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Q: Is it OK to source information from biased or unreliable outlets, like RT or Breitbart?

A:

It depends entirely on what we mean by “information” and how we use that information. Following outlets known to be overtly biased or propagandistic can be essential for understanding the current debate on vital topics like climate change, the U.S. presidential elections or the #metoo movement. But that does not mean they are reliable sources of information.

It all comes down to knowing how misinformation gets out, and how those who get their “news” from outlets like the infamously right-wing website Breitbart News and RT (Russia Today), which is funded by the Russian government, arrive at their beliefs. Sometimes journalists have no choice but to cite these outlets when reporting on a disinformation campaign to give necessary context on an issue or even to just cite examples designed to mislead or propagandize readers.

This is fundamentally different from “information” as we typically use the word. Information denotes verified facts that we can use to deepen our understanding of issues both simple and complex. In this sense, no, it is not OK to source information from outlets known to be devoid of VIA (verification, independence and accountability).

But here’s the kicker: evidence of bias or propaganda at Breitbart or RT is information and necessary information at that. It helps us to better understand how those sites operate, what strategies they use to confuse or misinform their readers and who might be behind such disinformation campaigns.

In 2016, the white nationalism movement migrated from the fringes and dark corners of the web into the mainstream, with outlets from CNN and Fox News to the New York Times and the Atlantic attempting to explain its origins, tenets and most imminent threats. In reporting on this disturbing development, these news organizations had to rely on the very outlets responsible for building the movement in the first place. This does not mean that they were “sourcing information” from those outlets, however. They were citing them as the sources of the racist, fear-mongering and dangerous ideas that motivated white nationalists and continue to galvanize them today.

So if a reporter is doing a story on the growth of right-wing populism around the world, she may need to cite articles from Breitbart that cheerlead that movement. For a story on the subtle dissemination of Russian propaganda in the West, she would almost certainly refer to RT for examples. Again, these outlets would not be used as sources of information, but as evidence of exactly how misinformation gets out, what forms it takes and how it can sometimes be difficult to identify.

It’s insidious, to be sure, but don’t panic. As we like to say in News Literacy, keep calm and interrogate information.