How do you know which news story to believe when you see coverage that seems to state opposite facts about the same issue? Do you go with your gut instinct, listen to what friends say, or just throw your hands up in dismay? With accusations of “fake news” flying from the left and right so often, how can you learn the true story? The good news is that the there are powerful resources you can use to research news sources and controversial issues and decide for yourself with greater confidence.
Ethics of Professional Journalism: Know the Rules
In order to evaluate the quality of a news source, it’s important to be aware of the standards professional journalists should be following to promote fair coverage of issues and to prevent the influence of a reporter’s personal biases. The Society of Professional Journalists promotes a code of ethics that can be a handy yardstick when evaluating the tone and content of a news story. While the existence of a code doesn’t guarantee ethical practice, knowing what the standards are can help you determine whether a reporter is acting in good faith. Some news agencies also post their own ethics policy on their website. This is often found on an About page or in the footer of the home page.
Gauging Bias at the News Agency Level
Some useful tools are available to help you better understand how well a news agency adheres to ethics and whether their news coverage seems to lean left or right. To get a fuller understanding of the facets of an issue, it’s advisable to read more objective sources in the middle and/or a combination of left- and right-leaning sources. While it can feel rewarding to read a source that leans toward your political preferences, you’ll be better prepared to richly discuss issues with friends and family with different preferences if you read more broadly.
NewsGuard is a browser extension that you can install that applies ratings icons to news sources that appear in search engine results. The icons are color coded to indicate how well the source adheres to the standards of professional journalism. When you hover your mouse over the icon a “nutrition label” will appear explaining the rating in detail and identifying the author of the rating. Ratings are written by seasoned journalists and biographies of each journalist as well as details about the rating methodology are linked to the rating.
Media Bias/Fact Check is a grassroots effort to evaluate news sources by volunteers who are not professional journalists but who are “dedicated to educating the public on media bias and deceptive news practices.” You can browse lists of news media agencies that have been labeled as left bias, left-center bias, least biased, right-center bias, right bias and a few other categories. You can also search by the name of a news agency to view the full evaluation.
Fact-checking at the News Story Level
While being aware of how new agencies have fared in ratings schemes is helpful background, the best way to test the validity of a particular news story is to read about the same topic in a variety of news sources, especially if some of the sources are suspected of a particular bias. There are also some great fact-checking tools available to help you identify authoritative sources on a topic.
Politifact, started in 2007 by Florida’s largest daily newspaper, focuses on rating specific statements made by politicians for accuracy. Professional editors and journalists conduct the research and users can browse lists of controversial topics (click Menu in the upper left) or enter search terms from a recently read news story to access truth-o-meter ratings. Editions are available at the national, global and state level for some states, including Colorado.
FactCheck.org, a Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is a nonpartisan nonprofit that monitors the factual accuracy of statements made by the president and other politicians at the national level. Research is conducted by journalists and undergraduate journalism interns. Users can browse current issues articles, archives on prominent politicians or search issues by keyword.
Snopes, launched in 1994 with a focus on debunking urban legends and hoaxes, is now “the oldest and largest fact-checking site online.” Staffed by writers who are “are precluded from donating to, or participating in, political campaigns, political party activities, or political advocacy organizations.” Snopes can be handy in debunking popular myths often spread by social media.
CQ Researcher is a subscription database Denver Public Library provides that is a fantastic resource for researching controversial issues often seen in the news. These reports written by experienced journalists are chock-full of links and footnotes to help you track down authoritative sources of factual information. In addition to detailed overviews of each topic, reports include a chronology of the history of an issue, a pro and con opinion section written by experts on a topic, and a full bibliography of reliable sources for more in-depth reading on a topic. Whether preparing for a formal debate or just debating the issues with friends and family, CQ Researcher is a powerful place to start so you can form your own opinion based on solid research and support it with relevant details. Check out their great report on the state of The News Media. You’ll need a Denver Public Library library card to access CQ Researcher outside the library.
Your library card is also your key to free access to a wide variety of news sources so you can read broadly about thorny issues in the news. Need help getting started with a fact check? Librarians are ready to help you 24/7 from our Ask Us page.