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Research Papers 101: Source types : least to most authoritative

Source types : ranked from least to most authoritative

(for a scholarly/academic audience)

Although the authoritativeness of sources will always depend on their context, it is possible to rank different types of sources on how authoritative they are generally considered to be in the context of academic writing (and writing for a scholarly audience.)

Least authoritative : participatory media

First, a history lesson
on mass media vs. participatory media

Walter Cronkite, 1983,
Photo by Bernard Gotfryd
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For most of the 20th century, the majority of the media average people encountered was mass media.

Producing and distributing a film, broadcasting a TV or radio show, or publishing a newspaper or a book was expensive, and the barrier to entry was high, which enabled publishers, editors, and producers of traditional media to act as gatekeepers, ensuring that content which reached the viewer comported with their own conceptions (however biased) of fairness and accuracy.

RIGHT: Walter Cronkite (1916 - 2009) was an American TV news anchor for CBS News who became famous while covering major historical events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the President John F. Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the Apollo 11 mission, and the Watergate scandal. He is often used as a touchstone for media critics who nostalgically compare the "trustworthiness" of the traditional news media of his era to the more fragmented media landscape of the present day.

As the 21st century began, increasing internet access and the decreased cost of devices like digital cameras and smartphones gave rise to participatory media, where ordinary people were now able to write, record, and publish their own content on blogs, social media websites like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, photo sharing websites like Flickr, Picasa, and Instagram, and video sharing websites like Youtube and TikTok.

Examples of participatory media

Screenshot of John Scalzi's The Whatever, one of the longest-running personal blogs on the internet.

Advocates of participatory media (also known as Web 2.0) in the early 2000s credited participatory media with democratizing the flow of information, producing the most comprehensive volunteer-written encyclopedia in world history in Wikipedia, and spawning a creator culture where any number of celebrities, influencers, and cultural trends have arisen which would have been marginalized or censored in the era of traditional media.

Critics of participatory media argue that its has coincided with an exponential increase in the amount of misinformation in the world, a "crisis of expertise" (where public trust in the reliability of experts and traditional sources of information has declined), and the upending of the business models that supported traditional outlets for investigative journalism like local newspapers.

How scholars do (and DO NOT) use participatory media

In their personal and professional lives, scholars use participatory media in many of the same ways non-scholars do (and also to network and communicate with others in their fields.)

In the context of academic writing, however, participatory media is the source type regarded as having **the lowest level of authoritativeness** (particularly when used as a secondary source.)

WARNING: This means that if your instructor asks you to find "four authoritative sources" for an assignment, and one or more of the sources you provide comes from a participatory/social media website, it is very likely those sources won't meet the requirements for the assignment.

(This is doubly true if they ask for "scholarly sources".)

Unlike traditional media like newspapers and magazines, participatory media rarely has editors or an editorial process to ensure the accuracy and quality of the information it contains. Unlike scholarly sources, there is no guarantee that it is written by credentialed experts nor does the information undergo a rigorous peer review process before getting published.

Using participatory media as a **primary** source: an exception to the rule

One way that scholars sometimes use sources like participatory media that are neither scholarly nor authoritative is as a primary source. Remember that primary sources are raw, undigested evidence: they are the source that gets analyzed, rather than reliable sources whose analysis we trust and rely on because of their own authority.

FOR EXAMPLE: A speaker saying something about a topic in a TikTok video is generally not held (by itself) to be strong evidence that what the speaker is saying about that topic is true; however, it can provide evidence of what some speakers on TikTok are saying about the topic, setting aside the question of whether the content of that speech happens to be true.

(Arguments about the discourse about a topic can be made even stronger using quantitative data like the kind gathered through techniques like text or social media data mining.)

It's important when using primary sources to weigh them against other evidence and to consult the analysis of secondary sources to add context and deeper understanding.

Less authoritative: entertainment and television-oriented sources; opinion journalism

For many college instructors, the most important distinction when it comes to source types is whether they are popular sources or are scholarly sources.

NOTE: All of the source types on this list (with the exception of the last one) are considered popular.

This is understandable, since in an academic context scholarly sources are generally recognized to have the highest level of authoritativeness (particularly when used as a secondary source.)

This does not mean, however, that all popular sources are created equal when it comes to their reputation for authoritativeness. Among the least-regarded types of popular sources among traditional news media are media oriented towards providing entertainment to the general public, or providing casual coverage of various leisure activities and hobbies.

Examples of entertainment media

Opinion Editorials and Cable News

In a absolute sense, it is difficult for any source of information (no matter how well-intentioned) to deliver "straight news," free of any bias whatever, since even the words used to describe a topic will reflect choices and conscious and unconscious biases which privilege certain viewpoints.

The print journalism industry itself spends a lot of time debating issues of language use, and news organizations like the Associated Press and The New York Times even publish their own stylebooks for their authors and editors to follow. Despite this, media critics still point to various forms of bias such as selection bias, stereotyping, and false balance (also known as "bothsidesism") as frequently recurring phenomena in media discourse.

In most modern newspapers there is traditionally a separation between the "newsgathering" side of the publication and its Opinion, Editorial, or "Op-Ed" section. Articles in the Opinion section of a newspaper frequently blend facts with assertions that products of the author(s) viewpoints, so opinion editorials tend to be considered less authoritative than articles presented as the product of a newspaper's newsgathering division.

Media critics like Neil Postman (author of the influential 1984 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business) have long criticized popular media for favoring entertainment over accuracy, blending news and entertainment, and prioritizing sensational topics while diverting focus from important social and political issues.

In television journalism (particularly with the advent of 24-hour cable news since the late 1990s), the blending of opinion with fact-gathering is particularly pronounced. Cable tv news is frequently criticized as being infotainment, a freewheeling blend of "information" and "entertainment," with a substantial share of opinion-based content breezily thrown in.

Traditional broadcast and local news programs have also not been free of the accusation of blending entertainment with information, as commentators point to media tropes like TV reporters performatively standing in hurricanes and "if it bleeds, it leads" editorial practices as examples of news media's tendency to favor sensationalism over giving viewers a balanced picture of reality.

Fake News

An increasingly popular form of comedy in the early 21st century was fake news, satirical websites that parody the conventions and foibles of real news sources for laughs (and as a form of media critique.)

Needless to say, the "news" provided by such sources, being intentionally fictional, is not considered authoritative for use as a secondary source in academic writing. (As a primary source, however ...)

The popular usage of the phrase "fake news" has become more murky in recent years. Some traditional media figures and politicians have started using the term (previously used to describe publications that published intentional parodies of the news) to more generally describe sources of information they wish to portray as dishonest, illegitimate, and not to be trusted.

AND HERE'S THE PROBLEM: If we reflexively distrust all sources of information (absent any effort to understand or analyze the specific CONTEXTS that add to or take away from their credibility) then we are stuck either not being able to believe anything, or believing only sources of information whose credibility we are too dejected and cynical to evaluate from having been made cripplingly skeptical of everything else.

Less authoritative: non-governmental organizations, charities, interest/watchdog groups

In addition to journalistic sources of information, there also exist organizations whose purpose is to advocate for particular causes or defend some societal interest or interest group.

Watchdog groups and NGOs play important roles in American democracy: monitoring government accountability, advocating for civil liberties and human rights, promoting transparency and openness, protecting consumers and the environment, monitoring elections, conducting policy research, and advocating for policy change.

Examples of NGOs, charities, and interest/watchdog groups

That said, the credibility of information from watchdog groups, charities, and NGOs needs to be evaluated just like information from any other source. Evaluating their credibility depends on investigating and weighing a variety of factors, including:

  • Who runs the organization and what are their credentials/expertise?
  • Who funds the organization? What incentives does that create?
  • What methodology do they use to gather their information?
  • What ideologies/intellectual frameworks inform their viewpoint?
  • What potential biases might they have, based on their area focus?

More reputable organizations tend to provide transparency into who runs them, how they gather their data, and who provides their funding. Hint: See if you can find an About page and Google the people listed there to find out who they are.

Somewhat authoritative: newspapers, news magazines, and trade journals

A newspaper is a printed or digital publication that provides timely updates, articles, and analysis on current events, ranging from local news to global affairs. It serves as a primary source of information, offering a snapshot of the world's happenings across various domains such as politics, business, sports, and culture.

A newspapers will generally have an editorial board comprised of individuals responsible for crafting the publication's editorial stance and opinion pieces.

The oversight of the editorial board and the reputation of newspapers for fact-checking and delivering "straight news" to some degree explains why they are generally considered somewhat more authoritative than information sources that lack these features.

The masthead refers to the section of the newspaper that lists its editorial staff, including editors-in-chief, managing editors, and other key personnel.

Examples of newspapers and News magazines

NOTE: Should you wish to investigate the credibility of a newspaper, magazine, or trade journal, you can try to locate a webpage containing its editorial board or masthead.

Try Googling the editors! Snoop on their websites or LinkedIn pages. What do you notice about their level of credentials? How do they compare to the credentials of authors who are published in scholarly journals?

More authoritative: government documents

Introductory text

Examples of agencies that produce government documents

Bureau of Labor Statistics
U.S. Census
Centers for Disease Control (CDC)
National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Department of Agriculture (USDA)

Most authoritative: scholarly articles and books

Follows us to the next page, where we'll discuss what scholarly sources actually are and why scholars and others in academia treat them with the highest level of authority in the context of academic writing.