FAQ's for Lesson 2 - Know your Neighborhood

faq_icon_noun_like.svg.pngJournalism FAQs

Can't you argue that everything in the world can be considered news?

Sure, but that is not how we define news in this course. You can always say that because something just happened, that makes it “news,” but in fact it may not be important or of interest to more than a few people. The fact that you missed your train today and came late to class is not news to many people. Further, we argue in this course that for information to qualify as news it must adhere to the standards of VIA so that consumers may trust its reliability.

“Independence” and “Accountability” seem too ambiguous to apply accurately. One promoter can be accountable. Another may be entirely untrustworthy, so isn’t applying these characteristics to a blanket category forced and inaccurate?

Of course, blanket applications of any principles intended as navigation tools can be misapplied. These are meant to serve as initial guideposts. But to your point about promoters: We stipulate that most promoters are accountable because they transparently are promoting their product, service or idea. For example, a press release from Apple about a new iPhone is by definition accountable. Such a press release will probably also be verified, as it most likely contains only facts about the product – a ‘trustworthy” company would know that including falsehoods would damage its reputation. Thus the information in the press release will be useful, but will it be reliable? Would you buy an iPhone based only on a press release from Apple?

Probably not. The reason is that Apple is not an independent provider of information about its products. It is self-interested in that it wants to sell as many as possible. That doesn't mean it will lie. But it does mean that it is unlikely to mention shortcomings of its products. To get reliable information you need all three characteristics, which is why before buying a product you might check out reviews from reputable news outlets. There you might learn hypothetically – that the new iPhone has a great new camera but its battery life suffered from other upgrades.

In short, VIA is meant to alert news consumers of the pluses and minuses of different types — neighborhoods — of information. The most reliable information features all three elements of VIA.

Has VIA always been important to journalism? 

Yes, though few journalists consciously thought about it in those terms. To a journalist and his or her news outlet, credibility is absolutely essential to success. What good would it be to publish information that people immediately doubted? By applying the process of verification, maintaining personal and organizational independence and taking responsibility by being accountable, journalists and news organizations are doing everything they can to make sure that the information they provide is accurate and fair.

To be frank, part of the loss of credibility of the mainstream news media over the past two decades has resulted from failures to adhere to VIA. Journalists rushed to get stories out, so they didn’t check their facts; journalists decided that the story they were telling was so important that they could leave out important information; news organizations became arrogant and were less responsive to complaints from the people and organizations they cover. All of those have played a role in a decline in the trust of the American public in the news media. Political splintering and increased partisanship on the part of the public have played a role as well, but if the news media is to regain the public’s confidence, it will have to adhere more closely to the principles of VIA.

Does the fact that anyone can technically be a journalist compromise the integrity of journalism?

Well, technically not anyone can be a journalist: only if they adhere to VIA. But the fact that anyone can publish information and appear to be a journalist has added to public confusion and has damaged the credibility of journalists and journalism.

If a person could only use one source for news, what should it be? In other words, is there any one truly objective news source?

News outlets that do not take a political position tend to strive for fairness rather than objectivity. Objectivity is too lofty a goal for human beings to reach, but it is possible for journalists, working together, to be fair to the facts and make an effort to include all relevant sides in a debate.

That being said, different journalists often get different pieces of information and focus on different angles of the same story. It is important to get news from a variety of outlets not only to avoid subjectivity, but also to get a fuller picture of the story.

How do you keep yourself independent when writing a story that conflicts with your views?

The skillsets of good journalists include many obvious talents and abilities: to be able to gather and then evaluate information; to be able to understand and then explain complex subjects in an accessible manner. But something that is most difficult for non-journalists — and even some journalists — to understand is the ability to set aside your personal prejudices and biases and produce an impartial report, one as the saying goes: “without fear or favor.”

For example, as a reporter in Poland in 1981, Professor Hornik covered the rise of the Solidarity trade union, which challenged the power of the communist government of Poland. The government committed violent acts against its people and had run the country’s economy into the ground. It would have been very easy to report only good things about Solidarity, but his job involved a lot more than that. Solidarity was highly disorganized and riven by factions; it had no real plan for how to solve the country’s economic problems; the constant strikes it staged were causing great harm to the public. So he reported with as much context and fairness as possible. He may not have always succeeded, but he always viewed that as his responsibility as a journalist.

How come political ads that are carried by news networks do not eliminate its independence?

There is said to be a “Chinese Wall” between the business side of a news organization and the news side. Journalists work separately from staff in charge of ads, and advertisements are clearly labeled. In theory, that wall is never crossed. In practice, that Wall has recently gotten easier to climb.

And even if the Wall remains strong, the appearance of a conflict of interest can be as damaging as the real thing. As the Times’ own public editor acknowledged at the time, a Hillary Clinton ad on the Times web page was a mistake and harmed the paper’s credibility even if the reporters and editors pay no attention to such things.

Can candidates pay news outlets to cover them?

No. In fact, journalists pay a lot of money to travel on candidates’ planes and buses, going out of their way to make sure that the journalists are not being subsidized.

If newspapers put their ethics to the side and display bias, does that mean that journalists will be pressured to do so too?

It can happen. Sometimes the only answer is to quit. For example, a number of journalists have quit the Las Vegas Review-Journal in response to what they say is pressure from the owner, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, to avoid negative coverage of him and his businesses and to target his enemies.

If a news outlet is government-funded, can it still be considered independent, or is it an outlet for propaganda?

It depends on how the funding is provided. Some countries have national news organizations that receive government funding, but that are run by non-government officials who act as an independent advisory and/or management board. This is the case with the BBC in Britain and the CBC in Canada. Unfortunately, the temptation to meddle in such independent organizations is quite strong.

In Poland, for example, the government-funded broadcast stations are supposed to be independent but have long been influenced by whichever political party is in power.

In the U.S., Voice of America is a government-funded broadcast outlet that openly admits that it reflects the opinions of the U.S. government. At the same time, PBS and NPR do receive some government funding, but most of it is indirect, with the bulk of their funds coming from donations by individuals, corporations and foundations. Both PBS and NPR are regularly accused by both parties of being biased against them – usually a good indication of independence.


Raw Information FAQs

Will raw information become more crucial to reporting a news story with the rise of technology and emphasis on minute-to-minute coverage?

It already has. Coverage of the war in Syria would be impossible without the raw information being sent via social media and the internet. Likewise in the US, video shot by citizens has played a key role in many important stories over the past few years, particularly the killing of unarmed African-Americans by police.

That said, today’s news outlets require a new set of skills and competencies as more and more of what they do is to curate raw information and turn it into news. By curating, we mean that journalists must now go out and find raw information, choose the most useful, and then make sure that it has not been faked or manipulated. There have been numerous cases of news outlets being fooled by raw information, but they have more and more tools to verify the accuracy of such materials. If you are interested in learning more about this, check out the Verification Handbook, which contains and explains many techniques for verifying raw information: http://verificationhandbook.com/downloads/verification.handbook.pdf

How does raw information differ from misinformation?

Misinformation is always untrue. Raw information may turn out to be true once it goes through the verification process.

Blurred Lines FAQs

What does it mean to have "blurred lines?"

By blurred lines, we mean areas where the different information neighborhoods can overlap. In some cases, such as entertainment or sports journalism, the blurring is often unavoidable. Here are the two types of blurred lines:

● Is the person or organization reporting the news really a journalist or just some person or group pretending to be one?

● Is the story you are reading or viewing or hearing journalism or is it advertising or publicity or propaganda or entertainment that is trying to appear to be journalism in order to steal its credibility?

Take entertainment or celebrity magazines. Many entertainers have fragile egos and do not like to read anything negative about themselves, but in order to succeed those magazines must be able to get access to those same entertainers. The danger is that they will surrender their independence and not publish negative information about a performer in order to keep them as a source.

People interested in entertainment or sports turn to news outlets with differing expectations. Some want to see inside stories about their favorite stars, without caring if the reporter tries to uncover potentially negative information. Some may want to see investigations of issues like racism or ageism in Hollywood, or of efforts by college teams to cover up crimes of their players.

Fortunately, the stakes of getting unreliable information in the fields of entertainment or sports are often low. At worst you may find yourself quite disappointed that an athlete you admire turned out to be a bad person. More worrisome are the efforts by non-journalism organizations to steal the credibility of journalism by trying to look like journalism. For example, some companies release video press releases that look very much like regular TV news stories but that do not have the independence of such stories – a report on a new allergy test that only interviews people with an interest in that service being sold to as many people as possible will not be reliable.

Are shows like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver opinion journalism?

Shows like Oliver’s are primarily intended to entertain and not inform us, so by the news literacy definition they do not qualify as journalism. That said, they can be quite informative because in most cases such shows spend a lot of time verifying information, the presenters are clearly accountable since we know who they are, and they seek to remain independent from outside influences. Jon Stewart, the former head of the Daily Show, often said he wasn’t a journalist. But he did once say that he might be considered an editorial cartoonist, and that is clearly opinion journalism.

Do you think commentators like Jon Stewart refuse the title of “journalist” to maintain the freedom of having a public opinion?

Jon Stewart and other comedians who satirize the news are sincere when they say they’re not journalists. They have experience as comedians and entertainers, not as reporters. That said, doing things that resemble journalism while dismissing the title of journalist means that they don’t have to follow journalistic ethics and standards. The veneer of journalism lends them some credibility, while calling themselves entertainers, comedians, or talk-show hosts is liberating – that is, they need not carry the burdens of verification, independence or accountability.

Could actual journalism be written or said in a comedic way but with the main purpose to inform?

It’s possible, but unlikely. One of the key problems is that the standard way to make news humorous is through satire and sarcasm, both of which are inherently unfair to the subjects of the story.

At what point is journalism not supposed to be entertaining? How much entertainment can it have before it is no longer journalism?

Journalism that is so serious or boring that no one will consume it is wasted. Every news outlet tries to make even the most serious and potentially boring story at least somewhat interesting. In many cases this is done by finding small stories or anecdotes about an important topic and using that to lure the reader or viewer into the story. Increasingly, news outlets also have at their disposal new ways to convey information through charts and graphs and maps, as well as with animations and videos.

How can you spot native advertising?

The first thing to look for is a label. Accountable news outlets such as he New York Times and Washington Post label sponsored content. If a label is missing, however, a native ad will differ from a reliable report, which will hear from many sides of a controversy, challenge and verify facts, and feature a byline that provides accountability for the reporter’s work.