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Information Literacy Session 2: Evaluating Sources: A News Reporting Sliding Scale

ENG 102 Embedded Librarian Session: Evaluating Sources

News Reporting

If we are to understand the charts on the previous tabs we must ask exactly what determines whether something is simple or complex, biased or objective, good or bad. Since Donald Trump's election, we have heard a lot about "fake news." Though fake news is a problem, it is not necessarily THE problem. News reporting can be objective, biased, falsely balanced, framed, or entirely fake! The problem is the lack of objectivity among both creators and users of information, a lack which manifests itself on a sliding scale that looks something like this:  

On one end of the spectrum we have the gold standard of objective reporting in which a detached, impartial reporter posts a completely neutral recitation of illuminating facts through which a completely rational readership may choose the best course of action. This isn’t possible, of course, but it serves as a model to which people should aspire.  Less desirable than the perfect world is one in which authors, reporters, and/or their publishers have specific degrees of bias towards their respective ideologies and arguments. In an ideal world, they would be up front about their biases, but often, that is not the case.  Biased reporting may come in the form of words or images that emotionally manipulate readers and/or viewers.  Evaluating sources for bias can be taught, but people should also be aware that biases can be masked by false balance and framing.   False balance is when reporters take a tone of neutrality by attempting to treat two sides of a controversy or argument with equal validity, even when they are inequitable when all of the underlying differences are considered. For instance, when the vast preponderance of evidence shows that global warming is happening and indicates with very high probability that the cause is human activity, sources giving equal time and word count to the few who deny it obscure the true picture of the scientific community.  Sources may also express bias by framing the discussion.  As a window allows people to view only part of the landscape outside, so does framing limit how information is perceived. For instance, an event, decision, or policy may be discussed and evaluated only on the metric of one particular party’s interest, such as an editorial critiquing an Environmental Protection Agency report for its impact on loggers while ignoring the big picture of its environmental aspects.   On the far-end of the spectrum is fake news, which to be completely clear, is not news.  It is completely fabricated but often truthful-seeming nonsense created for the sole purpose of generating ad revenue for websites. The unfortunate by-product of this is that the readers of said websites are misinformed and are destined to become even more misinformed as they keep returning to similar sites and having their biases reinforced with untruths.

To read more about the problematic nature of mass media in the US, it is instructive to read Peter Vanderwicken's "Why the News is Not the Truth." Vanderwicken highlights the conflicts between government and business in shaping what we see on the news every night and how we perceive it.  He notes coolly that, "news can change perceptions, and perceptions often become reality."