by MARY LAWRENCE
It can feel overwhelming to sift through headline after provoking headline, so we’ve put together some guidelines to help you step back and question new material. Asking yourself these questions is particularly important when reading unfamiliar sources on the internet - especially if you’re thinking about sharing the material with others.
The first thing to consider is where you’re getting the information from. When you see a headline, title, or image that jumps out to you, think about the context of the platform. Are you scrolling through social media, reading a chain email, or reading an online or print news source?
Reporting always has a bias. Whether it’s an editor, publisher, or regular Facebook user, someone chooses which stories to publish and whose perspectives to highlight. Ask yourself who the audience is, and how the sharer expects it to be read.
If you’re reading a print or online news source, try to find out who funds or owns it. News sources funded by corporations or private investors are unlikely to publish negative coverage of their financial backers, so it’s important to know who the source is likely to protect.
As an example, let’s look at Sinclair Broadcast Group, which came under fire just this month for broadcasting misinformation about COVID-19 on one of its shows. (This wasn’t the first time Sinclair came under scrutiny; the company was also criticized in 2018 for making all of their anchors recite the same script, which ironically warned that, “some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control exactly what people think.”)
Sinclair owns or operates nearly 200 television channels across the United States including local media station 13WHAM, and has historically shifted the messaging of its local news stations to more conservative rhetoric. This has not escaped local criticism; in 2017 CITY Newspaper ran this story about Sinclair’s involvement in 13WHAM.
What to look for:
Type of media
As you decide whether or not to dig in, read the headline or caption. Does the wording sound neutral? Clickbait or heavily biased sources utilize strong wording to draw your attention and elicit an immediate emotional response. The rise of digital advertising and the need to increase online traffic has led media outlets to publish headlines that sensationalize news rather than offering an accurate view of reality. If you notice yourself feeling very angry, or sad, or another strong emotion, check the language to verify where that emotion is coming from. The headline should give you a general idea of what the article or image is about, so the information in the article shouldn’t be surprising.
The recently published headline above-- "GOP calls for investigation after convicted cop killer registers to vote" -- is an example of misleading journalism, as it omits important information and therefore neglects to give the reader a full picture of the issue.
The headline, for example, does not mention that the “convicted cop killer” was convicted of the original crime nearly 50 years ago, and has been released on parole. Additionally, there is no mention of the fact that some people on parole are allowed to vote in New York State.
Since 2018, people on parole in New York State- including those who have just been released- are eligible to vote pending review by Governor Cuomo. Rules regarding the voting rights of people with felony convictions also differ from state to state. In Washington D.C., Vermont, and Maine, people convicted of felonies never lose their right to vote, and many states restore voting rights to people with felony convictions immediately upon release.
Responsible journalism would include this information and offer readers a greater view of voting rights across the country, as well as the current state of parolee voting rights in New York State. The initial version of the story that accompanied the incendiary headline above did not include this important contextual information.
What to look for:
While it may sound like science fiction, some of the articles circulating online are actually written using artificial intelligence. If you decide to move past the headline, check for an author or publisher. A legitimate news source will always credit the writer or photographer directly, and will often provide a link to their other work.
If there is a human author, look for biographical information. What is their expertise on the subject? What other topics have they covered? Where else have they been published?
As technology advances, even newsrooms such as the Washington Post are using artificial intelligence to publish information. Context is important here: while it may not seem like an issue if your high school’s football statistics aren’t reported by a human reporter, like in this example of WaPo’s Heliograph technology, the implications are different for information that could inform your opinion about politics or society.
What to look for:
Author name/biographical information
Other articles by author
Artificial intelligence technology
It helps to consider where the author got the information. What are their sources? If possible, look at some of the sources the author provides. Are firsthand accounts provided? Does the author use quotes? Try to verify the information by cross-referencing with other sources.
A relatively simple thing to double check is use of quotations. When quoting a person, how much of a quote does the author use? Using a full quotation allows the reader more room to form their own opinion about what was said, whereas an article that uses only sections of a quotation and adds a lot of commentary is more likely to skew the speaker’s words. You can compare how much of a quotation is used by checking different sources, and observing the commentary from those sources.
You can also compare the story with other publications by searching main keywords into a search engine. Does the story appear on other platforms? Whose voice is featured on those platforms, as well as in the original (if it is available)? Collecting different perspectives can help you to gain a greater understanding of the full story, which a story that relies on a single source alone may not provide.
What to look for:
List of sources at the end
Images can be used to catch readers’ attention, as well as to make articles more credible, but they can also be easily manipulated or misused. If there are images, are the images/videos accurate and in the correct context? As a reader, you can perform a reverse image search to see where online the photo can be found, which should help you to figure out whether it is actually related to the article or not.
How can an original photo or video be misused? Check out this local example from recent Black Lives Matter protests in Rochester: CITY Newspaper’s Gino Fanelli tweeted a video of residents standing on their roof to observe a protest. A troll took the same footage out of context and republished it, falsely stating that Black Lives Matter protesters were climbing onto resident’s homes.
Pay specific attention to who took the photo/video, when it was taken, and where it was taken.
What to look for:
Reverse image search
This set of tools is by no means exhaustive, but utilizing and practicing these regularly will help you to become a more media literate person. When you know how to approach media with a critical eye, you will be better prepared to navigate a variety of resources, both online and in print, and to share reliable resources with others.
If you are interested in further information on media literacy and on how news is produced in general, look out for Reclaiming the Narrative’s ongoing workshop series.
MARY LAWRENCE is a volunteer contributor for Reclaiming the Narrative as well as a co-host and sound engineer for Evidence of Design (Saturdays 11AM - 12PM on 100.9FM WXIR). She built coursework on media literacy while teaching in Germany and presented on that work at the Berlin Fulbright Conference in 2018. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.