Top Tips for answering sources questions
When you are asked to compare to sources and decide on their reliability and/or usefulness make sure you analyse both
For each source analyse its strengths and weaknesses - what makes it reliable/useful, what detracts from its reliability/utility
Come to a conclusion! Don't say they are both of the same reliability or usefulness, choose one and state your case clearly
Looking at Bias
Don't fall into the trap of calling a source biased just because it is written by someone on a particular side of a dispute. Make sure you have grounds for describing a source as biased!
The essential skill is to explain how and why a source is biased and to explain why it matters that a source is biased namely that it affects its reliability and perhaps usefulness
When considering reliability ask these questions
Does this source distort the facts?
Does it give one side of the story or is it balanced
Does it deliberately attempt to mislead?
Can the views expressed in the source be corroborated?
When thinking about usefulness
The key trigger here is an understanding of what your line of enquiry is. For instance a biased source might be extremely useful if you are investigating the opinions of a particular group at a particular time, but less useful if you were asked to investigate "the facts" of an event
When sources disagree
It is an examiner favourite to ask why two or more sources don't agree.
Don't just describe the sources back to the examiner - this is how they disagree not why. Also take care to remain focussed - you have not been asked about reliability or usefulness here!
To understand why sources disagree requires an understanding of motive - why did the author produce the source? You also need to consider the different access that each author would have had to the facts. For instance a British historian might have better access to source material on British history than a Chinese one!
You also need to take into account the background, nationality, culture, religion etc. of the author and decide whether this may have had some bearing on how things have been interpreted in the source
Use all the sources and your own knowledge
This type of question often requires you to study a relatively high number of sources and to agree or disagree on a particular statement. These are frequently questions worth many marks!
Consider carefully the statement offered by the examiner e.g. "Louis Pasteur was the most significant person in the history of medicine"
Do you agree or disagree with it. Often as in the example given it is most sensible to disagree (explain why Louis Pasteur was important but explain the importance of others in the history of medicine)
List your knowledge which supports the statement
List your knowledge which does not support the statement
Look to the sources and add evidence from the sources to both your lists
You will know be in a position to write a balanced answer
Try not to sit on the fence - come to a conclusion!!
Reliability: Factors affecting reliability
Questions to consider for Written Sources
Was the author an eyewitness and if so how long since the events did the writing take place?
Did the author have access to all the relevant facts?
Did the author have access to a variety of different sources? Is there evidence of balance in the source?
Under what circumstances was the author writing - was he/she free to speak his/her mind freely?
Was the author trying to persuade people to share his/her views?
If the source is all opinion is it opinion typical of others at the time?
Questions to consider for pictorial sources
Drawings and paintings
Was it the artist's intention to give an accurate picture or a factual representation of what occurred? Or was it created to form opinion? What was the motive of the artist?
If the picture was intended to be an accurate representation, was the artist an eyewitness?
Was the picture a product of the artist's imagination?
These are frequently deliberately exaggerated for effect and in many cases simply unreal e.g. Winston Churchill portrayed with the body of a bull dog. In such cases it is clear that that the picture itself is not "reliable" so you will have to consider whether the message of the picture is reliable (did Churchill have bulldog qualities?). Does the message accurately reflect the generally held opinion of the person, event or thing?
The camera sometimes lies! However it is very unlikely that "doctored" photos will appear in exam papers. However staged photographs will often appear! Think of the College prospectus with all those happy hardworking students contently working away behind the screens of high specification computers! Ask yourself whether the photograph portrays events which are typical of such a context. Consider also the motive of the person who may have staged the photograph.
Have they been collected accurately?
Have the numbers been simplified - rounded up or down?
Has the scale been altered for effect?