This is the latest post from Michael Spikes’ series Making Sense of the News, highlighting some of the key concepts covered in the news literacy course he and his colleagues developed at the Center for News Literacy at Stony Brook University.
It’s been a busy few weeks at the Center for News Literacy, as “fake news” and finding ways to fight it have been front and center in many conversations about what’s happening in the world. I’ve had the opportunity to give training workshops at community colleges around Illinois, and to talk to librarians about how they can help engage people in talking about these issues.
One question that keeps coming up is how to handle the torrent of news and information, which has gotten even more intense since Election Day. It’s a sentiment well expressed in a recent New Yorker cartoon, in which a man and a woman are taking while walking down the street. The caption is a quote from one of them: “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”
Many people can relate. The whirlwind of breaking news, tweets, commentary, punditry, analysis and spin that fills radio and television airwaves can feel overwhelming, especially for those of us who spend time on social media. It populates the screens of our computers and smartphones. It distracts us from our work and our time with family and friends.
So how do we keep ourselves well informed while staying sane? How do we figure out what’s important, relevant and true?
My answer: Develop a filter to determine reliable outlets of news and information, which serve up fact-based stories that rely on methodical verification to help you understand something rather than emotional appeals masked as news designed to raise your blood pressure.
I began our exploration of news literacy with the concept of using the acronym VIA to evaluate information. VIA stands for Verification, Independence and Accountability, the three characteristics to look for in news. By seeking these things continually, we train ourselves to become a much more active consumer of news and information. It’s not an easy process, because it requires us to slow down and not react emotionally, because emotions can be easily exploited.
We teach our news literacy students that by evaluating evidence that has gone through the journalistic process of verification and avoiding getting caught up in emotion, they can get closer to the truth of an issue or topic.
Direct and Indirect Evidence
But how do we evaluate that evidence? We break it down into two categories: direct and indirect.
Direct evidence is firsthand, irrefutable evidence that links directly to an occurrence or event — such as video, audio and photographs — that we rank highest in our own hierarchy of direct evidence. Back in school, you might remember this as a “primary source.”
Next is documentation, also known as a “paper trail.” Then there’s a journalist’s eyewitness account of an event, followed by a bystander’s eyewitness account.
Indirect evidence, on the other hand, is “arm’s length” evidence that may have gone through multiple individuals before it gets to a journalist to assess and report. While we do not apply a hierarchy to indirect evidence, we highlight the following types of indirect evidence for students:
- Accounts from a spokesperson such as a lawyer or a press secretary, or through a press release;
- Reconstructions from experts;
- Hearsay testimony;
- Inferences drawn from gathered evidence.
While we teach students that direct evidence is better than indirect, one should never take action or make a decision based on a story put together from one SOLE piece of evidence, no matter how good it may be or how high it may rank.
Journalists always know that to present a full story, they must take statements or other evidence and verify that information with another source. Many journalists know the common saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Reporters must always try to corroborate evidence with a second source of information.
For example, over the past few weeks the news has been dominated by President Trump’s claim that he had been wiretapped by the Obama administration. He offered no evidence for the claim, which admittedly is difficult to do in a 140-character tweet — his preferred method of mass communication. Journalists asked him for evidence, which Trump wouldn’t provide. So they talked to many people who had previously belonged to the intelligence community, who could have authorized or carried out the wiretapping if in fact it was carried out by the previous administration.
Not long after Trump made the wiretapping claim, Kevin Lewis, a spokesperson for President Obama, offered this statement:
“A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any US citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false.”
In addition, a number of journalists, including NPR senior editor Ron Elving, noted that Trump mentioned in his tweet that he had “just found out” about the wiretapping. Elving pointed out that Trump may have been responding to a recent Breitbart post, which cited a timeline created by radio host Mark Levin that purportedly showed President Obama taking steps to undermine Trump’s campaign by obtaining authorization to eavesdrop on it.
Using our definition of direct and indirect evidence, both pieces of evidence — Lewis’ statement on Obama and Elving’s inference about Trump reading the Breitbart article — are fairly good at refuting Obama’s role in any type of wiretapping. But both are secondhand, indirect proof.
Indirect evidence is usually found in the process of fleshing out and analyzing a breaking news story. That first burst of information is often just the beginning outline of the story, and more detail and a larger picture tend to emerge in the aftermath as journalists work their sources to advance the initial report.
Trump later said during a Fox News interview that his wiretapping accusation was based on a number of news reports he had read referencing wiretapping, but he also continued to assert that more information would be forthcoming to prove his claim.
At that same time, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a press conference that no evidence had been found to support Trump’s claim. FBI Director James Comey corroborated Nunes’ assertion during his testimony before the committee last week.
This example highlights two very important lessons for news consumers. First, claims made by either a journalist or a public official must be backed up by multiple pieces of direct evidence to allow people to conclude the claim is true. Single-sourced statements or those saying “information is forthcoming” should be met with skepticism.
Then the second lesson becomes clear: It takes time for both journalists and news consumers to find out the truth, which makes it a moving target.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the provisional nature of the truth: the way we understand it can change as more evidence is uncovered. In this particular case, it is evident that news consumers must take their time before coming to a conclusion based on a single source — even if that source happens to be the president of the United States.