Who owns the truth?

Five legal principles that will help you determine whether you can trust a source //

Newspapers are where most of us get information from, but they are usually not the original source of that information. Other people and institutions are typically the ones who observe facts and develop theories, which then get distilled and passed along by the news. In order to trust what we read, it is imperative that we not only ascertain whether we can trust the newspapers in which we read it but also their primary sources. Luckily, if the growing concern with misinformation is fairly recent, a different branch of human knowledge has spent thousands of years developing ways to find out the truth – and can offer us some tips. Throughout the history of mankind, judges and courts of law have come up with principles which we can borrow when judging misinformation: transparency, accuracy, the right of answer, adequacy and the absence of conflicting interests.


In this world of fabricated facts and biased theories, how can we trust someone, or, more specifically, how can we trust a news source or a website to be reliable? How do we determine who is really telling the truth?

Newspapers have an extremely important role in society. That of distilling from all the latest facts and theories those which are relevant to us – events, political moves, socioeconomic indicators, scientific papers, medical break-throughs, innovations – and helping us build an opinion on them (see the role of newspapers). But they are rarely the primary source for those. Other people and institutions are typically the ones who observe facts and develop theories, and they deserve the same or more attention than the newspapers passing their content along. Do they, then, ultimately own the truth? Is it enough that a news article tells us the original source of their content, or how do we decide whether we can trust that source?

It is a complex problem with no easy fix, but luckily we can learn from our own experience as mankind. Humans have always had some kind of code of conduct or legal system, and courts have always needed to separate truth from lies among the evidence that is brought to them. Five thousand years ago, Sumer, the earliest human civilisation, had written omens that predicted divine punishments or rewards for human actions. Those godly consequences were effectively carried out by people, and the organisation of those actions and consequences in writing gave birth to what we came to call our very first law codes (see for reference the codes of Urukagina, Ur-Nammu, and Hammurabi). Just like social rules, lies are also about as old as humanity. To escape punishment, citizens would lie about their wrongdoings – making up false facts and flawed theories. To reach their primary goal of organising society efficiently, judges have therefore dedicated thousands of years developing ways of finding out the truth. Having become experts on this, they are the best to help us determine whether a source might be trying to deceive us. The legal principles they follow in solving disputes can also help us fight misinformation and are all relatively easy for us to apply without actually having to conduct long investigations.

Five of those principles are particularly relevant to us when assessing news sources:

1) Transparency – The newspaper and its original sources are transparent about their findings

When talking about facts and theories, reliable newspapers should always disclose the name of their original authors, their affiliations, as well as when and where the content was first published (instead of saying, for example, “according to studies”, a respected article should say “according to Dr. Mary Smith, of the Oxford Hospital, in a study published by Science Magazine in 2023”). Unless it’s a printed article, it should also always provide the links to the original data sources. The primary source, on its turn, should be transparent about what their finding is and how they came to it (instead of a scientist telling you, for example, that they “confirmed the body of a mummy belonged to a child”, it should explain that “a computed tomography combining X-ray and CT scan technology made it possible to confirm the mummy was a child based on teeth and femur analysis”). In 2015, for example Time magazine, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the New York Times and the National Post, among others, published about a study on the human attention span which was never actually done (see BBC’s report on this) – a simple research by any of those journalists would have avoided passing that false information to their audiences.

“To reach their primary goal of organising society efficiently, judges have therefore dedicated thousands of years developing ways of finding out the truth. Having become experts on this, they are the best to help us determine whether a source might be trying to deceive us. “

2) Accuracy – The newspaper and its original sources are accurate about their findings

A credible source should also provide accuracy and context, rather than a vague description of the alleged fact (instead of saying, for example, “the study shows the average global temperature has increased materially”, it could say “the study shows the average global temperature has increased over 1.5 degrees Celsius in 10 years, which is roughly a hundred times more than the rate observed over the last millennia”). If an article is not open and accurate about its sources and numbers, do not blindly trust it – even if published by the most reliable newspapers and institutions.

3) Right of answer – There’s reasons to believe anyone could contest the claim

It is not enough that a journalist tells us their primary source, and that this source is also transparent and accurate in their observations. The question that remains is: can I trust what they say? The answer to that lies to a great extent in what is perhaps the most important principle of law – the right of answer, or the right to contradict the claim. In court, this right guarantees that anyone harmed by a legal action can be heard and produce evidence on the contrary. Because this right exists, those who file an action will make sure it is very well grounded and has enough objective evidence to convince any judge. The same dynamics can be applied to the news: when we read a statement, we shouldn’t only consider whether a political leader or business had an influence on that, but also whether anyone who disagrees with that statement would have the right to call it out publicly, call for investigations or take appropriate legal action. Likewise, we should reflect whether the original source would be reasonably afraid of any form of social or legal retaliation for fabricating data. This is why serious scientific papers have peer reviews – to guarantee that any potential flaws in their logic have been called out, analysed and settled.

Public agencies such as technical institutes and research centres tend to be among the most reliable sources of information. But how much we can actually trust them is directly linked to how strong the judicial system and the individual freedoms of their respective countries are, especially the freedom of speech to call mistakes out when they happen, and the democratic tools to take legal action against wrongdoers. Data published by dictatorships, for example, should generally be less trusted than that of mature democracies.

In particular when it comes to private parties – like individual experts, NGOs, or private institutes –, how niche and well known they are is also linked to how much we can trust them. The smaller and less known the source, the less people would have the data, the interest and the chance to contest it. In other words, the smaller and more niche the source, the less accountable it is. Whilst Britannica publishing fabricated information could make headlines, for example, since many people rely on it for a broad range of topics, an NGO lying about the number of frogs in a specific Congolese jungle would probably not turn many heads.

4) Adequacy – The source is suitable to the case

Does this mean we should trust any source that comes from a mature democracy and is a large and respected institute, dismissing all the rest? Absolutely not. These are obviously good indicators and do increase the likelihood of dealing with a trustworthy source, but we do need to take a closer look at the author. We should only trust a the source when it is adequate for the claim that it makes. That is, when its mission, professionals and expertise are centred around the topic they are covering. An NGO dedicated to studying African frogs, for example, probably wouldn’t make a good source for violence indicators in the UK. Likewise, the French government probably also isn’t the best source for deforestation data in Brazil.

5) Absence of Conflict of interest – The source or those connected to it don’t benefit from the claims

Lastly, we need to look into any potential conflicts of interest – when the source may have a direct or indirect interest in advancing a certain cause. Some of those conflicts are relatively straightforward. A public source for example may want to benefit the people in government before other political groups or countries. Even in the absence of direct connections, an occasional ideological alignment (or misalignment) may influence data published about a certain group or country (which is why Beehive gathers news from around the globe, for example). Likewise, a source dedicated to a specific industry may also want to favour its own products or harm its competitors (for example, there are reasons to be sceptical of a study on the side effects of tobacco if that study was run by a tobacco company). Other types of conflict require further investigation, especially when it comes to smaller and less known sources. When unsure, a quick search can usually reveal whether the people funding, managing or trading with the primary source may benefit from what was published.

Let’s be honest: We will never have the time to study what we read extensively and at all times. This is fine, after all you don’t dedicate your life to that. And while without a thorough investigation you won’t know for sure whether you have been told the whole truth, by following those principles you can at least determine how much you should bet on its reliability. The more a source combines the attributes above, the more you can probably trust it. If a newspaper is transparent and accurate about the sources used, if the publication was done in a democracy where people have their rights and freedoms protected, and if the sources are adequate to the claims and gain no direct or indirect benefits from it, then it’s very likely a trustworthy one. If, on the other hand, the source is unclear or vague, the information was published by a small, niche and unknown source in an authoritarian regime who, on top of that, benefits from the content, then you should probably not give it much credit at all, and investigate the subject further before letting it influence your opinions.


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