It's been too long since I've talked about fact-checking, especially one particularly important bit: primary sources.

When I've talked about fact-checking operations like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact (as well as news services like Reuters that publish fact-checks), I usually note that one of the reasons I prefer them is that they link to their sources. Allowing the reader to see the contemporaneous news coverage, actual documents and other primary source materials that led to the fact-checkers' findings is a layer of accountability that gives more weight to the fact-check. That plus being open about where funding comes from goes a long way toward determining trustworthiness (as opposed to linking back only to your own reporting/opinion and keeping mum on money matters).

Primary sources are often the difference between truth and myth. While you might believe that Thomas Jefferson said, "My reading of history convinces me that most bad government results from too much government," primary sources prove that the earliest known appearance of that particular quotation was in 1913, nearly a century after the former president died (you can check Monticello's research at tinyurl.com/badguv).

He, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain and others have apparently had rather busy afterlives, considering all the fake quotes attributed to them.

But what are primary sources? The University of Massachusetts at Boston's Healey Library research guide tells us, "Primary sources are immediate, firsthand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it. Primary sources can include: texts of laws and other original documents; newspaper reports, by reporters who witnessed an event or who quote people who did; speeches, diaries, letters and interviews--what the people involved said or wrote; original research; datasets, survey data, such as census or economic statistics; photographs, video, or audio that capture an event.

"Secondary sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but add a layer of interpretation and analysis. Secondary sources can include: most books about a topic; analysis or interpretation of data; scholarly or other articles about a topic, especially by people not directly involved; documentaries (though they often include photos or video portions that can be considered primary sources)."

The National Archives website, in its Educator Resources/History in the Raw section, expounds on the importance of primary sources in the study of history, warts and all. "Documents--diaries, letters, drawings, and memoirs--created by those who participated in or witnessed the events of the past tell us something that even the best-written article or book cannot convey. The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts. First, students become aware that all written history reflects an author's interpretation of past events. Therefore, as students read a historical account, they can recognize its subjective nature. Second, through primary sources the students directly touch the lives of people in the past. Further, as students use primary sources, they develop important analytical skills. ...

"Interpreting historical sources helps students to analyze and evaluate contemporary sources--newspaper reports, television and radio programs, and advertising. By using primary sources, students learn to recognize how a point of view and a bias affect evidence, what contradictions and other limitations exist within a given source, and to what extent sources are reliable. Essential among these skills is the ability to understand and make appropriate use of many sources of information. Development of these skills is important not only to historical research but also to a citizenship where people are able to evaluate the information needed to maintain a free society."

Ooooh, wait a minute ... that sounds an awful lot like thinking. Is that still allowed?

With so much information, misinformation and disinformation available now at the click of a button, it's more important than ever that we foster media literacy, and part of that comes down to knowing the difference between primary and secondary (and tertiary and so on) sources.

We can say all we want about the Constitution or the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, but if we aren't basing it on primary sources (i.e., the documents themselves and the writings of those involved), or we're basing it on cherry-picked or otherwise manipulated data, our opinion is ill-informed.

And good lord, is there more than enough of that related to politics. Give me strength the next time I see someone copy and paste unattributed bits from a hyperpartisan column about Joe Biden and Ukraine's prosecutor, or cites the manipulated photo of Donald Trump with dirty pants on the golf course as being true.

The truth is hard enough to face sometimes, but it's where reality lives. We have chocolate and cats here, too.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.

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