An Introduction to News Literacy
News Matters An Introduction to News Literacy by David Porter
Made possible by a grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation in Chicago.
Special thanks to the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY
Illinois Press Foundation
Cover images are award-winning photos from the Illinois Press Associationâ€™s 2012 contest. From left: Tom Sistak, The Times, Ottawa; Kim Janssen, Chicago Sun-Times; H. Rick Bamman, Northwest Herald, Crystal Lake. Page 1 image: Matt Marton, SouthtownStar, Chicago. Page 3 images of Walter Cronkite and Jon Stewart courtesy of the Associated Press. ÂŠ Copyright 2013 by the Illinois Press Foundation. 900 Community Drive, Springfield, IL 62703. All rights reserved. 1
elcome to An Introduction to News Literacy. It is our hope that this guide will assist you whether you are teaching News Literacy for a year, What is News Literacy? a semester, a month, a News Literacy is about teaching others to be better consumers of news. week, an hour or even as a News Literacy “is the ability to use critical 15-minute segment. Not all thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports, whether they come via aspects of News Literacy print, TV [or] on the Internet.” (Howard Schneiare included in this der, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY) booklet. The intent of this What News Literacy is not: guide is to create a starting News Literacy is not a journalism program. It point for those wanting to is not about learning how to report and write. Rather, it is about how to read, listen, question, learn more about News research and to make a responsible, informed Literacy. When teaching decision about the news. It is not about support for any political News Literacy, it is most agenda. It is not an indictment of any particular effective to use recent news news outlet. examples as much as possible to maintain relevancy for students.
A child squats among rubble following a hurricane in Haiti. Reliable, thorough news is essential to our understanding of the world and for the decisions we make every day. As a News Literacy lesson, did you notice that the sky in this image has been manipulated electronically? How can you tell? It’s not always easy to spot manipulation. (See Page 17.) 1
Why is News Literacy important?
Assignment: Is fish oil healthy? Why or why not?
Who do you trust for accurate information about fish oil? Find studies that contradict the benefit of fish oil and compare the sources? Are they credible? Why and why not? Choose other topics from recent news reports.
Democracy depends on an informed citizenry. If citizens are not able to reasonably determine what is truthful and what is not, they may be led toward poor choices in governance as well as poor lifestyle choices. For instance, if a restaurant or manufacturer touts the health aspects of a certain food that has been scientifically shown to be nutritionally dubious, a person may be led to eat unhealthy amounts of the food. On the other hand, some socalled scientific studies extrapolate unfair conclusions or use unproven methods. It is up to the news consumer to make a determination about the truth. News Literacy provides the tools to do that. Many people tend to gravitate toward information that supports the way they already think. The proliferation of the Internet and cable television industry has fragmented audiences until there often is no mutually agreed upon truth and no central clearing house for news and information. In some ways, this is a positive thing, but much of the information being
consumed is bias-based. News Literacy challenges students to broaden their news consumption and to examine their own biases when digesting the news. It helps them break down the news so they can separate truth from conjecture. Social networking has played a huge role in how students receive their news. They rely on friends, social networking websites, mobile media and other snippets of information. News Literacy teaches students that they have a personal responsibility for the news they consume.
Why should I care? Research from Stony Brook University in New York shows that people who learn News Literacy basics are more likely to vote and are more likely to be active within their communities. If you care about integrity and accuracy, youâ€™ll care about News Literacy. While the professional press is often blamed for inaccurate news, look at how many news sources now compete for our time. Look at the influences behind many of those sources. Political parties and marketing companies have been known to place misleading or outright falsified information on social media sites. Some of these items are picked up by the mainstream
Apathy is the glove in which evil slips its hand. â€” Anonymous 2
media. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether information is valid or not. News Literacy gives students the tools they need to navigate this sea of information.
What grades is this booklet aimed at? This booklet is a starting point for News Literacy. In that sense, it is intended for use by any grade and adults. It will cover basic concepts of News Literacy and point you toward additional resources. It is not a complete curriculum but will give you a good starting point for developing your own program.
What is News? News is the conveyance of information. From the earliest times when prehistoric people learned to communicate and began drawing on cave walls, mankind has sought news. Today, news is all around us — on the Internet, the TV, in newspapers and even on our cell phones. It is increasingly easier to obtain news and there are more and more news choices. Discussion: How many news outlets can you name?
Who decides what news is? How do newspeople decide?
Discussion: People used to discuss the previous evening’s news around the water cooler. Now they discuss information found moments ago on the Internet. How are these two functions different? How are they the same? How has this changed the way people receive and use news? What’s good about that? What’s bad about it?
What are news drivers? When professional news providers decide what the important news of the day is, they use a set of criteria known as “news drivers.” Multiple drivers are often applied when considering whether to pursue a story and where to place it on a page or where to air it within a newscast. While each newsroom is different, consideration goes toward: 1) Relevance Is this important to the topic? In a picture puzzle, a missing corner piece might be considered irrelevant because it is not easily noticed and doesn’t detract from the bigger picture. A piece missing out of the middle, however, would be relevant, especially if it is needed to understand the image. 2) Importance Do people care about this issue? Should they care? Does it
In the mid-20th century, many households had access to only a few television stations. At that time, it was generally agreed that newsman Walter Cronkite (above) was the most trusted man in America.
Ask the class who the most trusted person in America was in the 1970s and 1980s. Older groups will typically respond quickly with Cronkite’s name. Now ask the room who the most trusted person in America is today. It’s difficult to agree on universal truths when everyone trusts a different messenger, each bearing a different message. Discuss why this is good and why this is bad. Discuss the role that comedians and other entertainers play in shaping public opinion. A survey conducted shortly after Walter Cronkite died in 2009 indicated that comedian Jon Stewart (right) was now the most trusted person in America. Who do you trust for your news? Why?
Well, if I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America. — President Lyndon B. Johnson 3
impact taxes that people pay? Some stories are deemed important even if people don’t seem to care that much about them. Why do you suppose that is?
When news drivers crash:
In July 2013, Bay Area television station KTVU rushed to air the names of pilots involved in an Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport. But the names were fake and racially insensitive. Which news drivers contributed to the incorrect information? Does this blunder impact your trust in television news? Does it impact your trust in news in general? Link to news report and subsequent apology: http://youtu.be/wX5QF05uz2U
3) Proximity Is this something that happened near us? A bus accident 200 miles away from us might not be news here, but if it happened here, we would want to know about it. What other news drivers are present with a local bus accident? 4) Timeliness If something happened recently or is about to happen, there is a timely factor to reporting about it. People want to hear about last night’s baseball game, not a baseball game from two months ago. 5) Magnitude There are small earthquakes everyday but we don’t read about them in the newspaper everyday. A big earthquake, however, is news all over. Why is that? 6) Conflict If someone in town is building a fence around his yard, that probably isn’t newsworthy. But if his neighbor complains to
the city council that the fence infringes on his property or violates some other code, then it becomes news. There is a public interest in all sorts of disputes. Can you give examples of other types of conflicts that are newsworthy? 7) Human Interest Feature stories are often human interest stories — tales of heroism, reports of children or animals doing cute things, classic stories of struggles and triumph. Anything that tugs on our heartstrings is a potential human interest story. Name some topics that would have human interest. 8) Prominence Americans have a huge appetite for celebrity news of any type whether it’s regarding Hollywood stars, royalty, famous athletes or politicians. Generally, this news driver needs to be paired with another criteria such as conflict or human interest. It doesn’t take much, though. A celebrity seen dining in an upscale Hollywood restaurant isn’t news, but seeing someone famous at a fast food joint in a small, Midwestern town will make the news because of its unusualness and the prominence of the subject. 9) Change This news driver is usually
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. — attributed to Mark Twain 4
coupled with another driver such as relevance, proximity and timeliness. Any change that impacts the public — such as a new stop light, a new school superintendent, a change in taxes — will be of interest to the public. 10) Unusualness Anything that stands out as unique is often newsworthy. An old example used in the news industry is a “man bites dog” headline. It’s probably not newsworthy if a dog bites a man, but if a man bites a dog, that’s unusual. What other unusual news stories can you recall? 11) Competition and profit Journalists don’t always want to admit that competition and profit help drive the news product, but consider this: If a TV station broadcast week-old drivel that nobody cared about, would people tune in? And if nobody tuned in, would advertisers support the programming? It’s the same thing with print media – the cost of journalism is covered by advertising and subscriptions; without them, there would be no news coverage. So, providing consumers with the news they want and being the first to do so are factors in what news is covered. Discussion: Most news organizations are able to weather
the loss of a few advertisers or subscribers when covering important news that may be unpopular. Can you find examples of news organizations that stuck with a story despite the loss of advertising? Can you find examples of news organizations that changed their approach to appease advertisers? Hint: Broadcast media frequently shuffle news and opinion options based on ratings. Discussion: What do all of these news drivers mean? Why are they important in the selection of news? Exercise: Read a local newspaper and watch a news program on TV. Look for examples of these drivers.
Where does news come from? Knowing where a news item comes from is vital in trusting the information. It’s not always enough to know your news source, though; it’s important to note where your news source got the information and whether the source has a bias. It’s just as important to recognize our own biases when viewing the news. We’ll discuss more on bias later.
At right is a story about a body that had been stored in the basement of a funeral home instead of buried. Drivers include proximity, timeliness, and unusualness. Does the position of the story help sell papers? 5
Take a local newspaper and identify the news drivers for each story. Remember that some stories have multiple news drivers. Do you notice a pattern? Are frontpage stories driven by certain news drivers more than inside stories? Over a month-long time, chart front-page news drivers to determine which news drivers are most likely to appear. Watch television news and view the top news stories in an Internet search engine and have the same discussions as with newspapers. Are the Internet and television driven by different news drivers than newspapers?
I play, I say, I relay Tag, you’re it
Friends don’t just share good times; they create and share news and they influence each other. How much of that influence stems from accurate and complete facts and how much comes from opinion? The old children’s game of “telephone tag” is a good lesson in how inaccuracy develops and spreads. Have students line up and then read a statement to the first one in line; whisper so no one else can hear. That person then whispers the statement to the next one, and so on down the line. When the last person receives the message, he states it out loud where it can be compared to the original text. In this exercise, a simple statement is read and repeated. Imagine how the story might change if each student added his or her own opinion.
Most people think of news as coming from newspapers, television and radio but news is all around us. While many people seek out news, we also absorb news without thinking about it. We often pick up snippets of information and piece them together — something overheard at a grocery store, the TV playing in the background at the beauty salon, a friend mentioning a related piece of information. We even help spread the news ourselves in person and through social media. People tend to believe news if it comes from a trusted source. That may explain part of the success of social media because we tend to trust our friends. Indeed, we are sometimes told by others to distrust the mainstream media and to trust our friends instead.* Discussion: How much do you rely on your friends for trustworthy information about news events? Is trusting a friend for local, social or school news the same as trusting a friend for state, national or world news? How is it different? Are social media or social networks the best sources for state, national or world news? Most of us have friends
who have strong political feelings. When you receive news from friends like that, do you expect the information to be accurate and complete? Would you expect those friends to pass along information that is contrary to their political beliefs? When we rely on friends and social media for news, we often end up with an incomplete version of events. Our beliefs about a story may be shaped by opinions we heard alongside the news as well as by our existing beliefs. People sometimes react without knowing the full story and incorrect or biased information may spread rapidly.
Opinion — Shoulda, woulda, coulda One of the fundamentals of News Literacy is separating fact from opinion. Reputable news sources label opinion as such, but more and more, news sources are blending editorial comment with news content. There are ways to spot opinions within the news and to analyze whether the reporter is speculating. Look for words that imply opinion: I think I have a feeling I wouldn’t be surprised My take on it Exercise: What other phrases
* “What I like is the fact that we have new media that gives us the ability to circumvent filters and go straight to people. ... The best information is that which came from a trusted source: your friend on Facebook, a friend of yours who sent you a link, a twitter on somebody’s Twitter page that you follow. These things can circumvent these filters, and we can get truth to people, and that’s what we’re going to have to rely upon as conservatives.” — Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan in the Peoria Journal Star, March 24, 2013.
can you think of that imply opinion? Also look for words and phrases that seem to predict future events, often through cause-and-effect: That could People should The bill would Is likely to Probably That will cause If, then Exercise: What other phrases can you think of that predict future events? Think about the words being used and try to determine whether the information is a knowable fact. For instance, when a science teacher predicts a chemical reaction that will make a model volcano appear to explode, that’s a knowable fact or at least a reasonable speculation. The teacher is likely to have conducted the same experiment before and is in a position to know what will happen. However, if the chemicals are degraded, there may not be an eruption. That doesn’t mean the teacher’s opinion was invalid; it just means there were other factors in play. When a news source says that the president’s plan will cause a specific reaction, one must determine whether the source is
speculating and whether the source has the credentials to predict the outcome. It is especially important to note whether the source has a political or financial bias when making the prediction. Assignment: Follow the same news story through a variety of news sources including multiple TV news shows and newspapers. Do all of the reporters treat the news in the same way? Do some use speculative words and phrases? Do some reveal a bias?
Audible manipulation Broadcast and Internet news have the ability to include audio. When watching a report, listen beyond the words being spoken. Is there music playing? Are there other sounds? Is the audio natural to news coverage or has it been added? If there is music playing, listen to the tone and changes in tone. Is music being used to push you toward a specific emotion? Has the audio been edited in any way? Have certain sounds been enhanced or have natural pauses been eliminated through editing? Has the timing been adjusted to evoke emotion?
Satire Does a news story seem flippant? Is it possible that the re-
Based on the type styles above, which clothing store would you be most likely to visit? Can you imagine what type of clothing each store would have based on the type style? Marketers use visual clues including color and page placement to lead consumers in a particular direction. Likewise, a news source may use audio clips, music, animation, lighting, tone of voice, dramatic pause and other techniques to elicit audience reaction. Watch a television news program with manipulation in mind. Look for visual clues and listen for sounds that may have been included or placed in the story for effect. Discuss whether such items were necessary or manipulative.
If the news is that important, it will find me. — Anonymous 7
I don’t always make memes but when I do ...
Euro RSCG Worldwide created a marketing campaign for Dos Equis beer in 2006. Titled “The most interesting man in the world,” the image became a favorite backdrop for memes. According to Sparksheet.com, tens of thousands of memes were created by Internet users over a seven-year period — almost all of them helping to promote the distinctive green bottle of Dos Equis.
porter is taking a satirical approach? There are news organizations that use satire exclusively, most notably The Onion. Another popular approach used widely with social media is the satirical meme. A meme is any item that is passed from one user to another, typically through social media. It might be a cute photo, a funny quote, a prayer chain or a news item. Through dissemination from one friend to another, a meme can reach millions of people — a phenomenon known as “going viral.” A popular way to use memes is to use brief satire with a photo or graphic element to make a statement, sometimes political in nature. The humor in the meme helps prompt people to share it with others. Before passing along a meme, it would be wise to ask oneself whether the information is accurate or fair. People sometimes find themselves manipulated into passing along false information simply because it’s funny. Savvy marketers have used memes to promote products or induce fear. For instance, a company that sells Bluetooth headsets for cell phones created a video that looked like cell phones were able to cause pop-
corn to pop. The video hoax was not branded, which helped make it seem legitimate.
Who does your thinking for you? Words that lead the reader/viewer We talked about words that signal an opinion. There also are words that may try to direct a reader or viewer toward a particular conclusion. Here are some obvious examples: You’re going to love this You should be outraged You won’t want to miss this You and I know … Other words are subtle and usually fall into the category of superlative such as: Great Fun Awesome Horrible These superlatives express an opinion on the part of the speaker/reporter and are sometimes used to imply a given fact – the horrible accident, the fun fair, the great idea. But you can decide for yourself how you feel about an accident, the fair and the idea. It’s important to spot the superlatives so you can make a conscious decision about whether you agree rather than accepting the opinion at face value.
The problem with Internet quotes is that you can’t always depend on their accuracy. — Humorously attributed to Abraham Lincoln 8
Exercise: Watch a news report and write down any superlatives you hear. How many did you catch? Assignment: Write a paragraph using five superlatives. Write another paragraph on the same topic using no superlatives. How has the focus changed?
Fairness, balance and bias News is a selection of information based on the drivers previously discussed. Every news story cannot contain every snippet of information available, so reporters must select what is important. They should do this with balance, fairness and bias in mind. Think about how you would tell your life story just from the past week. The available information spans 168 hours but you need to tell your story in just a few minutes. What do you include and what do you leave out? In telling your story from the past week, are you giving a balanced, fair account? Assignment: Choose a partner to work with and go to a 2- to 3hour event together. Each should write a detailed report of the event without the other’s help. When done, compare the stories. What did your partner include
that you left out of the story and vice versa? Were you fair and balanced? Each of you has your own bias; how did personal bias impact how you told the story? Assignment: Have the class write a book review or summary. Compare how different students chose to include different information and discuss how students determined what to include and what to leave out. Were some of the reviews unfair or biased? In what way? Apply a similar comparison to two news articles from different sources. It begins to make sense why two reporters might see the same story differently.
The bias within Sometimes people think a report is biased when they don’t have access to the necessary set of facts to determine whether a bias exists. Or, they may be basing their assessment on other reports that are biased. Many times, a person’s own bias colors his/her judgment of a news report. It’s OK to have opinions, but one should recognize his or her own prejudices when analyzing the fairness of a news report.
Judging books & looks
We’ve all heard the axiom, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” When you see someone who looks vastly different from you, do you assume anything about them? Stereotyping may be human nature, but it’s important to know that the biases we feel often come from within us based on experiences we’ve had or things we’ve been taught. Is that the best way to analyze new data? News is similar in that we often judge the information based on our previous experiences and beliefs. It’s an analytical tool that we all have, but it is not failsafe. Granted, another person may be intentionally projecting a certain image; in that case, they’re probably counting on eliciting a response from you that pleases them. It’s called “dressing the part.” If a rap star looked like an opera singer, impressing his audience would be more difficult. The important thing is to be aware of how much of our assessments stem from our own biases.
It's not at all hard to understand a person; it's only hard to listen without bias. — Criss Jami, author of Venus in Arms 9
Have students pair up and interview each other and then write a story based on the interviews. Discuss as a class whether the stories are responsible, accurate, fair and thorough. In particular, did those who were being written about think that the reports about themselves met the RAFT test?
Have students write a 500-word essay. Now, have them edit the essay down to 300 words. What types of things did they leave out? What was important to leave in? Now, have them edit the story down to 150 words then a 50-word summary. Finally, have them write a single sentence capturing the essence of the essay. What have they learned about being fair and thorough?
Assignment: Think about your own biases and choose a topic where you have a strong opinion. Now, read a news report about that topic and discuss whether the report was fair, accurate and balanced. Did your own bias influence how you felt about the article? Assignment: Give everyone in class the same article but without the original headline. Ask everyone to write his or her own headline and then discuss how each one is different and why. Since everyone had the same article to work from, the only difference in deciding what to write as a headline reveals something about the individual’s own biases.
Building a RAFT For a news story to float, so to speak, it must be a RAFT — Responsible, Accurate, Fair and Thorough. Discussion: What does it mean to be thorough when all the data cannot be included in every news story? Professional journalists are trained to be fair, accurate, responsible and thorough. Professional media also employ
editors to check reporters’ work. While the process cannot catch every error, media outlets with integrity have protocols in place to discipline reporters who make errors and to weed out ones who habitually make mistakes. Social network users, bloggers and others working without structure often don’t have the same safeguards. Does this impact the level of trust that you have with particular media outlets?
Crowd sourcing Friends can be great, trusted resources but they can also pass on faulty information without checking it out first. As a news consumer, you have responsibility to make sure that the news you receive is credible. One way that reporters learn the truth is by checking with multiple sources. We’ll talk about evaluating sources a little later. Social media, like Twitter, are used effectively for crowd sourcing — gathering information from a broad geographic area regarding the same topic. This is especially valuable when the news media is unable to put a reporter in a certain location, such as a war zone or in a hurricane or tornado. The reporter can use witness accounts to piece together an accurate story. If a dozen people throughout a
The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it. — John Locke, philosopher 10
large city post that tanks are rolling into the city, the reporter can use that information to try to get an official to verify that tanks are rolling in and to get details about how many tanks, how fast they’re moving, etc. Why is it important for the reporter to seek an official verification? If the official denies the report, is the reporter able to use information from the crowd sourcing? Sure, he can, but he would want to include the denial from the official in the reporter’s effort to be thorough.
Truth vs Trust What is truth? That may seem to be a silly question but truth is becoming increasingly difficult to quantify. Sometimes, the truth is bogged down by semantics — like two people arguing whether the sky is “baby blue” or “powder blue.” But the truth is often elusive within the news. Facts that seem evident to one person may seem preposterous to another. How do we know what is true? Assignment: Discuss whether the Earth is round or flat. Have the class divide into two groups and have the groups gather evidence for one side of the argument or the other. Have them present their evidence (or lack thereof) and let them debate the issue.
Can you think of other examples where conventional wisdom was challenged and where most people changed their minds about the truth? Why do we trust some people and not others? How is trust developed? Sometimes, the truth is twisted or shielded for political gain. Can you name recent news stories where the truth was challenged?
Provisional truth The truth sometimes changes over time. Does this make the truth more reliable or less reliable? Hundreds of years ago, most people believed that the Earth was flat but a few thought it was round. Now, most people believe that the Earth is round, but there are still a few who are convinced that it’s flat. How did the truth change? Why were people convinced to change their minds hundreds of years ago? Did this happen gradually or quickly? Perhaps truth doesn’t change so much as it emerges. As more facts are brought out, a clearer picture develops over a period of time. The media reports the facts as they know them at the time. As the truth emerges, are you more trustful of it or less trustful?
Have aliens visited Earth? Who killed JFK? Do ghosts exist? What feeds these theories and others like them? With help from students, make a list of disputed truths and conspiracy theories. Choose several to debate in class. Discuss the merits of sources and how to separate truth from theory. Was anyone swayed during the in-class debates? If so, what swayed them? If not, were they open to changing their minds? What biases do they have that might prevent them from accepting new information? Was the new information presented during debates fact or opinion?
Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts. — Daniel Patrick Moynihan, politician 11
The News Literacy staff at Stony Brook University in New York tells the story about a news story published after Hurricane Katrina that erroneously reported that 40 bodies had been found in a freezer in the Superdome. The reporter quoted two National Guard soldiers, but the soldiers had not seen the alleged bodies for themselves. They were sharing what essentially was a rumor. While the story seemed legitimate, it easily could have been verified by looking inside the freezers. “Open the freezer” has become a tagline for Stony Brook University’s news literacy program. When reading the news, ask yourself whether the reporter “opened the freezer” or whether a credible source is providing a first-person account.
An example of emerging truth is the death toll during a natural disaster. The media may report that 12 are dead one day and then report the next day that 11 people had died. The next day, the number may be 14. Why do you think this is? Sometimes, the truth — or at least additional facts — emerge only after an initial story came out. Some sources are reluctant to talk to the media, but after a story breaks without their information in it, they may wish to add to the story. The reporter may write another story with the additional facts. This is often called a second-day story, a follow-up or a series. As a news consumer, you may not be able to read all of the available reports, but you should read enough of them to understand the issue. Discussion: Name a recent news topic where the truth changed over time. Why did it change? Did the reporter seem more credible or less credible when the truth changed? Assignment: Select an individual or group to research arguments in favor of the idea that the Earth is flat. Have them debate the rest of the class. Prior to the debate, ask for a show of hands from those who are convinced that the Earth is round. At the end of
the debate, ask for a show of hands from those who are not as sure after hearing the arguments. This exercise could be done with a number of topics; the flat-Earth topic can be fun and can demonstrate how easily one’s faith in the truth can be shaken and how silly some arguments can become. Discussion: Following the above exercise, discuss how important news is in developing opinions about everything from political candidates to nutrition to major life decisions.
Evaluating sources Sources are often key in trusting the news. As humans, we like things to be precise. Can you imagine how difficult travel would be if “north” was not a precise direction? Yet, we take huge leaps of faith and develop strong beliefs about things we cannot know either because it’s unknowable or because we don’t have the time or resources to conduct our own research and experiments. Take gravity, for instance. Most of us agree with Newton’s theory of gravity even though we may not have thought about it much and have not conducted any experiments. The fact that gravity is universally accepted by the scientific community is good enough for us. These
The truth is rarely pure and never simple.— Oscar Wilde 12
truths are considered universal without sourced documents. Of course, that’s not to say that we trust science implicitly. There is plenty of dissent among scientists on a variety of topics. There is also a peer review procedure and scientists are trained to conduct experiments without bias. So, when the scientific community agrees on something, the rest of us tend to agree, too — at least until science bucks up against another one of our beliefs. In today’s world, there are so many media choices and so little commonality that determining whether a source is credible can be difficult. A professional reporter is trained to look for multiple sources to collaborate information and to work with official sources. In some states, working with official sources helps protect the newspaper from the consequences of erroneous information. There’s no guarantee that an “official” source will be accurate, but if it’s not, the error can become another story. Official sources include elected officials such as mayors and congressmen and appointed officials such as police chiefs and public information officers. Official sources do not have to be government officials. The chief
executive officer, a lawyer or a designated spokesperson for a company are official sources. There can be legal ramifications if such sources lie to the media, especially if they are lying with the intent to increase stock prices. Official sources also can include court records, police reports, government databases, etc. Professional reporters are trained to mine these sources for information. Even if an official source is not quoted in a news report, the reporter may have used the information to understand the story fully. Official sources may also be sponsored sources in that they are working in support of the entity that is paying them. As a news consumer, one must always be aware that an official source is not likely to share information that reflects poorly on the office for which he works. The reporter must look for additional sources when the source itself is the subject of the report, and the reporter typically will confront the official source with any controversial material. A key to determining whether a source is an official source is whether the person is speaking in his or her official capacity. As an example, a mayor talking about a
Watch a 30-minute news program and read the front page of the newspaper. Write down the names of all the sources and determine whether they are official, qualified, unqualified or sponsored. Teachers: This would make a good quiz. Note the image of the police officer above. Not every policeman is an official source. The police chief or designated spokesperson would typically be official sources. A patrolman may be willing to speak as a qualified source and may request anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the media. If the officer is representing a union on a story about the union, he would become a sponsored source. If he’s commenting on non-police issues, he may be an unqualified source.
News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising. — attributed to Alfred Harmsworth, newspaper publisher 13
Social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter do not generate original content. Except for information about their own rules and corporate structures, all of their content is provided by users or advertisers. Because of that, citing a social media site as a source is the same as not quoting a source. Are you more trusting of information if someone says, “I read it on Reddit” or “I saw it on Pinterest?”
Sometimes, people feel more comfortable with the information because of who sent it to them. But ask yourself where the information originated. You may be able to trace a shared link back to the original poster or to a website. You could fact-check the information by submitting a query to a watchdog website such as Snopes.com, PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org. It’s important to note whether the fact-checking sites have an appearance of bias. Knowing where you found a news item is not enough. You should know where the item originated. You can’t always rely on the person who shared it with you even if you trust that person. She may not know where the information originated. Some sources go to great lengths to hide the origin of a news item, so it’s your responsibility to discern whether the source is credible.
sewer project after a city council meeting is an official source; the same mayor talking about his baseball card collection is not an official source. A sponsored source has a vested interest in the outcome of the story. As discussed, an official government source may be considered a sponsored source but a sponsored source is not necessarily an official source. For instance, if the story is about a seed company, and the source works for the seed company or an agricultural association, that is a sponsored source. He may also be a qualified source, but the news consumer must be aware of the source’s interest in the story and it is a duty of the reporter to disclose that connection. Beyond official and sponsored sources, there are qualified and non-qualified sources. If a reporter is writing about finances, she might ask a banker to explain the subject. If she’s writing about a court case, she might interview a law professor who is not connected to the case. These are qualified sources because they are people who have specialized knowledge but are not tied to the story.
Political sources are frequently sponsored. If the reporter announces that the source works for A-B-C Consulting or D-E-F Foundation, it’s important to know who owns those entities and what their biases are. An unscrupulous reporter may try to pass off a source as being qualified when the source also is sponsored. An unqualified source is someone who may provide color to the story, but the reporter may be unsure whether the source has specialized knowledge or a bias. For instance, someone claiming to be an eyewitness to an accident may not have seen the accident as it happened. And since the witness is not an official source, the trained reporter will look for corroborating evidence, such as a police report, an officer’s comments or another eyewitness account. It’s common on television to see a neighbor being interviewed after a house fire or a tornado or some other tragedy. But the news consumer must keep in mind that the neighbor may be distraught, and we don’t know the nature of the relationship between the neighbors, which could influence the comments. In short, we don’t know whether we can trust an unqualified source without additional verification.
With Facebook and Twitter, we're all our own little publicists in a way. — Jess Walter, author 14
The Innocence Project, which works to free inmates wrongly convicted, notes that “eyewitness testimony can be persuasive” but that “30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable.”
Anonymous and confidential sources Occasionally, a reporter will rely on a confidential source. This is someone known to the reporter but not named in the news report. These sources are usually qualified people who are afraid of losing their jobs or are afraid of public scorn. They will provide the information being sought but only if their names are kept out of the story. Professional journalists use confidential sources as a last resort on highly sensitive stories. Such news stories typically note why the source is being kept confidential. Frequently, the source is not authorized to speak to the media. Anonymous sources are rarely used by professional journalists. Most professional news organizations will not quote a source when they don’t know who the source is. There are high-profile exceptions. For instance, if a caller
claims to work with a terrorism group and provides credible information, the reporter is likely to use the caller as an anonymous source.
Know your source, of course
Sponsored source Has a financial interest in topic
Previous news stories sometimes are used as sources for new reports. Reporters must be careful to not duplicate any errors that may have been made in the previous reports. Another source for reporters is observation. There’s no substitution for seeing news happen with your own eyes. Still, a good reporter will supplement observation with research — looking up government documents, interviewing sources, etc. Assignment: Use a previous news report as background for a short article about something that is still making news. Discuss what previous information each student chose to include. Had any of the previous information changed over time? Discussion: Watch a newscast or read an article and note all of the different sources. Find an online report that did not originate with a professional news organization and note the number of sources it uses. If there are no sources or only one source, the news consumer is right to question where the information came from.
Checklist of source types
Official source Person authorized to speak
Qualified source Has specialized knowledge about topic Non-qualified source No specialized knowledge, not authorized to speak; may add color commentary Confidential source Known to the media outlet but not to the reader Anonymous source Not known to the media outlet or the reader Government documents Court records, documents held by taxing bodies and/or their committees Other documentation Corporate documents, personal journals, schedules, emails, Web postings, etc. Previous reports Previously published information Observation Reporter’s first-hand account Personal interview Consider what type of source interviewee is and whether reporter is asking ‘leading’ questions to elicit a particular response NOTE: A source may fit more than one descritpion.
Information attributed to an anonymous source must be factual and important to the story. Peripheral information or "just a good quote" aren't good enough reasons for anonymity. — Part of an extensive policy on use of unnamed sources from the Cincinnati Enquirer via American Journalism Review 15
Attribution A source is only as good as its attribution. If the reporter presents information but does not disclose the source, the news consumer is left to her own devices to find out who the source was.
Checking validity of sources
Assignment: Do a “whois” search for your own school’s website. See what turns up. Careful with what you find; as mentioned earlier, not every website is what it appears to be. Some go to great lengths to hide their true identity and intent. Some propaganda sites will rank high on Internet searches because their owners are savvy in search engine optimization.
Assignment: Find a propaganda site on the Internet. Explain why you believe it is a propaganda site and not a legitimate news site.
Discussion: What is the difference between propaganda and parody?
It’s important to know who your sources are on a story. Online, there are several websites, such as Snopes.com, dedicated to rooting out bad information. Be careful, though; some of the websites that claim to be fact checkers are owned by political organizations and are themselves sponsored sources. Who’s who on the Internet? When using the Internet for research, it’s sometimes difficult to know whether a website is sponsored by a political interest. How does one find out who owns a website? One way is to do a “whois” search. There are a number of websites that specialize in this type of search. If you do an Internet search for the word “whois,” several such sites should pop up. You can type in a web address in a “whois” search, and the response should reveal the website owner’s contact information.
Sometimes, owners of domain names will try to hide their ownership by using proxy accounts or false information, so this is not a sure-fire way to find out who owns the site. Try doing an Internet search asking “who owns such-and-such website.” Chances are, someone else has asked the same question and posted their findings online. Each piece of information is like a layer that can be lifted up to reveal what’s underneath. Your research may take you away from the Internet. If you find a company name associated with a website, you can research who owns the company. While some searching can be done online, one may need to contact the secretary of state office where the company is located to find out who owns the company.
Deconstructing the news Using the tools you’ve learned, deconstruct a news broadcast or article. • Did the story answer the basic questions of who, where, when, why and how? • Does the lead of the story summarize the main points? • Did the story cite sources? What types of sources? • Was the information verifiable?
If your mother says she loves you, check it out. — Old journalism motto 16
• Was the information reliable including statements by sources? • Was the story breaking news or a planned event or recorded previously? • If a broadcast story, was the noise natural or was sound (including music) added? • Was the story edited in a way to evoke a particular emotion? • Did the story air during “ratings week?” Were there other market factors? • Did anyone stand to gain or lose by the story? • Was the reporter transparent? • Did the reporter share direct evidence? • Were images shared that were illustrative of the story but not actual evidence? • Was the information presented out of context? (May require checking sources.) • Was the story balanced and fair? • Did the story use words intended to manipulate you?
News blackout This is a good exercise to do before a News Literacy course or toward the end of one. Instruct students to go a significant period of time with no news — this includes news from friends, Facebook, TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, text messaging, etc. This could be done for 48 hours or longer.
Discuss how difficult it is to go for days without news of any kind. People often don’t realize how bombarded they are by news and information. How did the participants feel during the news blackout? Did they stick with it?
Whois: An Internet search for the name “Martin Luther King Jr.” turns up a website that claims to be a “true, historical examination” and a good resource for students and teachers. A “whois” search reveals that the site is owned by Don Black and his organization, Stormfront. Stormfront is a white supremecy organization.
Now that you’ve had a taste of what News Literacy is all about, here is a list of resources that can help you build lesson plans and learn more about News Literacy. The Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University http://www.centerfornewsliteracy.org/ Teachers: Click on the Resource tab to learn about Stony Brook’s teacher training program High School Journalism Initiative http://hsj.org The Illinois First Amendment Center http://www.ifac.us Illinois Press Association http://www.illinoispress.org Mediactive http://mediactive.com/resources/ media-literacy/ Newseum Digital Classroom http://www.newseum.org/digital-classroom/ The News Literacy Project http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/ NewsTrust teacher guides include lesson plans http://www.newstrust.net/guides/students and http://newstrust.net/guides Robert R. McCormick Foundation http://www.mccormickfoundation.org/
Page 1 photo It can be really difficult to tell whether a photo has been manipulated. Ethical news outlets do not significantly alter photos and video unless they alert the audience that the visual has been modified. It is generally considered OK to make an area of a picture darker or lighter to make it closer to what the human eye would see, but it is not OK to add or remove objects in the image. In the image on page 1, the fade from blue to white is a clue that the image has been altered. None of the sky in this image is original to the photo. The original photo had only about a half-inch of sky with clouds; all of it was replaced with a blue fade in the same hue as the original sky. On the far left, just above the horizon, you can see bits of the original sky. Sometimes, a publication will label a photo as a “photo illustration.” That is an indication that the photo has been altered.
Follow the money. — Another old journalism motto 17
Developing a good news diet The way we receive news has changed rapidly over the past decade, but the need for news is as strong as ever. How one receives news is not as important as the credibility of the news source and the depth of news that one receives. Ask your students how they receive the news, and they might tell you that they don’t. News and information is so prevalent in our society that we absorb news daily without thinking too much about it. That’s why the news blackout is such a good exercise. It makes one realize how immersed he is in the news. Because of this saturation of information, it’s easy to gravitate toward entertainment-based news and bias-based news. With so much information out there, those intent on manipulating the news are able to navigate the information waters without drawing too much attention to what they’re doing. It is essential that we become better consumers of news if we are to make well-informed decisions that affect our government, our health and our lifestyles. We must stop being passive receptors of information and take a pro-active position toward our news consumption. We hope this booklet will encourage people to learn more about News Literacy and give them a place to start.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
First Amendment to the United States Constitution