In examining the current news environment, it can be disheartening to see the vast divide in political perspective that colors or slants vital reporting. While partisan reporting allows consumers to feel more comfortable, having their own biases reinforced, it makes searching for the facts that inform opinions more difficult. It also complicates finding common ground amongst differently aligned stakeholders.
A deeply divided and partisan press has been a hallmark of American media since the beginning, when the Gazette of the United States (supported by Alexander Hamilton and unrepentantly Federalist) and the National Gazette (funded by Thomas Jefferson and rabidly anti-Federalist) were representative of the leading newspapers of the day. Moreover, anyone could print up leaflets, broadsheets, or pamphlets with whatever misinformation they wanted as easily as a modern anti-vaccine advocate can spread their views on social media like Facebook or Twitter. Fake news was alive and well back when they used ‘f’s in place of the ‘s’s and spelled ‘publick’ with a ‘k’. Honest, determined readers were able to navigate a toxic news environment then, and they are still able to do so today.
To do so well, however, takes some effort. The Platonic ideal type of source would be one with no ideological bent. This can be difficult if not impossible to find. The most popular news outlets freely mix largely accurate, normal news reporting with obviously partisan political opinion commentators (such as popular television hosts Rachel Maddow of MSNBC or Sean Hannity of Fox News). Many also include comedy programs in their schedules (such as Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The Greg Gutfeld Show, or The Late Show with Stephen Colbert) further blurring the line between dispassionate fact and biased commentary. Many of these sources must be purchased (via cable television, a membership to Sirius XM radio, or a newspaper subscription), and they reward the tastes of their consumers.
The most nonpartisan news outlets are typically the ones with a financial incentive to be free of bias. These include newswires like the Associated Press or Reuters that sell basic news stories to many different news outlets, and which have a bigger market by not glossing their stories with ideological slants. Next are news networks available on the free airwaves, such as ABC or PBS. These may or may not be state-funded, but they still maintain editorial independence, and benefit from reaching the broadest possible audience. Still, free news outlets are not wholly immune from criticism, and they may focus on some types of stories or exclude others in a way that triggers claims of partiality. A partisan cable network’s website can also be somewhat less biased than the same company’s on-air programming, if it lacks the vitriolic opinion anchors’ shows. At the other end are sources like Wonkette or InfoWars, which are almost entirely hyperbolic partisan rhetoric.
Foreign sources of news can potentially be less biased in U.S. coverage because they have less of a stake in American controversies. However, they also sometimes have less access to U.S.-based sources or witnesses, so their reporters may lack vital information. CBC in Canada and the BBC in the United Kingdom are both English-language sources used by many Americans. Most foreign news sources have the same range of potential and risk that American ones do. The exception is state-run news outlets, like China’s Xinhua News Agency or RT in Russia whose biased and heavily censored coverage makes even the most outlandishly partisan U.S. media outlets look balanced by comparison. If a government, especially a non-democratic one (here defined as a government that does not have a codified freedom of the press) operates a media outlet, it usually cannot be trusted.
However, state-run media organizations are not the same as state funded media, like PBS in the United States, the aforementioned BBC in the United Kingdom, or NHK in Japan; where government actors do not exert much, if any, control over the content.
News makers and news sources (particularly the opinion journalists) are also monitored by organizations that ‘fact check’ them, such as FactCheck.org or Snopes. These sites typically do not produce original stories of their own, but simply look for data that confirms or refutes claims made by public figures or organizations. These can be enormously helpful, but even ‘fact checkers’ are not immune to criticism that an ideological bent skews their objectivity. Foreign news sources also frequently have fact checkers, such as Full Fact in the United Kingdom.
So how do you find the ideal news source? In determining what constitutes ‘reliable’ news, unfortunately, the readers must do a lot of the work themselves. Fortunately, developing this kind of information literacy is liberating.
When listening to a news item, there are a number of concerns to keep in mind. Are verifiable sources cited? Are the witnesses or statistics-gathering organizations the journalists have used credible? Are the interviewees the right people to talk to? For example, if it’s a business story, are the journalists talking to economists or businesspeople? If so, are they ones who have firsthand knowledge of that specific story, or are their opinions more relegated to general expertise? If it’s a science story, are the reporters interviewing scientists? Doctors? Is the field in question one which they are an expert on? Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the greatest minds in astrophysics, but that doesn’t mean he knows any more than the average person does about relationships or financial transactions or even a different field of science like biochemistry. Likewise, Dr. Anthony Fauci is one of the world’s leading experts on infectious diseases, but that expertise does not extend to other disciplines, either.
One way of evaluating the claims of a news story is to subject it to a ‘CRAAP’ test. The acronym CRAAP stands for Currency (was it published or updated recently) – Relevance (was this information meant for this audience, or is it being used in a way it was not originally intended) – Accuracy (are the citations correct or the journalist’s claims verifiable) – Authority (is the person who created it someone with the position or expertise to make the claims they did) – and Purpose (was this material created to inform, or was it made to entertain, sell something, or indoctrinate).
Another technique is to look at many sources. Don’t get comfortable with one, and only use that. This can involve changing channels, reading a different newspaper, or browsing a different website. This can be hampered if you use search engines like Google or Bing as a search portal to get to news feeds, because these databases customize your search results to you based on content you’ve searched for or clicked on in the past. While meant to be a convenience, this quiet censorship can lead you into an echo chamber that makes the political bent you first focused on always look like the universal consensus. If you wish to use a search engine to pursue news sources, consider using a search engine like DuckDuckGo, which neither tracks your searches nor tailors your results. You can also use library databases like Newspaper Source and ProQuest News and Newspapers.
Keep an open mind, and look at everything with a critical eye. If you know that you have an ideological bent, when viewing something you reflexively agree with, try to think about why the newscaster may be wrong (not necessarily lying, but still wrong). And when viewing something you reflexively disagree with, think about why the reporter might be telling the truth, at least from their own perspective. No one person or ideology has a monopoly on good ideas or insights, so you may obtain information critically important to you from an unexpected source.
While the most popular and accessible news sources include extremely biased journalists, partisan sources are not necessarily bad, if you know how to use them and weigh their claims. Many people believe in extreme political opinions, so it is worthwhile for a media-literate reader to understand where they are coming from and why they believe as they do. Library resources like Opposing Viewpoints in Context are excellent for this, pairing claims and counter-claims, written by expert stakeholders, on almost any contentious topic. The library has also created a guide to fake news, helping you identify and evaluate red flags in news sources.
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