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Evaluating Online Sources: 4. Trace

SIFT Step 4: Trace Claims, Quotes, and Media Back to Their Original Context


A lot of things you encounter online have been stripped of context. This includes: false, attention-grabbing headlines; inaccurate or misleading reporting and re-reporting; manipulated, edited sound and video; memes and images being shared with inaccurate captions, etc.

In most cases, the more a story circulates, the more it becomes warped and you may end up with a false version of an event or piece of research. This is when you need to investigate further and trace information (claims, quotes, media) back to the original source for full context.

The below video [4:10] discusses the use of fact-checking sites, along with tips on how to trace claims and stories to their original source.

Fact-Checking Websites

When using SIFT, there are fact-checking websites that are dedicated to reporting whether a story is true or false. Here are just a few reliable fact-checking sites:

Sites like Snopes not only report whether a story is true or false, but often provides context (ie, the whole story) and additional sources used to find information. 

Political Bias

"Political bias is a bias or perceived bias involving the slanting or altering of information to make a political position or political candidate seem more attractive. With a distinct association with media bias, it commonly refers to how a reporter, news organization, or TV show covers a political candidate or a policy issue" (Wikipedia, accessed June 30, 2021). 

The following non-profit organizations work to provide up-to-date information on political and media bias:

AllSides: News website that presents reporting from multiple sources. 

"We expose people to information and ideas from all sides of the political spectrum so they can better understand the world — and each other. Our balanced news coverage, media bias ratings, civil dialogue opportunities, and technology platform are available for everyone and can be integrated by schools, nonprofits, media companies, and more."

Pew Research Center, Political Polarization: Survey data. 

"Political polarization – the vast and growing gap between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats – is a defining feature of American politics today, and one the Pew Research Center has documented for many years."

Tracing Claims on Social Media

Here is an example of how you could approach tracing a claim. Below is a tweet you might encounter while scrolling through your feed.

This tweet is John's takeaway from the article. However, the article doesn't say to ditch your sunscreen. And it doesn't even say that the FDA is warning people about the chemicals. The study merely concluded that given the levels of the chemicals in the bloodstream — from applying sunscreen four times a day — that additional regulation might be warranted. 

This article isn't from a reliable source, and is in fact pulling all its quotes from another article. It's reporting on reporting. If you click through to the link (supposedly to the research article) it links to a CNN story. And in that story you notice the re-reporters left something out:

So, should you stop using sunscreen? Absolutely not, experts say. "Studies need to be performed to evaluate this finding and determine whether there are true medical implications to absorption of certain ingredients," said Yale School of Medicine dermatologist Dr. David Leffell, a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology. He added that in the meantime, people should "continue to be aggressive about sun protection."

The original story actually says the opposite of what the tweeter proposed.

Tweeted Article: FDA Warns Chemicals From Sunscreen Enter Your Bloodstream After One Day

CNN Article: Sunscreen enters bloodstream after just one day of use, study says

Tracing Images

The internet has a long tradition of publishing manipulated ("photoshopped") images, coupled with false, distorted information and captions.

When determining whether an image is credible, we must determine a) is the photo real?, and b) does it show what it claims to show?

The below video [4:14] discusses how to find original images and verify caption claims:


To trace an image to the original source and context, the video recommends:

  • Performing a reserve image search on Google. You can also do a simple Google search, using keywords or text which either describe or appear within the image itself.
  • Using other image search websites, such as, which scans the internet for all of the sites that have published the image.

If the source of an image is unknown or questionable, you need to use SIFT to investigate the source, and if necessary, find better coverage. The good news is, when an image "goes viral," professional fact-checkers are often already doing the work to determine whether it is true or false.



"Deepfakes is the term currently being used to describe fabricated media produced using artificial intelligence. By synthesizing different elements of existing video or audio files, AI enables relatively easy methods for creating ‘new’ content, in which individuals appear to speak words and perform actions, which are not based on reality. Although still in their infancy, it is likely we will see examples of this type of synthetic media used more frequently in disinformation campaigns, as these techniques become more sophisticated."

Definition from "Information Disorder: The Essential Glossary" by Claire Wardle



Note: This SIFT method guide was adapted from Michael Caulfield's "Check, Please!" course at The text and media is (for the most part) CC-BY, and free for reuse and revision. The authors ask that people copying this course leave this note intact, so that students and instructors can find their way back to the original (periodically updated) version if necessary. 

The SIFT LibGuide at (Wayne State University Library System), and the OER book Introduction to College Research (Butler, et al.) were also adapted in the creation of this guide.