14 Evaluating News Sources
In This Chapter
- Understand the difference between news gathering and news analysis
- Know what processes are likely to contribute to the accuracy of a news source
- Understand the difference between bias and agenda
News organizations participate in two separate activities: gathering and checking facts and creating a narrative based on those facts. You may find one source very accurate, but not like its narrative or vice versa. Journalism standards and ethics outline particular sets of practices that help promote accuracy within a news organization. Agenda refers to the primary mission of an organization and tends to have a bigger impact on accuracy than the bias of an organization or its workers does.
News Gathering vs News Analysis
Evaluating news sources is one of the more contentious issues out there. People have their favorite news sources and don’t like to be told that their news source is untrustworthy.
For fact-checking, it’s helpful to draw a distinction between two activities:
- News gathering, where news organizations do investigative work–calling sources, researching public documents, and checking and publishing facts (e.g. getting the facts of Bernie Sanders’ involvement in the passage of several bills)
- News analysis, which takes those facts and strings them into a larger narrative, such as “Senator Sanders an effective legislator behind the scenes” or “Senator Sanders largely ineffective Senator behind the scenes.”
Most newspaper articles are not lists of facts, which means that outfits like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times do both news gathering and news analysis in stories. What has been lost in the dismissal of the New York Times as liberal and the Wall Street Journal as conservative is that these are primarily biases of the news analysis portion of what they do. To the extent the bias exists, it’s in what they choose to cover, to whom they choose to talk, and what they imply in the way they arrange those facts they collect.
The reputation for fact checking is largely separate from the reputation for a certain kind of analysis. MSNBC, for example, has a liberal slant to its news, but a smart liberal would be more likely to trust a fact in the Wall Street Journal than a fact uttered on MSNBC because the Wall Street Journal has a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy that MSNBC does not. The same holds true for someone looking at the New York Observer vs. the New York Times. Even if you like the perspective of the Observer, if you were asked to bet on the accuracy of two pieces–one from the Observer and one from the Times–you could make a lot of money betting on the Times.
Narratives are a different matter. You may like the narrative of MSNBC or the Observer–or even find it more in line with reality. You might rely on them for insight. But if you are looking to validate a fact, the question you want to ask is not always “What is the bias of this publication?” but rather, “What is this publication’s record with concern to accuracy?”
Many news organizations produce two kinds of pieces, news reports and editorials. It is important to note the difference. Any news source that produces both of these types of articles should have two separate departments, a newsroom and an editorial room, run by different editors with different staffs. The articles from the newsroom are subject to journalistic codes of ethics, while editorials only need to be approved by the editor of that department. Editorials are often where the narrative offered by a particular news source is most obvious. These two types of pieces should be clearly labeled, but often they are not, contributing to confusion about the separate news gathering and news analysis functions of news organizations.
Markers of Accuracy
You may remember from the chapter Types of Sources that journalism standards and ethics are expectations and practices which journalists should adhere to. The Code of Ethics by the Society of Professional Journalists is an example of these, but individual organizations may develop their own sets of practices. What characteristics and practices of a news source tend to result in accurate coverage?
- Machinery of Care: Good news sources have significant processes and resources dedicated to promoting accuracy, and correcting error.
- Transparency: Good news sources clearly mark opinion columns as opinion, disclose conflicts of interest, indicate in stories where information was obtained and how it was verified, and provide links to sources.
- Expertise: Good news sources hire reporters with reporting or area expertise who have been educated in the processes of ethical journalism. Where new writers with other expertise are brought in, they are educated by the organization.
- Agenda: The primary mission of a good news source is to inform its readers, not elect Democrats, promote tax cuts, or reform schools. You should absolutely read writers with activist missions like these, but do not treat them as “pure” news sources.
Bias vs Agenda
Students often come to media literacy thinking that the primary thing they should be concerned about is bias. And since everyone has some form of bias, that ultimately leads to students thinking no one can really be trusted.
Personal bias has real impacts. But bias isn’t agenda, and it’s agenda that should be your primary concern for quick checks.
- Bias: an inclination for or against a particular idea
- Agenda: the primary mission of an individual or organization
It’s easy to see bias in people you disagree with, and hard to see bias in people you agree with. But bias isn’t agenda. Bias is about how people see things; agenda is about what the news source is set up to do.
“Inform readers” is an example of an agenda. “Promote political party X” is also an example of an agenda. It matters what the primary goal of a source is. A news organization that clearly marks opinion columns as opinion, employs dozens of fact-checkers, hires professional reporters, and takes care to be transparent about sources, methods, and conflicts of interest is less likely to be driven by political agenda than a site that does not do these things. And this holds even if the reporters themselves may have personal bias. Good process and news culture goes a long way to mitigating personal bias.
Again, we cannot stress enough: you should read things by people with political agendas. It’s an important part of your information diet. It’s also the case that sometimes the people with the most expertise work for organizations that are trying to accomplish social or political goals. But you should be aware of the agenda of the source you’re reading; ask first and foremost when approaching an organization or source, “What is this group set up to do?” Keep in mind when checking a fact or a statistic that agenda can get in the way, and you may want to find a less agenda-driven source if possible.
If you did exercise 1 in the chapter Types of Sources, you saw this concept at work with the American College of Pediatricians. The main issue was not that the organization was biased, or even that it was small (though this mattered somewhat). The main issue was that it didn’t seem to be set up as a research or professional organization. It seemed, in fact, to be set up as a political advocacy organization.
Reflection & Discussion Question 1: Journalism Codes of Ethics
Many journalism standards exist, including the SPJ’s Code of Ethics mentioned above, but there is also a Code of Ethics by the National Press Photographers, and major news organizations like the New York Times publish their own guidelines on the ethical practice of journalism. Select one of the sets of guidelines above or locate a set of guidelines from another news organization and read it.
- How can we tell if a particular news source follows these guidelines? If we can’t easily determine that on our own, what strategies could we use to get a sense of the reputation of a news source? Do any of the strategies from SIFTing information apply here?
- What practices seem especially important to promoting accurate news reporting and why?
Reflection & Discussion Question 2: Agenda – Smoke Free
Here’s a summary of a report from an organization called Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. They want to eliminate smoking worldwide.
Do a Google News search on the foundation name.
- Is there anything in particular we should know about this organization before reading their materials?
- Describe what you found out and what sources you used.
Reflection & Discussion Question 3: Identifying Opinion Pieces
Review the article, News or opinion? Online, it’s hard to tell, about the challenges of telling news stories from editorials. Below are pairs of articles from different news sources. In each case, one article in the pair is a news story and the other is an opinion piece. For each pair determine which is which, and discuss how easy or difficult it was to determine this. What clues did you use?
This chapter was adapted from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers and includes some content from the Check, Please! Starter Course, both by Mike Caulfield and both licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License.