One should always start by considering the source of information. Do a little research. Are they merely a host for people to post their own essays like Medium.com? Is it someone’s personal blog? Are they a satire website like the Onion, the Borowitz Report, or the Babylon Bee? Are they masquerading as a local news site? Are they a deeply ideological source that is pushing one particular political agenda like Breitbart, Occupy Democrats, Info Wars, the Jacobin, or US Uncut?
Look for independent verification that the source is a good source of information.
Finally, when you’ve found a good source of information, it’s a good idea to stick with it, but you must also continue to get information from a variety of sources. Every source has its biases and blindspots and the best way to get a complete picture is to look at a variety of sources. Read the National Review (an overtly conservative publication) and the Atlantic (a skews-left publication), listen to NPR and the NY Times, watch PBS, ABC, NBC and local news, and in general avoid the most biased of talk radio, hyper-partisan news publications, and ideological podcasts. Also follow some international news sources as well! Consider Al Jazeera, BBC, and Reuters. A varied media diet is essential to avoiding getting duped!
Does it have a real author?
FactCheck.org’s guide (linked below) has a number of good examples of articles that have fake authors or no authors at all. Check it out. Always good to check the author and understand their reputation a bit before investing too much credence in a news story.
Is it biased?
All news is biased in some way or another. News sources like CNN, NBC, and ABC are clearly biased towards the sensational. News sources like MSNBC and Fox News are clearly biased towards different political ideologies. Sources like NPR and PBS can be harder to identify their bias, but they do tend to have a bias towards a mainstream status quo ideology. They also tend to follow the “main news story” of the day, and that always has a bias towards the political, the sensational, and the economic.
The question is: can you easily identify the bias and then account for that in your assessment of the information they are given? Can you sort out the facts they are reporting from the assessments of those facts or are they all intermixed in an inextricable web?
Some sources I would say aren’t news sources at all because you can’t extricate the facts from the assessment of those facts according to a certain ideology. John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, Rachel Maddow, Fox and Friends, the Daily Show, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and so on are all such examples. These aren’t news sources: they are sources of political commentary and media criticism. If it’s a news source, it should be fairly clear when they are giving you information and when they are offering analysis or assessment of that information.
A lot of this comes down to a difficult distinction: that between facts and opinions or assessments or evaluations. It’s not at all easy to know how to make this distinction and philosophers like me are even less sure about how to make this distinction than are other folks, but here’s a first pass:
- A fact is a bit of information that forms the “common ground” or shared understanding of people of widely different ideologies and biases. It’s an authoritative claim that most independent sources agree on.
- An opinion, evaluation, or assessment is a narrative or viewpoint on the facts that brings in ideology, values, and judgments.
I cringe a bit at even trying to make this distinction because it is, as I said, very difficult to make, but hopefully this gives us a good starting place. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson will give you some facts, but will weave those facts into a narrative so that you’re only getting certain facts and the facts you do get are tinged with ideology and evaluation. Rachel Martin on NPR’s All Things Considered, on the other hand, will largely give you a set of facts about who did what when, who said what and in what context, and what experts are saying as an analysis of what was said and done. Occasionally, some evaluation and ideology sneaks in, but generally speaking, she is very good at “sticking to the facts”.
One quick way to check for bias is to search for the headline on a search engine. Look at who is sharing this news story. Consider whose interests this story seems to serve. Search on social media like Twitter or Facebook and look at which “bubbles” this story is making the rounds in. This can generally be a good guide to which ideological direction this story might be slanted.
Is it thoughtful and honest?
One of my go to tests for whether a news source is reliable is simply this: do they report when they are wrong? NPR constantly reports its own mistakes. This makes me more apt to trust them as a reliable source of information. Lots of news outlets never admit they were wrong, or they scapegoat one particular person when a mistake is made and so they never have to take responsibility.
This may sound weird: sources making mistakes increases your trust in them? Yep! As long as they openly admit it and correct those mistakes. Then I know that in the future if they make a mistake, they will correct it as soon as they find out it was a mistake.
Another test is this: do they consider the possibility that their assessment is wrong? Do they consider the other side fairly? Do they look at competing narratives and weigh reasons to accept either narrative? Do they consider counterarguments to their analysis? If so, then they are less likely to be shoveling ideology down your throat. If not, then they are far more likely to be doing so.
Who funded it?
One way of identifying bias—particularly when it comes to science articles, studies, polls, and so on—is trying to find out who funded the study, poll, etc. If a study or poll was funded by a presidential campaign, then there’s a good chance that it is almost useless—unless, that is, they use a third-party nonpartisan polling organization that is well-respected. If a study is industry-funded and has findings supportive of or friendly to that industry, then you might put your skeptic’s hat on. We might be distrustful of a study that has a vested interest in finding a particular outcome.
Does it try to get you to distrust “the others”?
C. Thi Nguyen clarifies in an Aeon article (linked below) that an Echo Chamber is an especially problematic social structure in that it not only shows us a partial and incomplete picture of the world, but also causes us to mistrust sources outside the echo chamber. I’ve never heard anyone on NPR say “you won’t hear this on any other news outlets” or “you can’t trust other sources on this because we’re the only ones with the inside scoop” or “everyone else has bought into the lie, but we’re here to give you the straight truth.” If you hear these sorts of phrases, there’s a good chance that the narrative they are spinning is biased, incomplete, or simply made up.