Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It doesn’t matter, because we ask that you look across the street to the office building and watch one intrepid reporter click-clacking away at her computer. Yes, the world needs Superman, but now more than ever the world needs people like Lois Lane. The world needs good journalism and we’re not just talking about fancy news reporters working away in their low-paying jobs. No, we’re talking about everyone, because we are the ones who are failing in our understanding of what journalism really is. We may not be able to fact check faster than a speeding bullet or be less biased than a locomotive. We may not even be able to leap tall logical fallacies in a single bound, but we have to try. Journalism is not a passive process and somewhere along the way we have forgotten that. So let us remind you what it means to participate in a process that keeps our democracy free.
Questions of Steel
There is one thing that every journalist has in common, well make that five or six things. When writing a story every reporter, whether they work in Smallville or Metropolis need to keep a few key questions in mind: Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How. On the surface these questions might seem pretty basic, but think about how important they are in conveying information. Where did the event take place?… In Lex Luthor’s penthouse apartment. What happened?… A doomsday laser was fired at the moon but stopped at the last minute. Who was involved?… Superman and Lex Luthor. When did it happen?… Last night. How did it happen?… Lex Luthor constructed the machine and used it. Why did it happen?… Good question.
You see these basic questions will not always have answers or most-likely they will have very complicated answers that may require some lengthy explaining or additional research. However, these are the basic questions that every journalist needs to keep in mind when writing or reading a piece. Yes, we said reading, because remember -and we can’t stress this enough- JOURNALISM IS NOT A PASSIVE PROCESS. Everyone is a journalist in one form or another. You may never win a Pulitzer or even put a sentence to a page, but you still have a responsibility in the world of journalism. If you read the news or engage with articles online you have to always be asking yourself: Who, What, Where, Why, When, and How, as you read the article. You need to identify the essential questions of anything you read, because if you can’t or if you find an unsatisfactory answer it is your job to do further follow-up. Something might be rotten in the Daily Planet, but if you are not actively being aware of the core information being relayed to you, you might miss it.
Now, larger “think pieces” or “interest pieces” such as what we do here at The NYRD will not always cover all those questions. We try to, but the nature of the things we write about doesn’t always allow us to cover the When or Where or sometimes even the Who of certain pieces, but it also worth arguing that in journalism those are not always the most important questions. In fact, the biggest question every person needs to keep in mind is the “Y” of an article. In journalism there is an unspoken why, which we like to abbreviate down to the “Y” of a story. This is the bigger “why.” It is not the “why did the events of this story happened,” but the “why is this story being told?” Is it informative? Is it entertaining? Is it persuasive? This unspoken why is essential to the practice of journalism, especially in today’s modern age. This seventh question helps us interpret the intent and the execution of news articles, and -especially- online pieces -like what we do here at The NYRD. That is why the burden of this question lies heaviest on the reader’s shoulders.
Lois Lane is a good reporter, but much like her husband, Superman, she can’t do it alone. We’ll say it again: Journalism is not a passive process. You, the reader, need to keep this unspoken seventh question -the “Y” of whatever you read- always in your mind. To do so, you need to be able to do some critical thinking and even fact checking. Good news: That is easier than it has even been, thanks to the Internet. If something is too ridiculous to be true or too infuriating to seem believable, then question it. Many times the “Y”of a story might be simple and dull. The police blotter in your local paper, for instance, will tell you the arrests that happened that week because as the citizens in a community you have a right to know what goes on there. However, the “Y” might also be something more sinister. Propaganda is the extreme side of this spectrum, where false news is reported in order to influence the populace to think or act in certain ways. More Importantly, remember that news does not always have to false to be misleading or even an outright lie.
The Bias of Kryptonite
Another thing that good journalists try to avoid is “bias.” That is the evidence or appearance of a journalist having ulterior motives in a story or slanting the narrative in one party’s favor over another’s. It’s a pretty straightforward concept, and most people assume they understand it, which is also why so many people -and at least one President-Elect- get it wrong. It turns out most people are actually are very bad at identifying bias, mostly because they fail to recognize that bias is unavoidable. Professional journalists understand that bias cannot be avoided. That is why when they talk about it they talk in terms of managing it. After all, we are humans and whether it be through the use of subtle adjectives or even paragraph construction bias will always exist in our endeavors. That is something all the Citizen-Lois-Lanes out there need to recognize. So let’s start by breaking down how to identify the slant of a news stories.
Managing bias needs to start with accuracy, because the most common form of bias in journalism happens unknowingly Often it is accomplished through omission or misplaced weight on shaky sources. The best way to think about the reliability of news sources is called the Protess Method. Basically, picture it like a giant target with three rings.
- The outer ring -or the least reliable source of information- is secondary sources. This is when Lois Lane quotes a fact from another print news organization or publication. For instance, when writing a story on Lex Luthor’s corruption she may quote a fact from the Gotham Gazette, which is usually a fairly reliable source of news. The problem is that unless the Daily Planet researches where the Gazette got their information there is potential for the propagation of misleading facts, or even simply misquoting how those facts were used in the first place. -It is also worth noting that this is the primary type of the source material that we here at The NYRD rely on, though we try to find corroborating accounts from multiple sites-
- The middle ring is related to primary source documents. These are court transcripts, senate bills, and other documents generated by an official organization that is part of the story being handled. Thus, the official police report detailing the arrest of Lex Luthor is considered a more reliable source than the article about the incident from the Gotham Gazette.
- The center ring is comprised of interviews with people directly involved with the story, such as witnesses, lawyers, police, superheroes, etc. If Lois Lane gets a quote about the arrest from Superman -who was at the scene at the time- than we generally take that as a more accurate source than the police reports.
You may say that eye witness testimony is not always the most reliable, and you would be right. That is also why you need multiple corroborating sources. You see, the number of sources that corroborate each other gives weight to the information, regardless of its place in the Protess Method. One shaky eye witness whose interview is completely negated by multiple other sources is probably unreliable. It is often best to get multiple sources from multiple rings, court documents, eye witness testimony, etc. Regardless, it is a journalists’ duty to find the best and most accurate sources of information before going to print with a piece. That means it is a reader’s duty to identify and gauge the accuracy of sources being presented in a news story. Check to find corroborating evidence? Evaluate if shaky sources are being presented as solid fact.
As we said before, bias is part and parcel of the package. In fact, some news source purposely bias themselves in one direction or another. This is often done to garner ratings, outrage, political favor, or even out of pure self interest. That is also why it is so important for us, the readers, to do our best to be aware of the slant of the new organizations that are supplying us with our information. For instance, the Luthor News Network is not going to be very non-partisan on the arrest of Lex Luthor, but that example is easy to spot. The real problem comes when the Metropolis Times is owned by Rocket LLC, which is actually a subsidiary of Luthor Corp. Funding is a powerful conflicting force, especially in journalism. In our world, sites like Breitbart or even Slate know they can garner more clicks and more advertisements if they stoke the fires of outrage and lure in more readers with click-bait headlines. That is why you, as the reader, need to understand where a news piece is coming from, as well as what it is saying.
The Last Son of a Dying Business
Journalism is not a passive process, but it also an essential process to a free and vibrant democracy. The press is called the fourth pillar of our government. It is the check and balance against the corruption of our system, and it is the pillar that relies heaviest on us, the people. Participating in democracy means participating in journalism, and that means you have a responsibility. You cannot take anything you read -especially on the Internet- at face value. Thankfully, there are a lot of non-partisan sources that can help you distinguish between fact and fiction. However, you have to be able to open your eyes to what you at reading so that you can question the assumptions being made, not only in the article, but the assumptions that you might already hold. As a citizen journalist you need to ask that “Y” of everything. “Y” is this news source reporting on this? “Y” are they writing it the way they are writing? “Y” did this particular piece show up on your news feed? Could it have been written from another angle? How accurate is the information? We know that all this sounds exhausting, but after this last election it is more vital than ever.
So as we admire the Man of Steel, let us not forget Lois Lane, and maybe we can all be a little more like her too. Superman may be able to punch a comet out the sky, but he cannot save you from your own bias or the slanted news reporting. Only you can do that, because when it comes to journalism, fact checking and questioning are burdens we all bear. After an article is published, or an interest piece, or even a sports blurb in your local high school paper, you have a responsibility to question it, because nobody will do it for you.