Can You Believe It?

This news media literacy class would teach people how to sort the true from the false.

Illustration by Mouni Feddag

As nearly all news reading moves online and as college-age young adults begin developing their media diet, it has become more important than ever to be a savvy news consumer. Whereas a reader 20 years ago would loyally patronize three or four established newspaper and magazine titles (what we now call old media or legacy media), today’s reader eagerly jumps from news source to news source, usually with the aid of social media, sometimes without a full understanding of what each outlet is delivering. BuzzFeed, for all its impressive strides toward journalistic integrity, is still no Washington Post.

What colleges need is a course in news media literacy that gives students the know-how to navigate the news deftly. (This is not to be confused with existing offerings in “media literacy,” a broader, more theoretical subject concerned with analysis of any kind of message.) This course would provide a practical understanding of what news outlets should be trusted as part of a balanced media diet and what outlets can be seen as something less than factual: opinion, storytelling, satire, or pure fiction masquerading as journalism. People who major in journalism and communications get these lessons across their entire curriculum, so this class would be aimed at the general student body. 

Such a course would start by explaining the concept of journalistic objectivity and trustworthiness and would look at how those values have rapidly evolved in online media. I believe the best way to know which news sources to trust is to understand their original medium.

Daily metropolitan newspapers, despite their diminished role in the online world, remain the best source for objective reporting, with a long tradition of carefully researched facts presented with minimal bias. Naturally some newspapers, as is the case for all categories of news media, are more trustworthy than others. The New York Post has a terrible record for trustworthiness compared with the New York Times; in the U.K., a similar contrast could be made between the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.* (Students would also be reminded of the existence of news services, previously called newswires, like the AP and Bloomberg, which can be placed safely into this category.)

The class’s “newspaper lecture” would also guide students through the anatomy of a newspaper—the areas where they can expect to find straight reporting vs. the areas where they will find commentary, such as the editorial page, op-ed page, columns, reviews, and feature sections like arts, books, or food. (The New York Times suggests a marvelous lesson plan that brings these distinctions to its own content.) Much of this may seem elementary to many—but not all—longtime news readers, but I’ve found that to the average 18-year-old it’s not obvious at all. News institutions have long debated whether and how to distinguish their commentary from factual reporting, with some even arguing that opinion pieces should be labeled with the word opinion

News magazines are traditionally reliable sources as well, as long as the reader understands the practice and tradition of magazine writing, which emphasizes stylish prose, blurs the line between reporting and commentary, and often gives the writer a license to take creative liberties. (Assigned reading would include the illuminating book The Lifespan of a Fact, which documents the running battle between a fact-checker and a self-proclaimed magazine essayist.) More so than with newspapers, there is a wide spectrum of integrity and reliability. Some magazines such as the Economist and the New Yorker are carefully edited and fact-checked and have better records than others (celebrity gossip magazines and supermarket tabloids being the starkest example). So another function of the class is merely to introduce young people to the prestigious titles they may not already be reading. 

Broadcast news, by being a much faster-paced medium, obviously creates its own problems with trustworthiness. While many stations aim for objectivity, they are more prone to mistakes than print media. This class would treat as case studies some of the more egregious examples in recent history. (It’s worth mentioning that radio news, though far smaller in scale, is generally considered much more trustworthy, largely thanks to such leaders as NPR and the BBC.) Again, in broadcasting as in newspapers, it’s important to teach students the difference between news and commentary, especially since those segments comingle within the same continuous broadcast. There’s a big difference between CNN Newsroom’s straight news reporting and Don Lemon’s or Erin Burnett’s opinion-laden segments. Same goes for personality-based talk-radio shows airing on news stations up and down the dial. 

So far, this material is relatively straightforward and students could plow through it in the first few lectures. Next we would move on to the hard stuff: grasping the unwieldy nature of online news sources. No longer is a news diet easily categorized among newspapers, magazines, and broadcast news and their complementary websites. Today a tour through your social media news feed might take you to Mental Floss, Dadaviz, Colossal, Cracked, Dangerous Minds, Uproxx. How is a reader to know what from this assortment of blogs and webzines can be trusted? What about a site like Inquisitr? (Approach with caution.) What about Before It’s News? (Trick question: That one is definitely not to be trusted.) While it might seem easy to distinguish real news from fake news, many people, including experienced journalists, get suckered more often than you would think. Students, as heavy users of social media, where fake news and hoaxes proliferate, should think about their own responsibility to share reliable information and not perpetuate misinformation.

The course would guide students through the critical thinking necessary to determine how reliable a site is: How long has it existed? Has it won major awards or the favor of journalistic bodies like Poynter? What are the potential conflicts with its corporate parent? What are the backgrounds of its writers and editors? How much original reporting is the site doing? How often are its basic facts in agreement with similar coverage elsewhere? Students each would be randomly assigned a web-only publication to study and determine its level of trustworthiness on a 20-point scale based on these criteria.

While these rough categories are meant to provide a baseline understanding for what kinds of publications to trust, there are still reasons a reader should be skeptical about any piece of content, because no publication is immune to journalistic failures such as hidden bias, fabrication, plagiarism, and errors. At least one lecture of the class would be spent reviewing the high-profile scandals generated by journalists Janet Cooke (the Washington Post), Stephen Glass (the New Republic), Jayson Blair (the New York Times), Jack Kelley (USA Today), and Sabrina Rubin Erdely (Rolling Stone). In addition to those cases of fabrication, students would learn about key instances of bias and conflict of interest. A few good places to start: the Bush-era media-manipulation efforts, Judith Miller’s Iraq WMD reporting, and CBS News’ flawed “Rathergate” investigation of President Bush’s National Guard record. 

Students would then learn just how much bias has become a hot-button issue in journalism lately, as the number and variety of news outlets has exploded to serve political views have become more polarized. In one assignment, students would be asked to analyze a print article and a news segment and identify potential signs of bias.

Near the end of the semester, students would finally get into the nitty-gritty of examining individual articles and media reports for signs of shoddy journalism. They would learn how to size up sourcing; evaluate attribution; look for objectivity and balance; identify unsupported assertions; read through euphemisms and jargon (“to be sure”); and judge whether statistics, data, polling, and infographics are sound. The class would introduce students to the most common pitfalls that lead journalists astray. Part of a lecture would look at the problems with anonymous sources and when they can ever be trusted. It would examine the practice of paying for sources, distinguishing the outlets that do so from the ones that have a policy against it. Another lecture would explore where television talking heads come from and how to look for the hidden motivations behind their insights. There’d be a short unit on celebrity journalism, puff pieces, and the intricacies of “access,” as well as a primer on spin and how PR machines to attempt manipulate the media. And no course in news media literacy would be complete without teaching pupils how to spot fake trend stories.

While these lessons and assignments are not exhaustive, they might sound exhausting. To prevent students from feeling that consuming media is just a discouraging exercise in keeping your guard up, the passionate instructor would feed them, as required and optional reading, a stream of fascinating, entertaining high-quality journalism (via Twitter, of course) and demonstrate the exhilaration of finding such treasures. Because, while it’s never been a more confusing time to be a news reader, it’s also never been a better time. The skills students acquire in their news media literacy course will enable them to continue educating themselves even after graduation and make themselves smarter, better informed, and able to sort out fact from fiction.

Correction, Aug. 31, 2015: This article originally misidentified the Telegraph as the London Telegraph.

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