24 Ways to Check If It’s Good Journalism

On Literary Hub, Bob Garfield has a plan for overhauling media literacy:

These are some of the most widely shared headlines of the 2016 election campaign, every last one of them from a phony source:

“Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president.” This from WTOE 5, which may look like TV call letters, but is just a supposedly “satirical” website that made money when gullible people clicked on their bogus headlines.

“WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS . . . Then drops another bombshell.” This came from the ultra-partisan site the Political Insider (“Get breaking news alerts that the liberal media won’t tell you”), based on the entirely unhidden fact that the U.S. government sold weapons to Qaddafi’s Libya.

“FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide.” That fabrication was courtesy of the “Denver Guardian,” which does not exist and has never existed.

“FBI director received millions from Clinton Foundation, his brother’s law firm does Clinton’s taxes.” Completely invented by the fringe-right fake-news site called Ending the Fed News.

“ISIS leader calls for American Muslim voters to support Hillary Clinton.” Another invented story, but another “satire” site, WNDR—which is also not a broadcast station of any kind. . . .

I propose, therefore, a broader, complementary approach to media literacy education. I call it the Three Eights Plus One, and I envision it as sort of the Food Pyramid of media literacy. . . .

  1. Where did this content come from?
  2. Who is that person or organization?
  3. Is it professional and credible?
  4. Is it allied with a political or ideological viewpoint?
  5. Have I ever heard of it? And, if not, have I Googled it? It’s easy to make a website or a video look like a bona fide journalistic Does this URL pass the smell test?
  6. Is this news or content an outlier, or is it reported elsewhere by reputable sources?
  7. Is this headline and content designed just to get my click, and the ad revenue that goes with it? Or does the information have intrinsic worth?
  8. Does it seem designed to feed, pander to, exploit, or expand my worst suspicions about ? Is it too good to be true, or too bad to be true?

Okay. Like school and Jeopardy!, the questions get progressively harder. A related set of inquiries spins down from number 3 on the first list.

  1. Do I know how credible information is produced and the process behind reputable reporting?
  2. Are subjects dictated by fat-cat publishers? (Answer: no.)
  3. Are they dictated by omnipotent editors flogging an agenda? (Answer: no.)
  4. Do they follow marching orders of some outside third party, like advertisers, George Soros, the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the Freemasons, the United Nations, Big Pharma, the military-industrial complex, or the Carlyle Group? (Answer: no.)
  5. Are those anonymous sources invented by reporters to support a preferred narrative? (Answer: no.)
  6. Is there a set of standard journalistic practices for confirming facts, qualifying sources, providing evidence, and immediately correcting errors? (Answer: yes.)
  7. Do politically and ideologically funded and motivated players wrapping themselves in the audiovisual trappings of genuine news organization adhere to those standards? (Answer: often.)
  8. When politicians respond to criticism not by furnishing facts, evidence, or reasoned counterargument but by declaring “fake news,” are they lying? (Answer: almost.)

Those items cover the absolute basics. Toward a more intermediate-level ability to evaluate journalism, I’d add these:

  1. Are assertions backed up—or challenged—by data, official records, history, or other documented evidence?
  2. Is the audience given the sense of the sources’ motives in saying what they say?
  3. Is the reporter following the herd of other reporting, offering conventional wisdom provided with little scrutiny?
  4. Are there signs that the elements of the story are the fruit of impartial inquiry, or do they seem cherry-picked to support a beginning hypothesis or narrative?
  5. Is there evidence of bias toward controversy, versus less provocative but more substantial information?
  6. Does the story fully contextualize statements and events to permit the audience to evaluate significance and meaning?
  7. Is the reporting pointlessly speculative? Red flags are the words “may,” “could,” “should,” “will.”
  8. Journalism can be slanted not just by what it includes, but by what it doesn’t Are there holes in the reporting that suggest a conflicting narrative has been suppressed?

And, finally, the One: the overriding point that still eludes a good portion of the population, including the president of the United States: Is the press permitted to criticize the government or its officials?

Answer: Yes, for crying out loud, that is the entire point of a free press. It’s in the First Amendment. To the Constitution. Ours.
Bob Garfield is the cohost of WNYC’s weekly Peabody Award-winning On the Media. Garfield has been a columnist/contributing editor for The Washington Post Magazine, The Guardian, and USA Today, as well as an author, lecturer, podcaster, and broadcast personality on ABC, CBS, CNBC, PBS, and NPR. He lives in suburban Washington, D.C. Learn more at www.bobgarfield.net.

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