Powerbase:A Guide to Sourcing
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Sourcing – the places that we find the information that informs our articles – is a fundamental part of Powerbase. If we do not reference our sources in our articles, readers cannot verify what we are saying or check the context. The use of sources brings with it questions of credibility, reliability and what is reputable. This guide sets out the views of Powerbase on such matters to support writers in selecting their sources.
As the authors of a book titled Trust Us, We're Experts, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber have given quite a bit of thought to the question of what makes information credible. Powerbase intentionally avoids invoking "trusted authority figures." Instead, its credibility will depend on the degree to which articles are well-written and backed with supporting documentation and the degree to which people who value their own credibility feel they can trust it.
This guide also sets out some things to consider when using sources. Powerbase writers should also check out Powerbase pages on Tone, Referencing, Libel and Editorial Policy for further guidance on writing an article.
- 1 What is reputable?
- 2 Blogs
- 3 Partisan or biased sources
- 4 Primary and secondary sources
- 5 Credentialism
- 6 Guidelines for the use of sources
- 6.1 Don’t make statements you can’t back up with evidence
- 6.2 Quote accurately
- 6.3 Don’t quote out of context
- 6.4 Be specific about sources
- 6.5 Quoting from public meetings
- 6.6 Covert recordings
- 6.7 Recording telephone conversations
- 6.8 Beware dead weblinks
- 6.9 Sources in languages other than English
- 7 Groups/individuals posting articles on themselves
- 8 Inaccuracies and complaints
- 9 Further reading
- 10 References
What is reputable?
The evaluation of reputable sources is not always easy. We think that the accuracy of information in published sources is not governed by how 'reputable' the source is or is regarded as. This is in part because many of the sources regarded as reputable in the mainstream are, in fact, often a key part of the problem of spin and propaganda, which this database has been set up to expose. So we have a policy which foregrounds accuracy over reputation of sources. So our policy is different from that of Wikipedia, for example: their policy is worth quoting as we think it highlights part of the problem faced in this area.
This is what Wikipedia says about reputable publications:
- Reputable publications include peer-reviewed journals, books published by a known academic publishing house or university press, and divisions of a general publisher which have a good reputation for scholarly publications.
We agree with this, though it is obviously the case that such sources are not beyond critique. For non academic sources, Wikipedia notes:
- it is impossible to pin down a clear definition of "reputable." In general, most of us have a good intuition about the meaning of the word. A magazine or press release self-published by a very extreme political or religious group would often not be regarded as "reputable." For example, Wikipedia would not rely only on an article in the Socialist Workers' Party's newspaper The Militant to publish a statement claiming that President Bush hates children. However, if that same claim was in The New York Times, then Wikipedia could refer to the article (and to the sources quoted in the article). The political newspaper could, however, be used as a source of information about the party itself.
We think that this is a very revealing passage, which helps clarify the difference between reputation, evaluation and accuracy. Any statement that President Bush hates children is an evaluative statement. It should, therefore, be based on evidence. The evaluation cannnot be short circuited by relying on a source, 'reputable' or not. It has to be based on evidence which might be gleaned - in principle - from either the New York Times or a radical newspaper or website. But a significant part of what this site is about is providing a critique of mainstream (and sometimes 'radical') sources. How can we criticise the mainstream media and still use them as sources?
Wikipedia goes on:
- Ask yourself some questions when you are evaluating a publication. Is it openly partisan? Does it have a large or very small readership? Is it a vanity publisher? Is it run principally by a single person, or does it have a large, permanent staff? Does it seem to have any system of peer review, or do you get the feeling that it shoots from the hip? If you heard that the publication you are about to use as a source was considering publishing a very negative article about you, would you (a) be terrified because you suspect they are irresponsible and do not fact-check; or (b) feel somewhat reassured because the publication employs several layers of editing staff, fact-checkers, lawyers, an editor-in-chief, and a publisher, and will usually correct its mistakes? If it is (a), do not use it as a source. If it is (b), it is what Wikipedia calls "reputable."
When dispute arises regarding whether a publication is reputable, you can attempt to get more editors involved and work toward a consensus. There is no clear definition, but don't ignore your intuition.
It is useful to remember that blogs are viewed as 'opinion' pieces, rather than facts. This does not mean they are not useful, as a fact referred to in a blog can be used, but it is best to search for a more reliable source to quote from. As with all sources, a primary source would be best. Below are a few other considerations in relation to blogs:
- Not always a problem: Blogs and other amateur sources: Reporting that uncovers new and valuable information is done on blogs and other sites that are written by people with a distinct point of view. These include pieces in magazines that have ideological points of view (including the Washington Monthly and the National Review as well as some blogs like Talking Points Memo. It is best to find a source that has an established, independent point of view in order to aid other editors in quickly evaluating the reliability of your additions. However, sometimes a "biased" source is simply the best one.
- Not a problem: Rhetoric and opinion in a source: While the opinions from people/blogs that have a distinct point of view should not be treated as facts, there are two types of information you can glean from them:
- Definite, incontrovertible statements of fact like a quote or action. Not to be confused with a characterization of something, which is basically an opinion.
- Documentation that the writer of the piece said something. Sometimes when reporting on writings by pundits or reporters it is useful to document that they said something, in which case their "biased" piece is the primary source.
- Not a problem: Profanity in sources: In the blogosphere particularly, authors sometimes use profanity. While it is best to link to a source that does not contain profanity in order to protect other editors who are checking your work from having to be exposed to it unwillingly, sometimes a source that includes profanity is simply the best one.
Partisan or biased sources
Because Powerbase is dedicated to documenting the activities of public officials, people and organizations who are not unimpeachable sources of information, it is sometime necessary to reference their websites or other sources to make that documentation. Additionally, sometimes third-party documents are housed on the websites of biased sources, making it necessary to use those websites as a source. In these cases the website and the content should be clearly identified rather than treating the source as objective.
For example, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) released a report on Republican congressional corruption. A proper way to cite the material would be to write, “Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) released a report in 2006 accusing Republican members of Congress of designing the nation's energy policy to ‘enrich the oil and energy interests that have financed the Republican agenda’,” and link to the report on her website as the source. An improper way to cite the material would be to write, “Republican members of Congress designed America’s national energy policy to benefit the oil and energy industries that have financed the Republican agenda,” and link to the report on her website as a source.
If you would like to explore allegations like the one Rep. Slaughter made then an even more valuable way of contributing to Powerbase would be to locate the original sources in her report, verify the information and present it in a fact-based, objective manner. That way, what is documented is not the fact that Rep. Slaughter made the allegations, but that her allegations are (possibly) true.
Primary and secondary sources
It is worth remembering that a link to a primary source is usually more valuable than a secondary source.
For example, the statement by George W. Bush that America is "addicted to oil" can be found both in mainstream media outlets and in the official transcript of the 2006 State of the Union address. The advantage of a link to the primary source is that readers can read the full context of the original statement. Where possible, link to primary sources.
Often short mainstream news reports will omit important contextual information or miss important leads.
Primary and secondary sources on websites
For web sources such as Sourcewatch, GMWatch, Lobbywatch, and Corporate Watch, use the primary source referred to by those websites. Facts and quotes need a primary source. If no primary source is given for a fact or quote, avoid using it. You can use analysis from those sources, but attribute the analysis to the source.
Credentialism is the undue reliance or emphasis upon credentials such as titles, awards, and college degrees as an indicator of a person or group's intellectual, financial or social worth; in particular, the worth of their opinions.
Although credentials can be abused, they are not valueless. Someone with professional or academic credentials from a credible source has at least spent some time studying or practicing in a particular area, even if their judgments aren't always correct. It is often appropriate to be suspicious of supposedly expert assertions for which credentialed proponents cannot be found. Conversely, though, one should not assume that an assertion is correct simply because someone with credentials claims that it is.
Remember that lots of important information has no dependence on credentials. Exclusive reliance on credentials can imply that statements of fact, and personal statements, neither of which require credentials, are unimportant.
Sometimes credentials can be used in a misleading manner. Sometimes a supposedly "expert" statement is made by someone identified as having credentials, without making it clear that the credentials are in a field unrelated to the statement. For example, while Laura Schlessinger has a counseling and social advocacy radio show titled "Dr. Laura", her only doctoral degree as of 2003 was a PhD in physiology. (Furthermore, she refers to her "post-doctoral studies" which were in an unrelated Masters level family counseling program, further leading listeners to assume she had a psychology doctorate.)
Other times credentials can come from suspicious or non-disinterested sources, or involve less oversight than a casual reader might believe. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard at various times in his life claimed various PhDs, in one case awarded by a diploma mill in California, and in other cases awarded by himself. Similarly, some Scientology front groups have advertised endorsements by other Scientology front groups, without the common Scientology connection being revealed.
Credentials can sometimes hint at possible bias on the speaker's part. If someone with a credential in either environmental issues or economics expresses opinions on an issue relevant to both, their remarks may reflect a bias favoring their own field. And those that have received awards or other favors from particular organizations may sometimes be biased concerning the agenda of those organizations. Like most other statements about credentials, though, this is far from a hard and fast rule.
The opposite of credentialism might be called justfolksism. (Perhaps someone will provide a term already in circulation.) A quote in a news story from a "citizen," "neighbor," or "employee" could be masking expertise and bias. For example, consider a citizen who comes to a demonstration and is quoted without disclosing the information that he or she is a an award-winning expert with a stake in one side of the issue or a paid operative of a political party or lobby.
Guidelines for the use of sources
When writing an article on Powerbase, try to give enough information on a person or group so that a person who knows nothing about them can come away informed. Try to write a profile clearly and logically, including background information, funding, current activities and information on key personnel, if it is an organization. Break the article down into sub-headings that are not sensationalist but summarise the issues in that section.
Please try to avoid over-long sentences and huge swathes of text that do not include paragraph breaks. Don’t of course forget to reference (See A Guide to Referencing). See also Powerbase:Editorial Policy and Powerbase:A Guide to the use of Tone.
Don’t make statements you can’t back up with evidence
The burden of proof lies with the editor who adds or restores material. All quotations and any material challenged or likely to be challenged should be attributed to a reliable, published source using an inline citation. The source should be cited clearly and precisely to enable readers to find the text that supports the article content in question.
If no reliable, third-party sources can be found for an article topic, Powerbase should not have an article on it.
Any point of information lacking a source may be removed, but authors may object if you remove material without giving them a chance to provide references. Perhaps you are able to add a source for it yourself, or if you want to request a source for an unsourced statement, consider moving it to the talk page.
Random and speculative "I heard it somewhere" pseudo-information should be removed aggressively, unless it can be sourced.
Any contentious or unflattering statement must be backed by evidence. Provide references to sources and ensure that you are using sources correctly, i.e. accurately representing what they say. Also if the person / organisation / company etc. has denied the accusation in material you are quoting from (or later in a letter of clarification or a correction note), this should be reflected in the article you write.
A source may be reliable even though it is not considered reputable by mainstream society and media. Whether a source is reputable is more a question of how it is perceived by the rest of the world. Whether a source is reliable is a matter between the author and his/her source. The question becomes one of whether the author who quotes/uses the source feels confident that he or she can defend the information against challenge.
Take care to quote people or printed material accurately, and to represent their views correctly. Misquotations can be used as an excuse to sue, or even (in the case of world leaders) an excuse to threaten war.
A notorious example of misquotation, helped along by the language barrier, arose from a statement by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became the president of Iran in 2005. He was widely quoted in the Western press and by Western political leaders as making a statement that was translated as, “Israel must be wiped off the face of the map.”
But Juan Cole, a professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan, said,
- Ahmadinejad did not say that ‘Israel must be wiped off the map’ with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people. He said that the occupation regime over Jerusalem must be erased from the page of time.
In other words, according to Cole, Ahmadinejad was talking about the end of the Zionist regime, which could occur of its own accord, rather than destroying the state of Israel.
Don’t quote out of context
Take care not to quote people or printed material out of context, thereby changing their/its meaning. Powerbase authors will be very familiar with this practice, as engaged in by the people and organizations that they work to expose. That’s all the more reason why Powerbase authors must not be caught doing the same.
An example of quoting out of context is US President George W. Bush’s attempt to justify his failure to take action on global warming by quoting a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report of 2001. Bush's press secretary Ari Fleischer claimed the report, which mentioned “natural variability”  in climate, was “inconclusive” about whether humans or natural causes were responsible for global warming.
But in fact, the NAS report did blame human activities for the major part of global warming, as is clear from the full context of the quote:
- Greenhouse gases are accumulating in Earth's atmosphere as a result of human activities, causing surface air temperatures and subsurface ocean temperatures to rise. Temperatures are, in fact, rising. The changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly due to human activities, but we cannot rule out that some significant part of these changes are also a reflection of natural variability. Human-induced warming and associated sea level rises are expected to continue through the 21st century… The committee generally agrees with the assessment of human-caused climate change presented in the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] … report.
The IPCC report with which the NAS is agreeing concluded, in a statement completely at odds with Bush’s claim, “The Earth’s climate system has demonstrably changed on both global and regional scales since the pre-industrial era, with some of these changes attributable to human activities.”
Be specific about sources
Backing up your statements with evidence does not mean just inserting a weblink to an entire website, book, or article in the hope that your reader will trawl through it in a search for the relevant evidence. This is equivalent to reporting a murder to the police and telling them that the body is somewhere in London. Please extract the relevant quote or section and present it clearly. Give specific references to page numbers, etc.
It helps too if you can be as specific as possible about the source of your information in the body text itself, in concise form, as this lends authority and a reassuring objectivity to what you are saying as well as putting potentially controversial views into someone else’s mouth.
Joe Bloggs has been called “the biggest idiot who ever sat in the House of Lords”.
(NOT ENOUGH INFORMATION ON SOURCE IN THE TEXT OR THE REF BELOW. SAY WHO CALLED HIM THAT)
Joe Bloggs is “the biggest idiot who ever sat in the House of Lords”.
(SUBJECTIVE, IN THAT THE VIEW IS NOT ATTRIBUTED IN TEXT SO SOUNDS LIKE WRITER’S PREJUDICE; ALSO, NOT ENOUGH INFORMATION IN THE TEXT OR IN REF BELOW)
WORST OF ALL:
Joe Bloggs is the biggest idiot who ever sat in the House of Lords.
(SUBJECTIVE AND WILL BE DISMISSED OUT OF HAND)
(THERE’S A RISK THAT THE LINK WILL SOON BE DEAD AND THERE IS NOT ENOUGH INFORMATION TO SEEK OUT ARTICLE/SOURCE)
According to Jane Smith, writing in the Guardian, Joe Bloggs is “the biggest idiot who ever sat in the House of Lords”.
Jane Smith, in her biography of Bloggs, calls him “the biggest idiot who ever sat in the House of Lords”.
5. Jane Smith, (2008), "Idiot in the House", The Guardian, 4 July, p. 12.
Quoting from public meetings
The Powerbase policy on quoting from speeches given at public meetings is as follows. The quote must be written down word-for-word at the meeting. Keep your written notes filed away. It is not acceptable to paraphrase to give the 'gist' of the person's words, as this leaves too much room for interpretation. In your reference, give the following information: name of witness (person who wrote down the quote), name of speaker, date and place of public meeting, and (if possible) a weblink showing that the person spoke at the meeting.
It's desirable to record talks, but note that this can be a criminal offence unless you have the speaker's written permission in advance. This is an issue of copyright law, which covers speeches given at public meetings.
In practice, many people record talks by visiting speakers after asking them just before the talk and gaining verbal permission without a problem. But it's one of those cases where it's not a problem until someone makes it a problem, possibly because they are unwilling to let their words to reach a wider audience or because they later regret making an unguarded comment and do not want it to be put on record.
Recording talks covertly can be classed as a criminal offence. Covert recordings can be made by bodies who are authorised to do so but they are subject to compliance with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).
Covert recordings that do not comply with RIPA either because they are carried out by an unauthorised body or because the RIPA regulations are breached, may be unlawful and may breach an individual's human rights. If you are not acting on behalf of a UK government or local authority body, then you are probably not an authorised body.
Powerbase writers are advised not to record talks without obtaining permission from the speaker in advance. However, if you anticipate that the talk may yield useful information, it is worth trying to get permission.
Recording telephone conversations
RIPA allows individuals to record their own communications provided that the recording is for their own use. In this case, the law says you do not need to inform the other participants in the conversation that the call is being recorded. If you are planning to make some of the contents of a communication (phone conversation or e-mail) available to a third party, i.e. someone who was neither the caller or sender nor the intended recipient of the original communication, then you will need the permission of the person(s) you are recording. Obviously, publishing the conversation in Powerbase is making it available to third parties (readers), so you do need permission from the other person(s) involved in the conversation.
As articles become older it is possible that many of the weblinks in the references become lost (deadlinks). We can’t assume that readers will hunt down sources for our information. If the source isn’t easy for them to access, they will simply discount the information.
Portal editors will need to keep an eye on the state of weblinks in their portal’s articles. Often you can track down live links to sources by doing a search at the Wayback Machine at http://www.archive.org/web/web.php
Sources in languages other than English
Powerbase is a British project and for the convenience of our readers, English-language sources should be used in preference to foreign-language sources, assuming the availability of an English-language source of equal quality, so that readers can easily verify that the source material has been used correctly.
Keep in mind that translations are subject to error, whether performed by a Powerbase editor or a professional, published translator. In principle, readers should have the opportunity to verify for themselves what the original material actually said, that it was published by a credible source, and that it was translated correctly.
Therefore, when the original material is in a language other than English:
- Where sources are directly quoted, published translations are generally preferred over editors performing their own translations directly.
- Where editors use their own English translation of a non-English source as a quote in an article, there should be clear citation of the foreign-language original, so that readers can check what the original source said and the accuracy of the translation.
Groups/individuals posting articles on themselves
Powerbase contributors should not contribute or edit articles about themselves or people or organizations with which they are affiliated.
Inaccuracies and complaints
It is the intention of this site to provide factually correct information that is referenced to a high standard. Whilst we undertake our own fact checking and encourage all our users to do so, it is not possible to check all the original references used on this site.
If anyone believes that information on Powerbase is not factually correct or contains significant errors, we will try and correct it as soon as possible. Please email with as much detail and supporting material as possible to management AT powerbase.info
- Trust Us, We're Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Health
- See, for example, “Iran president sees ‘countdown’ to Israel's end”, Reuters, 3 June 2007, accessed October 2008
- Juan Cole, “Informed comment: thoughts on the Middle East, history, and religion”, website of Juan Cole, accessed October 2008
- “Executive Summary”, “Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions”, National Academy of Sciences, 2001, p. 1, accessed October 2008
- Cited in Lindsay Sobel, “The year of the ostrich: It's getting harder for Bush to hide from the facts of global warming”, The American Prospect, 7 June 2001, accessed October 2008
- “Executive Summary”, “Climate Change Science: An Analysis of Some Key Questions”, National Academy of Sciences, 2001, p. 1, accessed October 2008
- “Climate Change 2001: Synthesis Report: Summary for Policymakers”, IPCC Third Assessment Report, IPCC, 2001, p. 4
- "Current copyright legislation: Recording visiting speakers", ArtLaw website, accessed November 2008
- "Recording conversations", Basingstoke and Deane Council website, accessed November 2008
- "FAQs", Ofcom website, accessed November 2008