In 2020, information arrives on our literal and digital doorstep from every direction, every hour or every day. In this age of the 24-hour news cycle, it can be overwhelming and difficult to discern true or not. This is where a little something called media literacy, the exercise of critical thinking skills when it comes to choosing and digesting media, can make all the difference.
Studies show a desperate need for better news literacy in the United States, as well as a revival of ethical journalists who cover more topics and less editorial content. News is not sports, but slanted media outlets like, CNN and FOX, along with businesses and selfish political leaders, have turned it into a game.
Changing this baffling and divisive news ecosystem starts with you, the reader. This a guide to help you dissect the information for any news source and make your own informed decision on if something is true, misleading, or an opinion.
Types Of News
Fake News VS Misleading News VS Editorial VS Satire VS Real News
Fake News is news based on a claim that has no standing in facts. Fake News can originate from something as suspect as a viral social media post or on sites claiming to report news. For instance, recently, when Black Panther star Chadwick Bodesman died of cancer, a seemingly reputable news site entitled Toronto Today posted the headline that the autopsy of the actor had found that he was poisoned, and that a homicide investigation was beginning. There was no evidence to be found supporting this claim, even though it spread like wildfire on social media.
Misleading news—whether it is intentionally misleading or misleading due to the negligence of the news reporter—is a story that leaves out important details and thus deceives the public. For example, after the U.S. Ambassador to Libya was killed in the 2012 Benghazi attack, Fox News’ free site, Fox Nation, published this headline: “Obama Calls Libyan President to Thank Him After US Ambassador Murdered.” This headline makes it seem as if President Obama had thanked the president for murdering the U.S. ambassador, when in fact, as the briefing of the call from the White House described that “President Obama thanked President Magariaf for extending his condolences for the tragic deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, and two other State Department officers in Benghazi yesterday. He also expressed appreciation for the cooperation we have received from the Libyan government and people in responding to this outrageous attack.” Sure, Obama did some thanking but by failing to clearly explain for what, this headline can be filed under misleading news.
Ostensibly, real news would be news that which presents the objective fact. That said, it is impossible for one news source to present the definitive truth—news is human made, and humans are inherently biased. In order to understand the real news through the very normal and understandable degrees of human bias, the reader must cross-reference multiple sources, critically comparing each report to paint the fullest and more accurate picture possible of what’s happening.
Editorials, which often have their own sections, editors, and writers at a media organization, are pieces based on opinion. That means the information presented is done so through the lens of a specific ideology, agenda or mission. Most of the time, these stories are labeled in the headline as “Opinion” or “Editorial,” or else written in first-person with the use of “I.” Ethical journalism labels any advocacy or commentary clearly and transparently, so the reader is informed going in.
Satire is a brand of fake news with laughter as the goal. It distinguishes itself from the above definitions of Fake or Misleading News, because it’s usually labeled as satire, or is so obviously outlandish, it avoids actually deceiving the public. The Onion is the king of this sort of news, as are sites like Reductress and The Hard Times.
What is a trustworthy news outlet?
What type of content?
Trustworthy content is that which has been handled with expertise, transparency, and a sound vetting process— something that PB Pressbooks calls, the “machinery of care,” on the part of the journalist and their publication.
Who is the author?
The author of trustworthy news should have expertise in mechanics of journalism—writing, reporting, interviewing, editing and publishing accurately per the conventions of the English language, AP Style citations, and any other tools they need to use to accurately present news to the public. Of equal importance to journalistic expertise is a firm understanding of the mutually agreed-upon ethical code that guides trustworthy professional journalists and their institutions. This ethical expertise should be applied in order to equip journalists to set aside their own personal agendas and beliefs in service of factual accuracy and the public good.
The author of trustworthy news is also accountable and transparent. This means anyone involved with the news reportage be open about any conflicts of interests that may compromise the “pureness’” of their reporting for the public to consider. For instance, if you have a side gig writing marketing content for a company and then you are asked to report on that same company’s bankruptcy trial, a trustworthy journalist would either decline that assignment or share their dealings with the company with their journalistic institution and their readers.
Lastly, trustworthy content should be subject to the “machinery or care,” or processes that thoroughly and regularly vet reporting for any mechanical and factual errors. This looks like having a thorough copyediting and fact-checking process, and not compromising that process for speed.
To learn these three tenants of journalistic expertise, reporters should attend journalism school, learn these principles on the job with a reputable institution, or garner a quality approach from some combination of the two.
Who are the sources?
The sources in trustworthy news should be experts on the topic at hand, vetted for their honesty and integrity, and willing to go on-record with their full name. In some cases, unnamed sources are an acceptable part of trustworthy news, as long as the unnamed source’s assertions are backed up by named sources or by many additional anonymous sources. After all, one of the journalist’s chief duties is to reduce harm—and that can often mean protecting the identity of sources in sensitive or dangerous situations.
As a general rule, quality journalism should include at least three cited sources—and as many primary sources as possible. A primary source provides direct first-hand evidence about the event or news item. It can be a person who was there as well as a document or object created at the time the event occurred, like, for instance, an eye witness account of the fall of the World Trade Center Towers. A secondary source is a person, document, or object that comments on the primary sources, like a book about the history of attacks against the World Trade Organization.
Does the site have a bias?
In addition to analyzing the integrity and expertise of the journalist and the sources, the trustworthiness of news is also dependent on the integrity organization that publishes it. In other words, if the news of site sharing the story is openly or obviously biased, that can compromise the integrity of the news. For instance, many of the T.V. news sites in the U.S. have an obvious political lean, which can be discerned in the unbalanced way they cover news about a conservative politician or in what they don’t cover. Trustworthy organizations still have bias, but they acknowledge the mechanisms of influence and strive to create policies that help encourage accurate, fair reporting.
Are other outlets covering the story?
Another tip on whether a story is a trustworthy or not, is if other reputable and reliable outlets are also reporting the same news. For instance, in the case of the fake news example above—the news that movie star Chadwick Bodesman’s death was a homicide was only shared by Toronto Today. This is highly suspect because if it were true at least one other source would also have the news. As readers, you can check what other outlets are on a story via news search aggregates like Google News.
Consider your own bias
Most importantly, as you consider whether certain news is trustworthy or not, it is key to examine how your own biases may cloud your judgement. For instance, in a 2018 study published by Gallup and Knight, they studied two groups of readers. The first was allowed to see the source and the content, while the second was only allowed to see the content without any idea of its source. The results found that the blinded group was significantly more trusting of the news content, showing how much the reader’s personal leanings factor into their idea of truth. “People identifying with the Republican Party who read media perceived as left-leaning like The New York Times and Vox without knowing where it came from rated it as more trustworthy than the non blinded group did,” the report said.
How to spot a fake news website
Ever been duped by a site that looked legit? You’re not alone. Luckily, there are several key ways to spot a fake news site.
Firstly, a fake news site will not include an SSL Certificate, which displays important information verifying the owner of the website, encrypting web traffic with SSL/TLS, and the security of the browser connection. SSL Certificates are an important form of authentication that assure readers they’re not on a bogus site. A dead giveaway that a site doesn’t have an SSL certificate is in the web address. If it uses HTTP instead of HTTPS, in the web address, it’s likely the organization isn’t secure or above-board.
Another common way to spot fake news is, if a “news” site doesn’t provide any way to contact them or learn more about the organization—usually in the site’s navigation bar or footer—that’s a red-flag. Sometimes that may also mean there’s no byline (author’s name) on the story. Remember, trustworthy journalism is transparent.
Real Person Or Troll or Bot
By now you’ve probably heard all about the Kremlin-backed Russian “trolls” who were identified by American authorities to have influenced the 2016 election, and are attempting to influence our election in 2020. No, this isn’t an act of mean name-calling or a reference to those cute little dolls from your childhood.
An internet troll is a person who intentionally undermines a discussion over the internet by leaving inflammatory or irrelevant posts, usually in the comment sections of news articles. Their goal is to get an emotional rise out of people and derail any constructive discussion that may be happening around the issue at hand. You can recognize a troll by watching their behavior—do they frequently take conversations off topic? Are they calling people names and provoking emotional reactions? If so, it’s best not to engage with or listen to them.
A troll is not to be mistaken with an internet bot, which is another of the many disingenuous forces looming on digital news site comment sections. A bot is not a real person, it’s an automated social media account run by an algorithm, according to the International Journalist’s Network. They make posts without needing a human behind the keyboard, and their posts are usually used to amplify a specific message, be it hate speech or an advertisement. There are several tell-tale signs you’re dealing with a bot, the most obvious being they respond quicker and post more frequently than an average human, and when you go to their profile page, you notice the account gives no personal information about who they are, and has few to no followers. For more ways to spot a bot, see this article from Digital Forensic Research Lab.
How To Improve Your Own Media Literacy
As you’ve probably gathered by now, readers play as important a role in the media ecosystem as the journalists and outlets. A reader’s ability to discern the reliability of various journalists, outlets and sources, in order to define what true and what’s not, is characterized as “Media literacy.”
The first step to practicing media literacy and is to always read more than one outlet, because then you can protect yourself against biased or misleading news. For instance, The Atlantic broke recently broke the story that President Trump had cancelled a 2018 visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris, where American war dead are interred, because, according to three sources that spoke with the news publication on the condition of anonymity, he thought the cemetery was “filled with losers.” Shortly thereafter, the report was corroborated by other news outlets —only hours after the Atlantic story published, two anonymous senior white house members confirmed the Atlantic’s report in the Associated Press, as did an anonymous White House official that spoke with The Washington Post. Even Fox News, which repeatedly shared the White House’s statement that the president never said such disparaging comments, corroborated that the “president didn’t want to go.” Hence, by sifting through each of these reports, comparing what is said and considering each specific source’s potential bias, the reader should then have enough information to figure out what exactly is true, or at least, what they believe to be.
As well, don’t just watch T.V. news. Television news—while there are quality networks with noble journalistic missions—are ultimately about ratings and selling advertisements. T.V. news, desperate to get the viewer’s attention and keep it, tends to be more subjective than substantive get the viewer’s attention and keep it, tend to be more subjective than substantive, in order to appeal to the viewer’s emotions. Television brands are also criticized for putting speed ahead of accuracy, and pushing partisan agendas. (According to PEW Research Center, political polarization was “evident in the sources that Republicans and Democrats rely on for news about politics and the election” and also shaping the coverage, particularly in the case of the cable news networks.)
Digital news and newspapers, though again, cannot be completely without bias, tend to be more trustworthy, according to data—especially if they are funded in any way other than advertising revenue, because they are not at the mercy of the company’s the feature. Hence, it’s best to mix TV news watching with digital and print news sources, to garner the fullest picture.
Beyond digesting an array of news sources, you can beef up your media literacy in the way you approach reading the news, too. For instance, read the entire story, not just the headline. Headlines are designed to be eye catching—even alarming—but you don’t want to base your entire understanding of the subject on a piece of cellophane in the sun.
What’s more, it’s always good to also stay tuned into a story throughout its lifetime. In other words, keep checking back in to see what’s happened next. This allows you to have the most up-to-date and clear understanding of a news story as possible. For instance, say a newspaper interviews an eye-witness to a shooting that said the perpetrator was a gang member, but it isn’t official confirmed. Keep following the story so you know for sure it was. Otherwise, your misunderstanding can create or bolster bias.
In general, when it comes to improving your media literacy, err on the side of reading and investigating more deeply!
More Useful Info
- National Association for Media Literacy Education
- Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
- How to Evaluate Information Sources for Bias
- The Center for Media Literacy
- The Center for News Literacy
- How Biased is your News Source? You probably won’t agree with this chart
- The Media on The Media
- Biased News Media or Biased Readers? An Experiment on Trust
- The best nonpartisan news sources
- Media Literacy Resources from The Freedom Forum Institute
- Columbia Journalism Review
- American Press Institute – Understanding Bias