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SOCI 263: Sociology of Race and Gender

Evaluating Media

The ability to evaluate what you read and hear is the foundation of critical thinking skills. Everyday we encounter information someone is presenting to us about things that are happening in the world, and we have to use our evaluative skills to know what information is trustworthy. Additionally, when we're trying to find answers to questions, we have to know whether the information presented to us is actually relevant to our question. 

Evaluating the media isn't always straightforward. There are no black and white rules to learn, but there are guidelines that can help you determine for yourself the trustworthiness of any piece of journalism.

The American Press Institute suggests six questions to ask yourself when you're reading or listening to any piece of information from a media source. (The full article is linked below.)

1. What type of content is it? The first thing to know is what it is, exactly, you're reading. Is it a news story? A magazine feature? A scholarly article or research report? Who published it? 

2. What sources are used and cited? Who did the author talk to or what did they read to inform this piece? Does it seem like that person is the appropriate person to have talked to? Do the sources have the appropriate level or type of authority? 

3. What is the evidence and how was it vetted? What are the sources basing their statements on? Is it an eye witness account? A study done by a reputable researcher? Or is the evidence just speculation? Does the evidence actually seem to corroborate what the source is saying? 

4. Is the main point of the piece proven by the evidence? Did the author of the piece you're reading come to reasonable conclusions based on the evidence? Does that they are saying make sense, given the evidence presented? 

5. What's missing? Is there important information missing from the story? Sometimes a journalist's or publisher's bias is apparent in what they leave out of their reporting. If you have questions about the conclusion and about how the evidence does or doesn't support it, that might be a sign that the author left out some key information. 

6. Am I learning every day what I need? Ok, this last question isn't necessarily helpful when evaluating a single piece of media, but it can help keep you honest about the media you're consuming. It can help you know what you need to learn more about, and when you need to seek out additional pieces of information to answer your questions. 

These questions are just the beginning, but they are helpful for evaluating the information you're taking in, especially when that information is being used to help you make a decision. 

Bias in the Media

There are more types of bias than political bias. Be sure to watch out for:

Commercial Bias News is sponsored by advertisers. Does the news presented reflect the advertisements embedded within the media?

Temporal Bias News agencies look for "breaking stories," often relegating old news to the back page or leaving it entirely uncovered. Scan the back pages too!

Visual Bias Including visuals will draw the reader's attention. Do images presented evoke specific responses? Do they prejudice the reader to view the news one way?

Sensationalism Good news is less exciting than news that is shocking or frightening. Does the media exaggerate details to make a story more interesting? Does the news agency focus only on the negative aspects of a story?

Narrative Bias Writers will generally develop a plot line - beginning, middle, and end - complete with drama. News, however, is rarely so tidy. Remind yourself that stories you read in the news are "unfolding." If a story captures your attention, its best to follow that story over a period of time.

Fairness Bias Ethical journalism is, in theory, fair. When a controversy arises, reporters will generally attempt to get the "other side" of the story. When a rebuttal is reported, it can seem like the media is taking one side or another. Read carefully to determine if presentation of both arguments is neutral.

Expediency Bias News is driven by deadlines. Those deadlines sometimes mean that reporters will return to experts they know well and have had successful contacts with previously. This may slant news in towards the political views of these experts.

(from University of Texas Libraries)