Journalism has changed a lot since I took courses in Texas for a minor in the subject at Midwestern University in Wichita Falls and Baylor University in Waco, serving as editor of The Wichitan at the former, and reporting on religious and political activities for The Baylor Lariat at the latter. Broadcast journalism was a way-down-the-list elective, and social media hadn’t even popped into anyone’s mind yet. However, the principles of truth-seeking and truth-verifying, also known as fact-checking have not changed much. Whether you’re a reporter in the field chasing a story, an anchor on TV reporting it, or a senior citizen in your La-Z-Boy trying to make sense of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, deciding whether to hit the Share button, the differences between fact and fiction are still the same, and so are the differences between clear, accurate news stories and those that are garbled misrepresentations.
There are surely philosophical nuances in the consideration of CAPITAL–T–TRUTH, but most of us should be able to get past philosophy to establish some common-sense day-to-day agreements that make getting through an average lifetime more do-able. It may be true in a philosophical or even neurological sense that what YOUR brain perceives when you say red is something very different from what MY brain perceives, but we can look at an object and agree that it is red as opposed to not–red. No news story is perfect, and in the rush to make things known, especially things that REALLY need to be known, like an approaching hurricane, the rules are sometimes bent, but a sensible news reader should have low tolerance for bent rules.
So, what makes a news report credible? In Journalism 101, we learned about the 5 W’s (WHO? WHAT? WHEN? WHERE? WHY?) and 1 H (HOW?). A credible report may or may not be true, but a credible report will be verifiable because it contains the following elements:
- WHEN? Does the report contain the complete date and time when the events happened, as well as when the report was written, and when it was published
- WHERE? Are locations described completely, accurately, and appropriately for the news medium? A report for a hometown paper or station might need only a street address. Nowadays, when just about everything goes instantly global, city, state (or equivalent like parish or province), country, and concise but detailed location notes are important elements of credibility.
- WHO? Are the names, ages, origins, role in the events, and other helpful identifiers of all participants and informants stated as completely, accurately, and objectively as possible? (Hank Oglesby, 56, of Spokane, Washington/ chief of police/ emergency responder/ the officer who answered the call/ the victim/ a bystander/ the victim’s mother/ a neighbor/ the alleged perpetrator/ Sam Smith, 37, who is awaiting trial on $2,000,000 bail for drug trafficking charges in Bolivar, Missouri–not just Sam Smith, a known drug offender) Do the sources quoted or cited appear to be the best the reporter could find? An emergency responder at the scene is more likely to have accurate information than a wild-eyed neighbor who saw it all from an upstairs window (although the wild-eyed neighbor will probably be more entertaining on TV or YouTube). An intervening police officer is a more credible source than a bystander. Reporters have to work with what they have; they should be transparently but tactfully skeptical, making it clear that although this is what the source says, it may or may not be what the reporter believes to be true. A good reader will share the reporter’s healthy and informed skepticism about news sources.
- WHAT? WHY? HOW? Does the reporter use direct quotations or accurate citations, naming and identifying the source of the information (see #3)? More often than not, the reporter arrives on the scene after events happen. Accurate quotations and well-identified sources lend credibility to the report, protect the reporter from accusations of publishing false information, and free him or her to report what is known at the time while being honest about where the information came from.
- HEADLINE: Does the headline accurately reflect the contents of the report
- PHOTOGRAPHS: Are photographs identifiable, and are their subjects, locations, and time frames identified in captions?
Ask yourself, “Who wants me to read this story? Why do they want me to read it?” Clickbaiting and fearmongering (“…spreading frightening and exaggerated rumors of an impending danger or…purposely and needlessly arousing public fear about an issue.”~ Wikipedia) are common reasons for attracting your eyes to a particular story. Here is some more information about clickbait.
In the days of hometown newspapers and international wire services, with three or four local TV channels and radio stations linked to three or four national broadcasting services, it was easier to discern the publisher’s or broadcaster’s motive which, typically, was to serve the community to the best of their ability and understanding, with the best information they could muster, while making good money selling advertising space to local and national merchants. It wasn’t paradise, the reporting was never perfect, the advertisers were not in it to serve up honesty, but there was a lot more of ethics and responsibility, and a lot less of chaotic corrupted self-interest.