I think this takedown of fictional journalist Rory Gilmore is pretty funny (“When you are interviewing a source, do not fall asleep as he’s talking to you”). I find it timely, given the furor du jour over fake news and the inability of large swaths of the populace to identify it.
[sidenote: it seems just as plausible that we are unwilling, not unable, to sniff out fictional reporting, so long as that reporting comports with the story we’re already telling ourselves about the world. But for today’s post, let’s focus on ability]
I used to have nasty altercations with a relative over articles she would post on Facebook that said positively D’Sousa-esque things about Barack Obama. My go-to response was to point out the unreliability of the source. World Net Daily and Christian Post are not conventional news gathering and reporting operations. The Presbyterian Layman is a sloppy advocacy tool. Reading a single story confirms those assertions.
Yet my family member’s response was routinely that my sources for information were just as biased. That my sources–public radio and a small sampling of daily newspapers–employed trained reporters who were bound by conventions of non-editorial journalism seemed completely lost in the argument.
This is how the “Lamestream media” attack has actually done the public a great disservice, by obscuring the razor sharp distinction between a news story and a piece of advocacy masquerading as news. I learned that distinction as a 10th grader, in a class called “Journalism.” The class was a prerequisite for joining the school paper. In today’s media environment, though, perhaps Journalism needs to be part of every school’s core curriculum.
That course would teach the most basic conventions of news reporting with the aim of cultivating media consumers who can recognize garbage. For example:
If a story lacks a byline, it’s not a news story. Anonymous content is almost always opinion.
If a story does not contain at least one quotation from a source who is either named or cited as unnamed for a plausible reason, it’s not news. News quotes sources.
If all of the quotations in a story are from the same source, or if they all support the same point of view, it’s not news. News reporters represent differing views of the events they’re covering. They talk to multiple people. All the time. That’s what they’re paid for.
There’s plenty more, but teaching just these three as starters would equip readers to detect with minimal difficulty pieces that are intentionally deceptive. That’s a start, right?