Truth in the News

This is a summary of a YouTube presentation given by Vanessa Otero, creator of the Media Bias Chart (MBC), and founder of Ad Fontes Media, inc. (AFM). The title of this presentation is, How to Figure Out What’s True in the News. But **Otero says, she should have entitled her talk, “How to Figure Out What’s Likely True in the News.”

TL;DR version

We live in a complex world, but we often act like it’s black and white. There’s a lot of distrust in our news ecosystem. This distrust is partially due to the idea that our news sources should always be 100% correct, but this is unrealistic. Instead of rejecting the media wholesale, we need to learn how to navigate the news ecosystem in an informed way. We can do this by learning to critically evaluate news sources, separate fact from opinion, and to identify bias. A step in this direction is to use tools such as the Media Bias Chart and use lateral reading strategies to check news source reliability, and to check facts use sites such as Snopes and triangulation.

Longer version

Otero’s first main point is that we need to stop thinking in binary. Binary thinking is placing things into two categories with no possibilities in between. When we’re young we’re taught to categorize statements into the binary of fact or opinion. We learn that a factual statement is “the shape of an orange is round;” and a statement of opinion is “I hate the taste of oranges.” We complete mental exercises categorizing statements as fact or opinion, but not all statements fit neatly into these opposites; there’s often gray in between.

Otero’s second main point is that we need to embrace this gray area. To do so, we need to get comfortable with understanding that we’re rarely going to know if something is 100% true or false. This notion of perfection holds us back from being able to form trust in our news sources. How many times have you heard, you can’t trust the media? This is simplistic thinking. No news source is going to be 100% right or 100% wrong. Regardless of what some people say, we have a very robust news ecosystem, and we should embrace what we have.

This leads to Otero’s third main point, we need to learn how to navigate the gray area. To illustrate this Otero describes several types of scales. She mentions two scales used by AFM to determine the reliability of news articles for their MBC: expression, which measures fact vs opinion; and veracity which measures, truth vs falsity. I don’t think it’s Otero’s intends to offer these scales as a means for concerned readers to evaluate news articles on their own, but rather, they’re examples that illustrate nonbinary thinking. With that in mind, let’s briefly look at the expression scale.

Expression Scale (1):

  1. (Presented as) Fact
  2. (Presented as) Fact/Analysis (or persuasively-worded fact)
  3. (Presented as) Analysis (well-supported by fact, reasonable)
  4. (Presented as) Analysis/Opinion (somewhat supported by fact)
  5. (Presented as) Opinion (unsupported by facts or by highly disputed facts)

AFM evaluates the syntax and intention of sentences and then places them onto this scale. Facts such as, a tornado touched down last night, are listed under number one. An opinion such as, I find tornados scary, would land on number five. This illustrates a way to think about statements other than treating them solely as fact vs opinion. The choices between these two binaries are where the real work is. If you’d like to learn more about how AFM analyzes content for their MBC, this page is helpful as well as this white paper.

So how do readers go about finding truth in the news? There are three main ways to check the reliability of news sources and two ways to check facts. Here’s an outline about how to do both.

Reliable news sources:

  • Otero recommends starting by using long-standing reputable news sources. News agencies like the Associated Press, and Reuters favor fact-based reporting. Newspapers such as the New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal do contain some opinionated stories, but their news stories are generally reputable. For TV coverage, the news from networks such as ABC, NBC, and CBS are usually more reliable than cable news. A couple of examples of newer reliable sources are, ProPublica and The Information.
  • Use independent third-party ratings from Media Bias Chart, News Guard, All Sides of Media, and Media Bias Fact-Check.
  • Lateral reading is another way to vet news sources. Vertical reading is when you try to evaluate the reliability of a website by drilling deeply into the website. This method is problematic because a biased or unethical website can seem professional and trustworthy but may not be. It’s better to read laterally, which is using the power of the internet to research the purpose of the website. Examples of lateral reading include researching, the ideology of the owners, and the ideology of funding groups. Another example is reading trusted sources to find what they report about the organization.

Fact checking:

  • Another way to check facts is via triangulation, which is the process of checking several independent, reputable, and reliable news sources for the same fact.

These steps are offered as a start. They’re not meant to be exhaustive. To learn more, please see my Information Literacy page.

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