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on being skeptical of journalism: part II

This post was originally featured on my blog What the Health Now? before being transferred over to Three Times Per Day.

I have realized recently that very few people understand how to source check. Facebook has become (among other things) a cesspool for ignorant debates of ridiculously biased or misinformed articles.

I don’t wish to use this post to spew judgment, but rather want to raise awareness that there is a lot of bad journalism out there and that it is very important, whether posting an article on Facebook or using it in an academic paper, to check your sources.

Just one of the Facebook posts that inspired this entry.

It’s important to note that all journalism is biased. News sources get to choose the articles they run, which facts they convey, the language they use. However, reputable journalism is based on well-checked facts and is held to a high standard of ethics. 

PewResearch conducted the Journalism Project to help define the 9 Core Principles of Journalism:

1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
2. Its first loyalty is to its citizens.
3. Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Pew Research, Principles of Journalism, accessed from http://www.journalism.org/resources/principles-of-journalism/.

Where I see most of these sensational news sources, such as The Conservative Times, fail is in 1, 3, 8, and perhaps an over-use of 9. These sources have an obligation only towards a truth which serves their political purpose. They do not wholly embrace a system of verification. In fact, their fact checking is near non-existent. These sources pass opinion off as fact on readers who don’t know any better or who don’t wish to know any better, which is their freedom of speech. As a result, misinformed or intolerant readers stick to these sources that only confirm their pre-existing beliefs. In this way, the sources contribute to an ugly cycle of an ignorant public.

NPR has an Ethics Handbook which perhaps covers the bases of journalistic accuracy in a more digestible way, that can be utilized by readers as well:

Selected Excerpts from NPR’s Accuracy Guidelines

Edit like a prosecutor.
Good editors should test, probe, and challenge reporters, always with the goal of making NPR’s stories as good (and therefore as accurate) as possible.

Take special care with news that might cause grief or damage reputations.

Guard against subjective errors.
When quoting or paraphrasing anyone  – whether in a blog post, an online story or in an on-air “actuality” – consider whether the source would agree with the interpretation, keeping in mind that sources may sometimes parse their words even though we accurately capture their meaning. An actuality from someone we interview or a speaker at an event should reflect accurately what that person was asked, was responding to or was addressing.Be able to identify the source of each fact you report.

Give preference to primary sources.
(i.e. information directly from a first-hand account, such as a witness, rather than a second-hand source who heard from someone or third-hand source who heard from someone who heard from someone…and so on.)

Don’t just spread information. Be careful and skeptical.

Be vigilant about presenting data accurately.
It’s easy to represent data inaccurately or misleadingly, especially in charts and infographics. Double-check your numbers and the way you portray them to make sure you’re imparting the proper information.

Source: NPR, Accuracy, NPR Ethics Handbook, accessed from http://ethics.npr.org/category/a1-accuracy/.

Again, no journalism is unbiased. However, some journalism is more accurate than others. When reading articles or preparing to site sources, make sure you are being a critical reader and judging the articles by the same guidelines news sources should be judging themselves. Is it fair? Are they using primary sources who are accurate cited? Are they clearly injecting opinion that is not supported by reputable facts, i.e. primary sources?

A little education can teach readers tune a critical eye for good, or bad, sources. I don’t mean to harp on NPR, but their thorough and publicly available Ethics Handbook makes it an excellent starting point for learning how to read critically. For example, they even list case studies of when they went wrong, including how they went wrong. Studying these examples can give some insight into what a reader should be looking for.

As always, the key takeaway is this: question everything. No single news source has all the information and can give you the entire story. Accurately informing oneself requires thorough investigation of multiple sources with different political viewpoints and perspectives to truly be well-informed.

Think about it. If you were to, say, get in a fight with your younger sister, would you want Mom or Dad to only ask your sister what happened? Would you even want them to only ask your young brother, who had been standing by? Or, if this hypothetical situation is lost on your because you don’t have siblings or have never fought with them because you’re part god, imagine if you were accused of a crime. Would you only want the judge or jury to listen to the plaintiff?

Be smart out there, people!

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