization criteria for credibility and content
- Use these checklists to identify trusted web sources
- Media Bias Chart (webpage)
- Review this graphic to get a sense of the variations in reporting across a variety of news outlets.