Not all news sources are reliable or trustworthy. Many companies claim to be news sources but are really entertainment blogs or websites driven by advertising dollars and clicks. As a researcher and personal consumer of news, it is your responsibility to evaluate the news sources you wish to cite. The following guide is designed to help you sort reliable sources from the unreliable so you can make solid decisions about what kind of news sources to use in your research or day to day life.
When reading a news article, consider the following.
What kind of article are you looking at? Is it a news story, an editorial, an opinion piece, or an advertisement?
A news story is a factual, prose story for print or broadcast media about a person, place or event answering these five questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. A news story is written in the inverted-pyramid style, giving the most important information first and additional details later.
An editorial is a brief article written by an editor that expresses a newspaper's or publishing house's own views and policies on a current issue. If written by an outsider it normally carries a disclaimer saying the article does not necessarily reflects the publisher's official views.
An opinion piece is an article in which the writer expresses their personal opinion, typically one which is controversial or provocative, about a particular issue or item of news.
An advertisement is a paid, public communication about causes, goods, services, ideas, organizations, people, or places designed to inform or motivate.
What is the main point of the story? Does the headline and the lead support the main point of the story?
Many unreliable news sources sensationalize an article's headline or lead to gain clicks.
Has the story answered the questions of Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How?
What is unknown, unanswered, or unclear should be acknowledged.
Other sides should be given a chance to present their argument.
Many breaking stories are incomplete or inaccurate due to deadlines and the 24hr news cycle. If more information is made available, the story should be updated accordingly.
What evidence supports the main point of the story? What evidence has been verified? How was it verified? What evidence has not been verified? Is the evidence direct or indirect?
Evidence is not the same as a source. Evidence is the proof a source offers. Evidence that is verified has been checked and corroborated via a stated method of verification.
What kind of sources are cited in the article? Are they reliable? How do you know?
A source is the person, report, or data being quoted in an article.
Sources can be named or unnamed. Multiple or single. Credentialed or not. Close to the event/issue or not. Named, multiple, credentialed, close sources are preferred, though in some cases an anonymous source may not be named due to potential backlash or harm to the source for speaking out.
When looking at reports or data as a source, be sure to look at the producer of the information. Do they have a stake in the event or issue that could make the report or data biased?
Does the journalist/reporter/news source make their work transparent? How does the editorial board, the publisher, and the advertising department work together? Does the paper have a code of ethics?
Finding out what influence different departments have or don't have on each other should be easy if it is a reputable source.
A code of ethics, standards, or guidebook should be associated with the news source and easy to find.
Potential conflicts of interest or known associations should be stated up front in an article.
Funding and ownership of the media production should be publicly available.
There are more types of bias than political bias. Be sure to watch out for:
News is sponsored by advertisers. Does the news presented reflect the advertisements embedded within the media?
News agencies look for "breaking stories," often relegating old news to the back page or leaving it entirely uncovered. Scan the back pages too!
Including visuals will draw the reader's attention. Do images presented evoke specific responses? Do they prejudice the reader to view the news one way?
Good news is less exciting than news that is shocking or frightening. Does the media exaggerate details to make a story more interesting? Does the news agency focus only on the negative aspects of a story?
Writers will generally develop a plot line - beginning, middle, and end - complete with drama. News, however, is rarely so tidy. Remind yourself that stories you read in the news are "unfolding." If a story captures your attention, its best to follow that story over a period of time.
Ethical journalism is, in theory, fair. When a controversy arises, reporters will generally attempt to get the "other side" of the story. When a rebuttal is reported, it can seem like the media is taking one side or another. Read carefully to determine if presentation of both arguments is neutral.
News is driven by deadlines. Those deadlines sometimes mean that reporters will return to experts they know well and have had successful contacts with previously. This may slant news in towards the political views of these experts.
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