Students Need Help Understanding the Source and the Truth Behind News Media
For centuries, it has been important for people to realize that “news” is often delivered with a specific agenda in mind and to have an eye open for that. Here in the early decades of the 21st century, our web-enabled, media-drenched, smartphone-tapping lifestyles add more layers of obfuscation … too much, too fast, with too little effort to understand what we are sharing or “reporting”. Top all of that off with an American President who has a rather bizarre relationship with the media and the truth, and you have a real formula for fogginess and “news” fatigue.
We are losing our connection with, and perhaps even our respect for, real information, from genuine, unbiased sources.
Whilst pondering this dilemma over the weekend, I found myself envisioning a structured approach to peeling back the layers of confusion, repetition, and agendas to try and get to the underlying realities that drive a particular news item. While getting through some layers is easier than others, I think the very concept is in and of itself insightful and informative.
I should note that I have not studied journalism, and I do not pretend to have any expertise in this area. This is simply something I've been thinking about a lot in my various roles: CIO, Digital Literacy instructor, blogger, parent, and human being who consumes a lot of digital, print, and audio-visual media. If anyone has something to add that I have overlooked, or wishes to weigh in on something I've written here, please comment and do so.
Getting back to the topic … we need to try and make sure that our students can understand what lies between the tremendous volume of media many consume every day and the actual truth and intent of a news items. I think that having an understanding of these “layers” can go a long way towards opening students' eyes and minds.
Layer 1: Social Media
Often, the first we may hear of some new event or announcement may come to us through social media. This article, “Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem” by Kate Starbird, Asst. Professor of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Wisconsin, provides an in-depth look at how social media is often used by non-mainstream media sources to drive alternative narratives.
Social media is a powerful platform for spreading misinformation, twisting the truth, and promoting an agenda. It is rarely a primary source of original reporting. Of course, there certainly can be original content published on blogs or reported via YouTube, but far more often, social media is used to rebroadcast content (with or without a “spin”). If your first awareness of some new information comes via social media, dig deeper to try to identify and understand the source.
Layer 2: Sponsored Content
Nnext on the list of scourges that cloud our perceptions of what is or is not news is the ever-growing use of sponsored content. Yes, organizations, even legitimate news organizations, need the income from these sources to help keep the lights on, but I wish many would try a little harder to differentiate sponsored content from other content.
Below we see a screen snip from the NYTimes.com home page (taken at 1:20 PM EDT on 8/20/17). The Times' home page is dense with content. Here in this one section we see, if we look close enough, that one section, laid out exactly like some of the other content on the page, is labelled “From Our Advertisers”. This label does not, by any means, stand out. Sometimes the “stories” are clearly advertisement oriented, but sometimes they are not.
Most major news outlets do this sort of thing now. Perhaps it is just a necessity of today's business environment for news publishers, which makes it a necessity for us as readers (and teachers) to keep an eye out to differentiation news from what are essentially just ads.
Layer 3: Syndicated and Recycled Content
News agencies like The Associated Press have been supplying news to publishers for decades, and that's fine. We just need to be attuned to it. It is interesting to note that sometimes this results in “left leaning” publications publishing “right leaning” content and vice-versa. (Well maybe that's one way of achieving some sort of balance.)
A similar “syndication” that has grown rapidly thanks to shrinking news budgets and the ease with which anyone can publish via the web is the re-reporting of news items. We've all seen or heard the “as reported by …” news piece, wherein one newspaper or program reports something that they picked up from another news source. This is logical – if something new is reported that you think your audience should know about, then it should be shared. As long as it is labelled appropriately, with the source cited, it's perfectly okay. Unfortunately, sometimes the original source is not noted, and that is not good practice.
In any case, this is one more layer that exists between the original source of a news item those who consume the news.
Layer 4: The Original Source!
So, if we can drill down and peel away social media, sponsored content and “advertorials”, the tremendous amount of re-published content … somewhere under all of that we will find some original news sources. (Kind of leaves you wondering what percent of all of the media we see is original source content? 10%, 5%, less than 1%?!)
Layer 5: Underlying Agendas: Do the owners of the news outlet or the original source have an “agenda” that influenced the piece?
Okay, so we've found some original source news content. Perhaps an article a journalist wrote while researching a topic. There is still another set of questions to ask, which are similar in nature.
Did the journalist, or the organization he or she works for, have an agenda to push that may have influenced what was reported and how it was reported? For example, in my experience, many people believe that Fox News is conservative leaning and CNN in more liberal. Don't these “leanings” stand a good chance of influencing what they publish?
Lastly, there is the same consideration to be given to the sources in the story itself. We often hear about scientific studies that have been conducted, written up, and published (and maybe even peer reviewed). These studies are common sources for news items. But what, if anything, was the agenda driving the people who worked on those studies, the organizations they worked for, and/or the organizations or people who paid for those studies to be completed?
As one example of this, I googled “tobacco industry studies claimed cigarettes were good for you”, hoping to find references to some of the bogus studies conducted decades ago before the world came to realize how harmful smoking can be. I was surprised to find some more recent articles than I expected, such as this one from a little over a decade ago, “Tobacco Industry: Smoking isn't bad for your health“. I did also find what I was looking for in the first place in this article, “Big tobacco and science: Uncovering the truth“.
Of course, this is not to conclude that all news items are published with some alternative agenda, this is clearly not the case. Many news pieces are simply efforts to share something new someone learned or experienced. But having a sense of the many things that can cloud the picture and mislead can help students to differentiate real and “fake” or influenced news items.
In my next post, I will share an example of digging into a news item and peeling back the layers to find what lies beneath.