Creating a Balanced Content Diet and Assessing Information

Drawing of moon creatures that appeared in the New York Sun
The fabrication of media content occurred long before digital technology made it easy, as illustrated with “The Great Moon Hoax” of 1835.
(Benjamin Henry Day (1810-1889), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As we are all well-aware, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and distrust have become a rampant plague on society. Our seemingly-infinite media outlets mean we have choices, but also leave regular consumers without a guide. You may feel like many do, either that one falsely-clumped homogenous system of messages — considered “the media” is solely misleading or that the wealth of information is just so much that you don’t know where to turn. So how do you create a regular slew of media sources that provide checked information?

First, no matter how overwhelmed you become, don’t reduce yourself solely to Twitter or other social media sites as your only place for news. Although great for entertainment and superficially connecting with others, social media platforms are vehicles for media content sharing, not fact-confirmed producers of information.

Statements and Terms to Avoid

  1. “The Media” (as one homogenous entity). People love to throw this dismissive phrase out there. If you think about it, “the media” doesn’t make sense since “media” are comprised of all of the millions of different types of individual, organizational, and industry content producers in the world. In some countries, government officials run or produce the media content. However, in the U.S., corporations and individuals are competing against each other for consumers, therefore, cannot be lumped together.
    In other words, since there’s no alien overlord overseeing and coordinating every news broadcast, print article, horror film, book, etc. created across all countries, “the media” does not exist. We can’t (accurately) make the generalization that CNN.com is featuring the same content/perspective/sources/images/framing at the same time as 9News in Australia, right?
  2. “Fake News.” This phrase is often used to disregard media content/perspectives/information. While it can to be synonymous with “made up information,” the term has morphed into a heavily-politicized, dismissive buzz term. What does one mean by “fake news?” Fabricated information? Satire? Content of which you disagree? Read this article in The Atlantic to better understand why this term is problematic in itself. Instead of just exclaiming, “Fake news!,” be specific in your critique of particular content, identifying why you either disagree with the content and/or the extent to which it is parody or includes untrue information (disproved with sources, of course).
  3. “Unbiased.” Nope. All content is biased in that it is produced by people for specific purposes, outlets or platforms, and audiences. Media creators can be transparent in what shapes their products, strive for balance when appropriate, include a diverse array of sources and perspectives, and adhere to the ethical tenets of a news organization, but can never be truly unbiased.

Some Types of Media Content

Especially if you grew up in the digital era, it might be a bit confusing to discern the agenda of a media creator, how messages are created, and the extent to which the content is checked. Let’s start with the least filtered/fact-checked and work our way to the generally agreed-upon most fact-checked.

  • Social media & video-sharing sites (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Youtube, TikTok etc.): Posts to these sites are not fact-checked at all, with the exceptions of major violations of site policies, like hate speech, copyright violation, or big-time conspiracy theories. In other words, never believe something you read or see on a social media site unless you can verify the information through external sources.
  • Blogs, Vlogs, and personal websites (like this one): Anyone can create a blog, vlog, or website and no one checks them for accuracy. As with social media and video-sharing sites, verify what you consume in these forms with outside news sources. Don’t just trust that a cooking blog, for example, that promotes the “best banana bread ever!” recipe really has the best banana bread ever. You can look at who the content creator is and the # follower/views as indicators of who might provide more credible info, but still double-check. There’s a reason that I link content to outside news sources as much as I can.
  • Anonymous, editable sites (i.e. Wikipedia): While these types of sites can be useful to give you an overview of an unfamiliar topic, never cite them. Anyone can add, subtract, or modify the content and they aren’t checked.
  • Websites of businesses, corporations, & organizations that seek to profit from consumers: These are helpful for purchasing items directly from a company, learning its history, or identifying possible contacts. That said, this content is created in such a way as to make the business look good. Its agenda is to present a positive image, while minimizing damaging or negative information or feedback. Useful, but know what you’re getting.
  • Sites for nonprofits, universities, and government agencies: Generally, this content is fairly reliable, but may not be updated on a regular basis. Look for the reports and documents produced and linked by organizations more than just the surface-level content on the websites. What is the agenda? Audience? Rigor (or process of producing the information)? When was it produced? For what purpose?
  • News sites: Exist for the purpose of disseminating information. The content is created by journalists and undergoes an editing process. As we know, some news organizations have more partisan-leaning than others. This “Media Bias Chart” is a helpful tool for identifying where the online content of these organizations stand.

The Balanced Media Diet:

Draw from different geographic levels, partisan positions, and types of media (i.e. online news, TV broadcasts, radio briefs). You’ll also want to differentiate in the various types of news reporting (hard news, features, editorials, etc.). For my students: we will talk more in class about what this looks like in Murfreesboro, TN.

  1. Local/community news
  2. Regional news
  3. National news
  4. International news
  5. Nonprofit/government/medical sites (depending on the topic)

Building Media Literacy: An exercise

Select a timely topic — one so important that it is likely to be covered across sources. Look up that topic in your local, regional, and at least two national mainstream news outlets. Then examine the international perspective in multiple sources outside of the United States. What are the common threads? How do the stories differ in their points of focus? Framing? People interviewed? The overall takeaways?

Checking Information

So how do you verify a post that you came across on social media or know when to believe what you read? Since anyone can create and share messages on social media, assume the content is untrue/strictly opinion until you can verify the actual source. For example, in this blog post, I demonstrated how a viral meme was spreading misinformation.

Questions for blogs and websites

  • Who created the content? Is a name given? Who is the person? What is the person’s expertise? Position? Purpose for creating the content? Does the person directly or indirectly profit from the content?
  • What is the purpose of the blog or website? The purpose of my site is to provide (hopefully) useful information about media literacy, epidemics, writing, and/or teaching.
  • Do legitimate outside sources support the information given? Good blogs/sites give links to back up information. If you can’t find sources for the content, take it with a grain of salt.

On News

Generally, you can trust information that comes from mainstream news organizations that has an established history of solid journalism. I’m talking about The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, and other credible news sites. In this Forbes article, Paul Glader outlines what makes for a trustworthy news organization, listing the extent to which a news outlet corrects misinformation, adherence to the Society of Professional Journalist’s code of ethics, and other tenets of quality journalism. You should be able to trace the facts given in a piece and verify with other sources.

Keep in mind that news is fluid. Information, especially about an emerging issue, is constantly changing. For example, we know much more about the COVID-19 virus now, compared to one year ago. Therefore, news articles on COVID from today differ greatly from last January. That doesn’t make them false, but simply a product of their time (similar to how scientists in 1918 believed that influenza was caused by bacteria).

For heavy partisan-leaning or alternative news, understand that the content is presented through a distinct filter to best attract and appeal to audiences drawn to those sites or channels. The balanced media diet will help you identify outlier perspectives and take them for what they are.

How to Avoid Getting Overwhelmed

I recommend subscribing and following scholars who study, analyze, and synthesize timely news topics as a means to help you navigate through the latest issues. To start with, I recommend Dr. Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American daily digest and Dr. Kathy Roberts Forde’s Letter from a Region. Additionally, Dr. Amanda Sturgill’s #DetectingDeception on Twitter provides timely advice on identifying false information, drawing from her book, Detecting Deception: Tools to Fight Fake News.

Lastly, balance news consumption with fun media content. It’s okay to indulge in a YouTube video about ballet dancers or watch a ’90s sitcom on Netflix. You can also enjoy your favorite social media platforms — just don’t use them as primary sources of information.

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