Comment: How to get the most from the news you consume

A journalism ethics professor offers tips for selecting and evaluating your sources of news.

By Aly Colón / For The Conversation

The amount and variety of news produced today often tests people’s ability to determine its value and veracity. Such a torrent of information threatens to drown news consumers in a river of confusion.

Media coverage of the coronavirus, for example, illustrates how news may overwhelm and confuse consumers, and even contribute to mental health woes by escalating anxiety.

The overabundance also undermines Americans’ ability to decipher fact from misinformation.

But techniques exist for ferreting out what we can trust and what we should question, and there are steps we can take to help determine where the news comes from.

The owners of news media outlets often bring their own view of the news they want their organization to focus on. Some see themselves as information providers. Others may want to advance agendas they believe in.

One example of what should be covered in the news was provided by New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs in 1897. It still appears on the newspaper’s masthead: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

This statement of values enables us to understand what the journalist or news organization wants to convey and why. Understanding the messenger helps us understand the message.

As a longtime journalist, and as a journalism professor who teaches media ethics, I believe news consumers should bring a critical eye to the news.

Here’s a list you can use when reading, listening to or watching news. It offers steps to bring better focus and context to the relentless news feed.

1. What’s news to you?

What is news? News, at its core, focuses on information that is “new.” It conveys the latest knowledge about local, state, national and international occurrences.

What’s the difference between your definition of news and that of news providers? The American Press Institute notes that journalism seeks to determine “newsworthiness.” That, it says, involves verification and value.

2. Learn more about the news you turn to

What news organization produces the news you turn to, and what does its mission statement disclose about its purpose and promises?

Who does it identify as the audience it serves?

What a news organization says it stands for can be found online. For examples, search for an “About” heading, a mission statement or “policies and standards.”

3. Become familiar with journalists your news comes from

What are the names of the journalists associated with the news story, and what’s their background? Check online.

How accurate has their work been? You can turn to news research organizations like Poynter and other independent groups focused on transparency and fact-checking.

What approach do they take? Is it straight, interpretative or personal? Straight news focuses on verifiable facts. The interpretive approach adds the journalist’s understanding of the subject matter. And the personal approach offers the journalist’s opinions.

4. Compare different sources of news on the same subject

Consume news from sources across the news spectrum when possible; from local to regional to national and international.

Ask yourself the following questions: How do they frame the same news from their vantage point? What, if any, slant seems apparent? What’s the focus of their lens on the news?

5. Compare notes with others you trust and maybe don’t trust

Ask your friends, and even those who aren’t friends, what their take is on the news. What news sources do they turn to that they trust? How do they evaluate their news?

Seek out different perspectives so you can compare them with your own.

6. Seek out commentary from those who analyze news

Look for columnists or commentators whose views you share. Seek out columnists and commentators whose views you don’t share.

The Washington Post provides a list of its columnists, representing the political spectrum, with a brief description of their focus. The New York Times has a host of them, too. And so does the Tribune Content Agency.

Try to understand where they are coming from and why.

7. Decide what news matters to you, and what doesn’t

Be open about the news you consume.

Contact news producers when you think their news is incomplete or incorrect. Professional news producers welcome constructive feedback. They see it as beneficial to improving.

Consult other sources of news and knowledge for more insight on the news: magazines, books, podcasts and Instagram, for example.

Consume a variety of news: the good, the bad and, if necessary, the ugly.

Aly Colón is the Knight Professor of Media Ethics in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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