I originally wrote this article to give folks a guide to quality news reporting. I wrote down my top 6 indicators of a quality news source, some I gained from my experience as a video journalist, and others I’ve gathered from schools and organizations (linked at the bottom of the article). Unfortunately, when I tried to find examples of each, it was difficult. So, let this be a list of ideals, something to strive for when doing research for a project, or just for your own education. Hopefully someday we’ll see our news outlets achieve these ideals.
Table of Contents
Is it written down?
Read your news, don’t watch it. A study done by MIT found that, “people who elected to read materials from partisan news channels were less influenced by the content.” Unfortunately, according to Pew Research Center, most Americans still prefer to watch.
There are a few reasons why reading the news is more beneficial than watching. As a video editor, I know the impact of visuals, sounds, and music. We use these things to influence or enhance emotions in the viewer. Even the intonation of a voice, or the inflection of a word, can change the emotional meaning of a sentence. This is not a bad thing when telling a story, but news is about gathering facts and creating your own opinion. This is incredibly difficult to do when watching something designed to make you feel a certain way.
Another reason is it’s easier to fact-check. When you’re watching or listening to news, numbers and statements can be thrown out at lightning speeds. You are trusting the organization to give you correct information. By reading an article on the same topic, you reclaim the power to check things out for yourself. If there is misleading or fake imagery, it will be harder to debunk if you’re watching the TV, or have a live broadcast playing while you’re working.
The broadcast below from Fox News shows the use of opinion during a news broadcast without indicating that it is, at best, opinion, and at worst, purposefully misleading. For example, there is no evidence that Harvard is a Marxist organization, the host of the show is asking leading questions, and calling students “so dumb” has no place in factual reporting. These are tactics for propaganda, not news. If you’re reading the news, you have the opportunity to check stats, reverse image search to see which other organizations trust the image, and make up your own mind. There are even tools that will dictate news articles for you (Windows, Apple, iOS and Android have text-to-speech settings).
Can the data be backed up?
This is one of the easiest and most important ways to make sure a story is real: find other sources that report the same facts and figures. I like to have a statement backed up by two other sources (three in total) before I consider it fact. This can be tricky, because sometimes news organizations will cite other news organizations, not the original source of the data. Your goal is to find other reports that use the same original data. Find the facts.
And speaking of facts, you can use a few fact-checking sites to make sure what you’re reading is considered accurate, and not misinformation (incorrect information) or disinformation (false information). Here is a list of fact-checking sites:
Does it cite its sources?
Always trace facts and figures back to their original source. A transparent organization will clearly show where it gets its data from. This is easier said than done, because a lot of organizations, even the trustworthy ones, do not cite all of their sources. In an ideal world, every fact and figure would be backed up with a clear and trusted source.
Reasons some organizations do not disclose its sources include limiting access to competition (it doesn’t want other news outlets to use the same data), or because it conducts its own research and doesn’t feel the need to detail its methods. Some outlets will link to its own articles as a data source, which is, for the most part, not useful. Organizations do this to keep you on its site. Regardless of why some outlets do this, a news outlet owes its readers’ transparency in its reporting. A reader deserves to know how the data was collected and from whom.
Since I found very, very few examples of organizations citing their sources, I’ll tell you how I find sources without citations, and double-check data; I Google it. Yep. For example, this PBS NewsHour article states the IRS received $80 billion from “the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act.” I searched Google for “80 billion IRS funding,” and behold, I found articles from other trustworthy sources, as well as information directly from government websites confirming that statement.
A “trusted” or “trustworthy” source here demonstrates a proven commitment to facts, limited bias, a lack of sensationalism, and is the originator of findings and data. The PBS NewsHour example demonstrates how, if you’re reading an article about government spending, you should be able to trace all of those numbers back to a government website or report. Now, would it be nice to have a link to that source data in the PBS NewsHour article? Yes. But that sort of direct traceability is rare in the news.
Does its reporting have a clear bias?
If something is an opinion, it should be labeled as an opinion. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. It’s very difficult to have completely unbiased news, since the people writing it are… people. But if an organization cares about journalistic integrity, the stories it writes will be as unbiased as possible, thanks to good journalists and quality oversight from editors. You can check an outlet’s bias on sites like Media Bias / Fact Check and AllSides.
Now, is it bad to read news that is biased? Is it bad to read opinion pieces? No. But you should try to balance your readings, and you should know if what you’re reading is biased or an opinion. For example, this article from Intelligencer – part of the New York Magazine family – was not labeled as opinion. Intelligencer’s website states it is “New York’s home for news coverage and incisive analysis about politics, business and finance, technology, sports, and media.” It says nothing about being an opinion outlet, but in this example, it is very clearly using emotional language and seemingly universal moral outrage, which should be considered opinion. This is coercive reporting.
Does it post corrections quickly and honestly?
Corrections are an important part of reporting. In a perfect world – or one not driven by profit – there would not be a race for organizations to report stories. Reporters would take their time and double or triple check their data and their sources. But this is not a perfect world, so look for an outlet that is open and honest about the corrections it makes.
Transparent organizations will have a clear policy on corrections and clarifications. It will also have an up-to-date list of all the corrections it’s made, and will post clearly on the article what was corrected and when. You’d be surprised how many news organizations are not clear about their corrections.
Does it post clickbait as news?
Clickbait is usually a clear indicator of low-quality reporting. Think about the sites that have stories about Bigfoot sightings on their front page.
Unfortunately, highly-regarded agencies also fall into the clickbait trap. News is a business, and these organizations sometimes use tactics, like putting, “Aliens?” as the first word in a headline. Clickbait does not necessarily mean the reporting is untrue or inaccurate, but can sometimes just be sensational.
Is it transparent about its funding sources?
As discussed above, news is a business. Most news organizations have to make money to stay in business, whether from ads, subscribers, donations, or investors. A lot of local news companies are part of a larger company. These are all things you should be aware of.
Take The Epoch Times, for example. Its “About Us” page claims it “is a totally independent nonprofit orgnization (sic).” But there is substantial evidence from The New York Times, NBC, CBC, CNN, The Guardian, and others that show it receives funding from the Chinese religious organization, Falun Gong. News organizations should not lie about or hide where its funding comes from.
There are so many resources to help you choose your news wisely.
- News Literacy Project
- NPR Fake Or Real?
- Harvard 4 Tips for Spotting a Fake News Story
- Rutgers Evaluating News Resources
Practice what you preach!
10/13/23 at 3:21pm ET – I included the names of the outlets reporting on The Epoch Times and included links to articles explaining the connection between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong.
10/13/23 at 3:25pm ET – I deleted the statement, “the state of the news today is bad,” from the intro. That was an opinion.