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Fishing For Truth

by Jim Willis

We live in an age of multimedia and turbonews, where stories often appear on our tablets and smart phones in real time or mere moments after the event. How can reporters know so much, so fast? How can we, as consumers of news through all these media, discern between fact and opinion?

As “citizen journalists” compete with professional journalists for the public’s attention and trust, and young people increasingly choose YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter over CNN or the Los Angeles Times as their primary news sources, how can we decide which mainstream news media to trust, and why?

That navigation process first involves assessment of the actual value of a story presented as news by asking the following questions: Does it inform me of something I need to know or want to know? Are the sources reputable? Does the story have significance to my life? Can I learn a lesson from it? Does it help protect me or alert me to a danger? If the stories you read or watch elicit a “yes” to most of these questions, stick with that news outlet—these show signs of real journalism.

The following suggestions may also help you sleuth for the truth.

Most journalists do not try to bend the facts. Most reporters seek to find and report the best obtainable version of the truth, not to spin stories. However, news commentators live for the spin. Make no mistake, whether you agree with them or not, Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, Glenn Beck, and Piers Morgan are commentators. True reporters such as Jill Dougherty (CNN), Mike Boettcher (NBC), Rita Braver and Steve Kroft (CBS), and Jim Miklaszewski (NBC) attempt to present the facts without opinion.

Commentators are celebrities; reporters are journalists. If you recognized the names of the commentators mentioned previously but not the reporters, you’re not alone. Commentators often take the spotlight away from their reporter counterparts. In order to distinguish a commentator from a reporter, ask these questions: 1. Does he talk more than the guest being interviewed? 2. Does she continue to present the same narrow range of stories? 3. Does she take sides by injecting value judgments? 4. Do you see him pop up as a guest host on an entertainment program like LIVE! with Kelly & Michael? If you can answer “yes” to most of these, chances are you’re dealing with a commentator—treat most of what is said as opinion.

TV ratings and news credibility mean different things. Ratings measure popularity, not facts or comprehensive news agendas. One could argue that few TV news programs can match shows like the PBS NewsHour and the now-eviscerated Nightline, at least not for depth of coverage. But PBS finishes last in the ratings, and Nightline was carved up and shoved into a half-hour slot past midnight. Cable networks FOX News and MSNBC net large audiences, even though they often present the most ideologically influenced programming. CNN, which has tried to maintain a middle ground between right and left, lost ground in the ratings competition because many audiences look for reinforcing opinion rather than straight news.

Citizen journalism scores high on the wow factor, but low on fact and context. The pictures taken by everyday citizens, and the reports they upload to YouTube or Facebook, have greatly widened our window to the world. But without training and experience, a citizen journalist’s work lacks the ability to tell the story completely and without bias. What makes a journalist a professional is not just the ability to shoot pictures or write stories, but to also shoot representative (and unaltered) pictures, take the stance of a neutral observer, select meaningful events and people to cover, find the most credible sources, and encourage them to speak candidly and honestly.

Hold journalists accountable for their stories, and follow the work of those who get it right. Many choices exist when it comes to where we get our news, and we each carry a responsibility to keep track of which news outlets’ reporting proves to be most accurate over time.

Remember that real-time reporting and quick uploads don’t always equal accuracy. Consider the details of a live report as suspect and wait for later updates before you attach too much credibility to them.

Accuracy and truth are not necessarily synonymous. A journalist can accurately report what a source said, but the source may be wrong in content and/or context.

Finally, do not ignore or discount the news. As tempting as it is to avoid unpleasant news and sidestep the ocean of information surrounding us, it’s more important to dive in, test the waters, and stay alert to the undertows of rumor, misinformation, and opinion.

Jim Willis, Ph.D., a veteran news reporter and editor, is a professor of communication studies. He continues to work as a special correspondent and covered the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the 10th and 25th anniversaries of the fall of the Berlin Wall. jwillis@apu.edu

Originally published in the Summer '14 issue of APU Life. Download the full issue (PDF).