As promised, here are just a few things to keep in mind when you are consuming news and trying to think critically about what you are looking at.
Know your source
Is there an editorial policy? Most large news organizations have one and can be accessed by typing the name of the outlet + “Editorial Policy” into a search engine. When you encounter a new news source online, visit their About Us page. I have seen crazy “News” stories only to visit the website’s About Us to find out, “We publish a MIX of real and fake news LOL.” Well that explains the unbelievable headline; the content itself is literally not to be believed. But that didn’t stop 50K people from sharing the fake news on social media.
Does the site explicitly say they are presenting a liberal or conservative point of view? I have no problem visiting sites that do, and encourage others to do the same. The devolution into echo chambers is part of the problem so get out there, see what people on the other side are saying. The ones that are really problematic are those that clearly have a political agenda and yet do not present themselves as such. Some may even promote themselves as “bipartisan” when they clearly are not.
Is it News or Opinion/Editorial?
A lot of people grumbling about biased journalists these days are unaware of one simple fact: Journalists are not necessarily supposed to be unbiased. News reporters are, but not all journalists are news reporters. Plenty of journalists write opinion pieces and offer analysis.
In determining bias, it is important to be able to distinguish news from opinion. Look at any newspaper and it has an Op/Ed section. Opinions and editorials are often distinguished as something separate from the rest of the newspaper. But with online sources these lines have been blurred, so make sure you can understand the difference in order to form your own opinion based on facts rather than on someone else’s opinion.
Is there an author attributed to writing the story? Look for a name, preferably one that links to a photo, brief bio and maybe even an email or social media account. Real journalists stand by their words.
Sometimes writers use pen names to remain anonymous. Most of the time, using a pseudonym on a regular basis is indicative of someone not having the integrity to be personally associated with what they are writing so that should say a lot about the integrity of the material being presented. Pseudonyms are not always bad. Sometimes the use is justified, such as when someone is reporting from a country led by an oppressive regime hostile to the press. In America, we’re not quite there yet so readers need to be aware that without credible sources, information from an anonymous writer should be consumed with a very critical eye.
What’s even worse than a pen name is a “news” article that isn’t attributed to anyone. Beware of any source that doesn’t even bother to convince you that what you are about to read was not thrown together by unpaid interns or possibly completely fabricated by would-be “journalists” making $5 per “story” for various content sites. If you are reading anything without a writer’s name listed it usually means no one is willing to be identified with the content. Compared to articles written under a pseudonym, unattributed stories should be trusted even less, if at all.
Headline abuse is the primary vehicle of click bait. And every time you click that link, you are reinforcing the idea that you want salacious content, not actual facts and news. So stop it.
Historically, a misleading headline in a newspaper could be an honest mistake because journalists don’t write the headlines. Editors or typesetters do. But increasingly headlines seen on our social media feeds are written simply to get you to click. They often overstate what is truly presented in the story.
Most websites run ads to support themselves and create revenue. But many of these sites have a very unbalanced content/ad ratio. When you see an article with a sensational headline and then five sentences of information, broken into three paragraphs and you have flashing banner ads and pop-ups everywhere, you need to realize those site owners are not really concerned with you being an informed citizen. They don’t really care what you believe as long as you keep clicking and sharing and getting other people to click.
Photos and Crediting of Photos
Just like words should be associated with writers, so photos should be attributed to photographers. Now I realize that this is the Internet. That in addition to blatant disregard for copyright, the Internet at large demands images if you want it to pay attention. We have become a culture addicted to these images. And the folks who get paid lots of money to get you to look at, think, believe and buy things know it. That’s why so much online content is presented as slideshows complete with several ads that refresh with every new “slide”.
In today’s image-saturated media, pictures tell a lot of the story. And in many cases, people form ideas around a story and those images that accompanied the online article are part and parcel and often central to the takeaway message of the story.
Now more than ever, you need to consciously think about the pictures that accompany anything you are reading. Most pictures you see, yes–even from many reputable sources, are just stock photos, often used without the photographer’s permission and have little to do with the text of a story. For instance, a “dog bites man” story may be accompanied by a photo of a pit-bull snarling and looking particularly hostile. So you form this picture in your mind of the poor victim, being attacked by a vicious animal. The reader thinks the photo they are looking at is an actual photo of the actual dog who bit the actual man. But this is often not necessarily the case.
A well-known example of a photo being misused is the awful Ambassador Chris Stevens cattle prodding story. Shortly after the Benghazi attacks in September 2012, a photo circulated widely on the Internet, specifically through social media, of …well, I’m sure you have seen it. If not, scroll to the bottom [WARNING-GRAPHIC]
The photo is purportedly Ambassador Stephens being tortured by terrorists who carried out the attacks on the consulate and CIA annex. It created such a visceral reaction in everyone who saw it and likely fuelled the ire of critics of the Obama Administration. The problem? That picture isn’t Ambassador Stephens. It was debunked almost immediately and sourced back to a likely South American origin in 2006 and yet, it is still being passed around to perpetuate the false narrative that Chris Stevens was brutally tortured. He wasn’t.
This type of misinformation is rampant all over the Internet. I could dedicate this entire blog to photo misuse and spend all day, every day showing examples and explaining the intended deception. Before you allow yourself to be influenced by a photo, make sure you take steps to verify it is actually depicting what it says it is. Google image search is a good place to start. Pictures should be credited or captioned, preferably both. Dated as well when appropriate.
Citation of Sources
“An anonymous source says” is frequently used and is not necessarily a red flag that the information is untrue. After all, Deep Throat was an anonymous source for Woodward and Bernstein and the Watergate story turned out to be very real indeed.
But when sources are named, and readers have the ability for check facts on their own, it boosts the veracity of any given story being presented. It can’t hurt to check up on sources mentioned. Sometimes when you go directly to the source, you find out that whatever you initially read that led you there put their own slant on the actual facts.
One step I like to take is when a national outlet reports on some happening in Anytown, Kansas, the first thing I do is look for local news sources on the story. Local news outlets are likely to cover events more thoroughly and with more accuracy than some partisan outlet trying to push an agenda.
If you don’t already, start reading news with a very skeptical eye using the tools presented here. And please learn to recognize the click bait and stop clicking. FYI: on Facebook, every post has a down arrow in the top right corner. When you see a spurious story by a questionable site, click that arrow and a drop down menu appears. You can choose to “Hide post” or “Hide all from…” whatever site it is. You’re welcome.
Awful photo of a man being tortured, but NOT Ambassador Chris Stevens: