Media Literacy

Discerning Fact From Fiction

What Is Media Literacy?

Media or Information Literacy aims to give citizens the skills to determine if they are looking at fact or fiction. It teaches people to ask questions of what they are looking at and to consider who or what is the source of the information, is there a persuasive intention, what direct evidence has been used to back it up, is that data checkable elsewhere, who has been quoted and who hasn’t, i.e. has there been any effort to compare alternative views, etc. View 11 tips from former National President of the Society of Professional Journalists, Matt Hall.

In areas that lack coverage of local news, social media becomes a major tool for sharing local information. San Diego State Communications Professor Godfriend Assante examines the characteristics of social media and presents tools for assessing information that is found there. 

Editorial and Opinion Director at the San Diego Union Tribune, Matt Hall, On Media Literacy

Social Media Tips from Professor Godfried Asante

Jasmine Aguilera, Immigration Staff Writer for Time Magazine

Media Literacy Tips

When confronted with a report on social media or in a local newsletter, consider the following tips:

  • Good reports include a variety of perspectives.
  • Transparent reports tell not only what is known but HOW it is known, what isn’t known and why it isn’t known.
  • Is the story supported by firsthand evidence? Never go off one piece of evidence alone.
  • Can the evidence be corroborated independently?
  • Look at context: the facts surrounding an event or story can greatly change the significance of it.
  • Does the source have a pattern of unfair reporting?
  • What is the purpose of the piece? To amuse, to sell, to promote, to build support, or to report impartially?
  • Avoid the knee-jerk share. Breaking news is chaotic.  Follow a story over time to see how it finally pans out before judging.
  • Bias is a predisposition that distorts your ability to fairly weigh the evidence and prevents you from reaching a fair or accurate judgment.
  • Cognitive dissonance is a process in which people distort (or forget) information that disagrees with a pre-existing view.
  • The burden is on YOU, to be a responsible consumer and sharer of news.

Understanding opinion pieces

Section 1: Editorials

While some outlets use this as a catch-all term for their opinions page, today an editorial most often refers to a piece that represents the opinion of an outlet’s editorial board. They often don’t have a single name attached to them, either left unsigned or signed with the name of the board.

Many outlets emphasize the rigid barrier between the newsroom and the editorial section, or any opinion section for that matter. For example, in the endorsement of Joe Biden for president by the New York Times’ Editorial Board, a disclaimer at the top reads “The editorial board is a group of opinion journalists whose views are informed by expertise, research, debate and certain longstanding values. It is separate from the newsroom.”

While the main Coronado news agencies don’t often publish editorials, the San Diego Union-Tribune has a long-running, robust editorial section both in print and online. Their work varies between near-daily takes on the news of the day and election endorsements.  

Section 2: Op-eds

Short for “opposite the editorial page”, an op-ed is a signed opinion piece that, in print,  runs on the page adjacent to the editorials. These commentaries are written by a variety of writers unaffiliated with the paper as a means to ensure its pages contain a well-expressed diversity of ideas. Typically, these are experts or public figures. 

As physical newspapers escape from our clutches, some online outlets now refer to these as “guest essays” to alleviate confusion. In the San Diego Union-Tribune, these seem to fall under the umbrella category of “commentary,” while its sister site, The LA Times, retains the op-ed label.

Section 3: Letters to the Editor

These are similar to op-eds because they are penned externally. However, there are a few key differences. While an op-ed’s author usually carries some authority, a letter is from the average reader who has something to say about something the paper has covered. Submissions are open to the public and typically shorter than op-eds. 

The Coronado Eagle & Journal publishes a nearly-full page of these in every newspaper and posts them on their website’s opinion section. The Coronado Times does the same. The San Diego-Union Tribune often collects reader letters about a particular topic and publishes a spread titled “Readers React.” Here is the U-T’s collection of letters regarding Coronado Bridge tolls.  The New York Times does the same, like this set of letters about wealth and income tax

For more on writing letters to the editor, read “How to be a Citizen Journalist”

Section 4: Columns

These recurring articles are written by internal staff. Unlike an editorial, a columnist’s article does not reflect the opinion of the editorial board nor any other writers. Not all columns are opinion journalism as some veer towards lifestyle journalism. 

Locally, the SD-UT has an entire web page dedicated to it’s columns.  The Eagle & Journal also has a slew of writers that publish regular commentaries on the “Editorial” page.  Nationally, many outlets have in-house columnists while some smaller papers redistribute stories from syndicated columnists within their pages. 

Some other common terms to describe opinion journalism are commentary, reporter’s notebook, review and analysis. 

Deciphering what is news and opinion on TV and Radio can be a bit harder, especially for first-time viewers or those tuning in mid-broadcast. Good evidence-based opinion journalism makes use of facts, statistics and expert voices in the same way a news report would. Cable news anchors often provide a hybrid news-opinion variety hour (where-in both their news and opinions should be taken with a grain of salt). Here are some things to look out for if you’re unsure whether something is news or opinion.

  1. Most modern news stays fairly stoic while opinion journalists are more likely to display some passion or character in its tone. 
  2. In an effort to strive towards neutrality and comprehensiveness, news will be thorough in providing nuance and context to the truth. Opinion journalism should do the same, though those making an argument are less likely to grant excessive concessions. 
  3. Most mainstream news strays away from first-person and even second-person pronouns (I, you, we) while opinion pieces are more personal. 

Section 5: Biases in news

The news is biased. Everyone from your local reporter to the national anchor carries ideas, thoughts, opinions, and experiences that tint the lens through which they view the world. Left unchecked, these could affect their reporting. In the face of this reality, journalists must choose how to handle each bias, if they recognize them at all. While some personal biases are best left out of the news, some are inherent to it. Understanding the biases that affect news is as important as understanding the ingredients in your food. Understanding how each bias affects news is like knowing how each ingredient alters the flavor of your food.

While objectivity is often held up as a journalistic ideal, the reality of newsmaking involves many subjective decisions. And when humans make subjective decisions, it’s inevitable that the biases they hold will play a part in their choice. Should this article be displayed on the front page or buried on the back page? Should a story about people who came to the United States from other countries use the term “illegal alien” or “undocumented immigrant?” These decisions are either made using subjective value judgments or the objective measures to decide them (only using legal terminology, for example) are subjectively chosen as valuable. In the latter example, a pro-immigration and anti-immigration reporter may have different inclinations as to which one is best. 

For these sorts of biases, where the reporter’s beliefs are linked to their subject matter, most news makers try their best to understand and manage them. Rather than attempting to reach the impossible standard of being unbiased from the get go, journalists often do their best to be as fair as possible in their reporting, to the point where their own personal bias would be unrecognizable. 

Another approach is transparency. Rather than attempting to mitigate the effect of personal biases and ideals, some outlets proudly proclaim them. The Voice of San Diego, for example, wears its beliefs on its sleeve by publishing their stances on their website

Voice of San Diego’s “What We Stand For”
Government transparency, open meetings and accountability.A well-informed, well-educated community ready to participate in civic affairs.Government agencies that are just, efficient and excellent.High quality education for all children.Quality housing that is affordable to all residents.World class infrastructure that supports free enterprise and job creation.A robust and inclusive arts and culture scene.A clean environment, healthy ecosystemPreparations for the long-term challenges of drought, energy supply and climate change.

Just as one should consider certain invisible biases towards every outlet, consumers ought to look into specific outlets to understand what perspectives influence their reporting. 

Inherent Biases

Some biases are unavoidable as they are ingrained into the newsmaking process. Determining newsworthiness is an everyday decision in any newsroom. 

Newsworthiness distinguishes news from information. Imagine you’re a journalist and you just received two emails. One is from the City of Coronado announcing a tsunami warning tomorrow. The other is from the weather channel announcing that Rancho Bernardo can expect a sunny Monday next week. Which one of these warrants reporting? The tsunami warning is novel, imminent, impactful, and close while the weather update is none of the above. These sorts of factors, sometimes referred to as news values, determine newsworthiness, and it is a decision journalists make with every story. 

Dr. Andrew R. Cline from Missouri State University discusses how many journalists and news consumers operate under the false assertion that language is neutral and news can be reported in neutral terms. While most journalists attempt to hit a neutral standard, there are still decisions to be made. Understanding these decisions allows one to read in between the lines of the media they consume. 

A commercial bias is often inherent to news. News is a money-making practice in most cases, and news agencies often think of revenue and profit when considering which news to print. At best, this can cause journalists to have high-quality, high-valued work. It can also lead to a focus on stories that have been shown to increase viewership, like stories with conflict or controversy. These stories are newsworthy in and of themselves, but the commercial benefit to printing them incentivises their publishing.  Cline has discussed how this also applies to stories with strong narratives, compelling videos, bad news and more. The incentive to create these stories is incentivised by their profitability. News consumers should seek out the news they might not be seeing often because of its lack of commercial value. 

Everyone and every news agency is biased. Each outlet is influenced by different biases and some biases pervade through journalism at large. Biases affect the news that comes from each outlet in its content, slant and more. 

A great way to ensure you are properly informed despite biases altering the news you consume is to have a balanced news diet. 

Section 6: How to have a good media diet

Just as consuming a diversified, balanced and healthy diet is important, so too is consuming a diversified, balanced and healthy news diet. Not being thoughtful of what news we put in our minds can lead to being uninformed and misinformed despite our best efforts. 

Think about the food pyramid. Eating diverse groups of foods lets you maximize the nutritional potential of each meal. Your daily news intake can be viewed the same way. Each journalistic medium carries its own advantages and disadvantages, and a diversified news diet helps you enjoy the benefits of each. 

Television news, for example, places a heavy emphasis on compelling visuals, so stories without them might be underreported. By contrast, print is limited in its inability to show video alongside its text, so readers may miss out on watching important primary sources.

The weakness of each of these mediums is the strength of the other. Broadcasts are not only able to show important videos, but they’re also able to analyze them, ensuring viewers have a comprehensive understanding of the source. While newspapers do tend to have a preference for stories with an accompanying photo, a visual component isn’t mandatory. Information-dense stories can thrive without the worry that a lack of video will lose consumers’ attention. 

The same extends to audio journalism. While visual learners can get lost listening to a fast-talking radio anchor, multitaskers may appreciate the lack of visual distractions. Also, the medium allows for longer conversations and interviews where listeners can grasp a complete understanding of what someone is trying to say as opposed to curated soundbites that might not carry enough context. 

Online, written journalism allows embedded photos, videos and links to be explored or ignored at the reader’s whim, so those who want more context can chase it at their own pace. However, this interactive process of news gathering is much more involved than watching or listening to a program and can be more tiring to the passive news consumer. News outlets that dabble in these mediums push stories that use their advantages most effectively. 

Beyond the medium, each economic model of news carries positives and negatives. For-profit organizations, like the Coronado Times and the Coronado Eagle & Journal, depend on advertisers as the main source of their funding. Most outlets take the separation between news and advertising seriously. However, economic pressure can still affect content as advertisers prefer their ads to be widely circulated and newspapers prefer their subscribers to be abundant. This can cause a commercial bias, or a bias towards stories that will earn the most money rather than what is the most newsworthy. At the same time, the incentive to have a larger readership may increase both the quality and quantity of reporting in an effort to attract readers. 

Nonprofit organizations, like San Diego’s inewsource, are able to report the news without the pressure to make a profit. Instead of commercial advertisers, nonprofits rely on their donors. Though a legal mandate to disclose donors was recently ruled unconstitutional, many nonprofit journalism outlets tend to, including inewsource and Voice of San Diego. A plurality tackles investigative projects and emphasizes their independence and transparency. Many, like ProPublica, use impact as a measure of success rather than profit. This skews their reporting towards stories that are likely to cause a significant effect, like, for example, sparking legislative change.

Finally, federal, state and city governments have established their own news agencies. Their funding varies. National Public Radio is funded through a mix of advertising, content distribution, donations, and government funding. Some, like the Coronado Library’s Community News Team, are entirely publicly funded. While this reduces dependence on donors, readers, and advertisers, public news agencies may have a pro-government slant, avoiding topics that paint their funding body in a negative light. On the bright side, the safer funding allows journalists to cover stories that may not be economically viable elsewhere.

With all this in mind, it’s important to have a diversified news diet and take full advantage of each journalistic medium and method. Even if your favorite way to consume news is by television or radio, you may have a gap in your knowledge with news that isn’t easily told in a visual or auditory format. Likewise, if you only read the for-profit newspaper, you may be missing out on investigative, impactful, long-form non-profit projects that don’t pull in as much revenue.

What’s on our plate? Pew Research Center collected the local news dynamics of San Diego and surrounding counties. They found that a plurality of San Diegans prefers to get their local news via TV, at 40%. Next are news websites and apps at 27%. 17% of respondents prefer social media. Only 10% prefer radio while 7% prefer print. 

At least 45% most often get local news from a for-profit source. Public radio was used most often for news by 3% of respondents. 

While the commonly held belief that news media as a whole leans in a partisan direction is disputed, individuals and organizations often have their own partisan or ideological slants. If consumers only view news they agree with they may be robbed of the opportunity to be exposed to different points of view.

An important function of journalism is the public forum it provides to a democracy. As Stephanie Craft and Charles Davis explain in  “Principles of American Journalism,” “The press exists, at least in part, so that a diversity of ideas find their way to the public conversation about the best course of action on the issues of the day.” Organizations accomplish this in different ways. Newspapers have editorials, op-eds, and letters to the editor. Radio stations may have debates between guests or separate interviews of people who disagree. TV news often has pundits arguing back-and-forth with partisan ferocity, each hoping to walk away the least scathed. 

Rounding out your media palette with sources you don’t often agree with has many benefits. For one, your mind may be open to ideas you haven’t considered and they may be better or make more sense than the ones you carry around now. 

Also, even if you read an opinion and you don’t end up taking to it, it’s likely that some of your family, friends, and neighbors subscribe to it. If you seek to empathize with them, then it can be worthwhile to understand why they believe what they believe. 

Locally both the Coronado Times and the Coronado Eagle & Journal have robust Letters to the Editor sections where a diverse set of community opinions can be read on hot-button issues. 

Many groups have taken a crack at categorizing news agencies by their general ideological trend., a news aggregator that sorts sites by their political slant,  categorized the online, written content of news media outlets

Not only is the variety of content in a diet important to control, but so is the quality. A diverse, balanced diet of different types of junk food is still unhealthy, just as a diet of junk news media is. Not all media is created equal, and a careful, conscious selection of content is perhaps the most important part of a good news diet. 

Journalism stands apart from other content as it is primarily a discipline of verification. Where bloggers., pundits, and hacks may have other agendas or ideals in mind, journalists pride themselves on, first and foremost, getting the story right. The difference between journalists like Glenn Greenwald exposing secret government programs and the Youtuber obsessed with every conspiracy theory they hear is the difference between a nutrient-dense salad and Nutella. This media chart examines the quality of various organizations along with how they politically align. 

Jihii Jolly of Columbia Journalism Review likened empty-calorie junk food to partisan punditry “that [does] little more than confirm preconceived worldviews that distract viewers from thinking critically about issues at hand.” Contrast the rapid-fire arguments you might find on the evening news with the lengthy editorials in the San Diego Union-Tribune or the Letters to the Editor in the Coronado Times. When consuming a wide variety of well-developed arguments, media consumers can think about the issues of the day, rather than be told what to think by others. 

The internet has given us much more content than we can chew. Being careful about what we consume can help us handle our overfilled plates in a manner that ensures we end each day more educated than we started it. 

Further Reading:

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption – Clay Thompson

How to build a healthy news diet – Columbia Journalism Review

Principles of American Journalism – Stephanie Craft and Charles Davis