Gone are the days when newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets were the lone gatekeepers of news. Thanks to the emergence of mobile devices and the Internet, just about anyone can be distributors of news and information. But where does credibility come into play in all this? How do you determine and ensure credibility if you're a journalist, publisher or reader?
This is the focus of "Sources, Verification and Credibility," a course offered by Poynter's News University. Candace Perkins Bowen, who directs both the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and the statewide Ohio Scholastic Media Association, is the instructor. The course has three main sections: 1) Understanding Credibility, 2) Evaluating Source of Information and 3) Being a Credible Publisher. Below are brief summaries of each point.
There are different forms of information, each with varying levels of credibility:
- News information: "gathered by professional journalists that can be verified by reliable, authoritative and independent sources"
- Publicity information: "distributed by public relations companies to enhance the image of an individual or business"
- Propaganda information: "generated by government or political movements using manipulation and deception in order to garner support or trigger action"
- Entertainment information: "intended to create alternate realities, amuse and generate revenue"
- Advertising information: "generated by advertising agencies to sell products and services"
- Raw information: "distributed from one party to another without editorial filters or verification" (e.g., text messages)
When considering credibility, news reporters and consumers should keep in mind the following six principles: 1) free expression and democracy; 2) the skill and obligation of discerning fact from opinion; 3) the significance of transparency in the gathering and reporting of news and information; 4) the necessity of credible sources, meaningful context and awareness of impact; 5) the necessity of verification; and 6) the empowerment of information for citizens and the flow of ideas.
Evaluating Source of Information
There are two kinds of sources: primary and secondary. Primary sources provide raw information, while secondary sources are filtered or edited information.
When evaluating primary sources used in information you consume, you must consider factors like who the source of the information is, what the source knows, why the source was used, the transparency of the reporting, the source's motive for providing the information and the difference between fact and opinion.
When evaluating websites, pay special attention to the URL extensions (e.g., .edu, .gov, .org). If you want to dig deeper, head to Allwhois.com to see the registration information for a particular domain. Looking at whether the website allows reader feedback, examining the kind of ads on the site and seeing whether others have cited the site as a source are also important ways to evaluate the credibility of a website.
Being a Credible Publisher
Publishers are responsible for verifying information they publish. They must be skeptical, not cynical. The course quotes Thomas Friedman of The New York Times to make the distinction:
"Skepticism is about asking questions, being dubious, being wary, not being gullible. Cynicism is about already having the answers -- or thinking you do -- about a person or an event. The skeptic says, 'I don’t think that’s true; I’m going to check it out.' The cynic says, 'I know that’s not true. It couldn’t be. I’m going to slam him.'"
Publishing credible information requires critical thinking, or "intellectual courage." To understand the story about to be published, you should ask questions to gain clarity, questions to gain precision and questions to gain precision breadth.
Providing context to a story requires perspective, which can be had by considering factors like what's happened before, what could happen in the future, and who knows the pros and cons.
"Great stories include both intimate examples and wider content to show the size of the issue," writes Bowen. "It is possible to be 'accurate' but not true. If you have no context for the action, you still have not captured the truth."
To take the self-directed Poynter course, head to the Poynter News University website.