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 news gathering piece is affected by this, but in many ways largely separate, and the reputation for fact checking is largely separate as well. 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 Journalhas 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?”
Experts have looked extensively at what sorts of qualities in a news source tend to result in fair and accurate coverage. Sometimes, however, the number and complexity of the various qualities can be daunting. We suggest the following short list of things to consider.
- 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.
Here’s an important tip: approach agenda last. 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. A site 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.
Yet, you may see some level of these things and still have doubt. If the first three indicators don’t settle the question for you, you should consider agenda. Is the source connected to political party leadership? Funded by oil companies? Have the owners made comments about what they are trying to achieve with their publication, and are those ends about specific social or political change or about creating a more informed public?
Again, we cannot stress enough: you should read things by people with political agendas. It’s an important part of your news 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 when sourcing a fact or a statistic, agenda can get in the way and you’d want to find a less agenda-driven source if possible.
This chapter was adapted from Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers by Mike Caulfield.