6 principles of digital source criticism

Digital Source Criticism (DSC) as a key principle and practice in journalism revolves around 6 core principles. These principles help journalists ask the right questions when evaluating online sources and source materials. Below, you will find an overview of DSC principles, explanations for each one, and the essential questions that should be asked according to each principle. If you want to explore each of the principles in detail, push the “click more” button.

1. TENDENCY: Neutral sources and source material do not exist – they have tendencies

Explanation

Sources have interests and agendas. Source material is always affected by where, when, how, by whom, and for what purpose it was produced. This is called the tendency of sources and source material.

Key questions

– Who/what is the original source?
– Is the source authentic?
– What interests and agendas do those who produced and/or shared the source material have?
– How do technological functionalities affect the source material?

2. INTERPRETATION: Source materials are never deprived of interpretations

Explanation

There are always interpretations embedded in the source material. And you always have to interpret source material.

Key questions

– What kinds of evaluations (if any) does the source material contain?
– Does the source material rely on interpretations of other source material?
– How does your knowledge of the source and relevant context influence your interpretation of the source material?
– How does the digital context of the source material affect your interpretation of it?

3. DUALITY: The source material is always two things: form and content

Explanation

Source material should always be assessed on two levels. Level 1 concerns the form and metadata and what that can reveal about the source material and the source. Level 2 concerns the content and the story the content tells.

Key questions

– What does the form and metadata of the source material tell about its origin and authenticity?
– What do the form and metadata of the source material reveal about the source?
– What do the content and story of the source material tell about the time and place in which it was produced?
– Does the form (metadata) and content contradict each other?

4. RELATIONS: Sources and source material never exist in a vacuum

Explanation

Sources and source material are always affected by their relations to other sources and source material. Relations can be explicit (via for example links and references) or implicit (via for example rhetorical choices and genre formats). Relations can also be false.

Key questions

– What explicit and implicit relations to other sources and source material does the source material contain?
– Does the source material relate to an (in)authentic context and (in)authentic sources and other source material?
– How does the source and the source material relate to the wider context of the topic treated?
– How does assessing the relations affect your interpretation of the source material?

5. OMISSION: Source materials are always incomplete

Explanation

Source material never tells the whole story. Assessing what’s NOT in the source material is as important as assessing what is present.

Key questions

– What other information and sources than what is presented in the source material can be relevant?
– Whose perspective is not present in the source material?
– Does the source material offer the immediate context necessary for a thorough understanding of the topic it treats? 
– Are certain types of relevant content and information omitted because of technological functionalities?

6. SELF-ASSESSMENT: Assessing your own story is as important as assessing the source material you rely on

Explanation

A journalistic story is like any other source material. It contains tendencies, interpretations, relations, duality, and omissions. Self-assessing the story is therefore important to produce as fair and reliable a story as possible.

Key questions

– How do your background and your cultural and social positioning create tendencies in your story?
– What interpretations and relations do your story contain, and how might it be interpreted by others?
– How does your choice of digital technology and infrastructure to produce and distribute the story affect its reach, how it might be interpreted, and the context it will appear?
– What sources and source material are not included in your story and for what reasons?