First on the Scene

In recent years, as social media is increasingly used by citizen journalists and bloggers to report breaking news, the professional news media has placed greater emphasis on haste than accuracy (Carter, 2013).  Journalists and reporters scramble to be ‘first on the scene’ and, in the process, neglect to properly vet sources and check facts (Carter, 2013).  As a result, mistakes are made.  During the Boston Marathon bombing, for example, a number of news outlets (including such high profile organizations as Fox News, CNN, The Boston Globe and The Associated Press) mistakenly reported an arrest when, in fact, the suspects were still at large (Carter, 2013).

In the era of social media, where news travels at the speed a witness can type 140 characters, the public has grown to expect instant access to information.  Are we, then, to blame for this phenomenon?  Or are the professionals who have studied journalism and the media accountable for the information they put out?  I would argue that journalists have an ethical obligation to accurately report the news despite outward pressure for immediate gratification.

In the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, industry leaders direct journalists to “[t]ake responsibility for the accuracy of their work” and “[r]emember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy” (SPJ Code of Ethics, 2014).  Regardless of the motivation, it is a violation of journalist ethics to spread inaccurate information.  Rigorous research and fact checking are what separates the professional, trained journalist from the citizen journalist or amateur blogger.

As intelligent consumers of news, we should demand accurate and thorough reporting.  This should include clearly identified sources, links (in the case of online content) to supporting sources and documentation, and well-researched background information to provide context (Buttry, 2010).  I would rather see an environment where citizen journalists and amateur bloggers break the news and professional journalists weigh-in later to provide analysis and confirm details.  Ultimately, it is the journalist who is responsible for the content they provide and, as professionals, they should strive for the highest ethical standards.

References

Buttry, S. (2010, November 7). Journalists’ Code of Ethics: Time for an update? Retrieved March 3, 2015, from https://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/journalists-code-of-ethics-time-for-an-update/

Carter, B. (2013, April 17). The F.B.I. Criticizes the News Media After Several Mistaken Reports of an Arrest. Retrieved March 3, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/business/media/fbi-criticizes-false-reports-of-a-bombing-arrest.html?_r=1

SPJ Code of Ethics. (2014). Retrieved March 3, 2015, from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

First on the Scene

Determining the Credibility of an Article

Social media has had a profound influence on the way we receive information.  Messages can be formulated by anyone and distributed to millions instantaneously.  Social media creates an environment where we have access to virtually unlimited information from around the globe.  But, how do we vet this information?  How do we ensure that the messages we receive are accurate?  This is no easy task.  In fact, it is becoming increasingly common for professional news outlets, in their quest to be the first to break news, to report false or misleading information which originated from social media.  During the news following the Boston Marathon bombings, for instance, the New York Post published a picture of two ‘suspects’ “on its front page, who had nothing to do with the bombings” (Vis, 2014).  In this environment, we must remain skeptical of the information we receive.  A close examination of an article’s sources will reveal much about the validity of the information provided.

To begin with, we must ask ourselves, how credible is the author?  In today’s blogosphere, anyone can create a website or a blog.  Bloggers include many professional writers and experts in their field.  On the other hand, they also include amateurs with no training in fact checking and activists with a set agenda.  The conscientious reader will examine the author’s credentials before trusting the information provided.

As an exercise in vetting media sources, I examined “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher,” appearing in the New York Times, to determine the credibility of the authors.  The article, written by Justin Gillis and John Schwartz, discusses the publication of documentation which suggests that Dr. We-Hock Soon, an outspoken climate change skeptic, received fossil fuel industry money to publish papers “[claiming] that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming” (Gillis & Schwartz, 2015).  At the outset, the piece seems a bit biased.  The title itself suggests the article’s subject, Dr. Soon, is a fraud.  The authors quote Kert Davies who is an activist (with a definite anti-fossil fuel agenda), not an expert (Who We Are, n.d.).  In addition, both Gillis and Schwartz are science writers who report specifically on climate change.  However, as the subject of climate change is fairly cut and dry (the vast majority of scientists believe human pollutants have significantly affected our atmosphere), it would be hard to present ‘both sides’ of the argument in this case.  An examination of journalistic standards may be necessary to determine the overall credibility of this piece.

Using evaluative criteria from Kovach and Rosenstiel’s Blur, as well as guidelines from the University of Oregon Library and former George Mason University Professor Virginia Montecino, I sought to determine how the authors sourced their article (Critical Evaluation of Information Sources, n.d.; Helpful Hints to Help You Evaluate the Credibility of Web Resources; n.d.; Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  The documentation (correspondences and grant agreements) supporting claims within the article was published alongside the piece offering readers the opportunity to see source material first hand (Gillis & Schwartz, 2015).  The authors also interviewed highly credible sources (aside from Kert Davies) to quote within the piece.  Here is a rundown of expert source credentials:

  • Naomi Oreskes is one of the leading climate change scientists in the country, if not the world. She has authored numerous scholarly papers and books.  Oreskes’s 2004 essay, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” has been cited in films, publications and books worldwide.  She is also the 2011 recipient of the Watson-Davis Prize from the History of Science Society.  (Naomi Oreskes, n.d.)
  • Gavin A. Schmidt is the Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He has been published in numerous scholarly articles, given a TED talk, appeared in documentaries and appeared on both The Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show with John Stewart.  (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, n.d.)

In an effort to remain balanced, Gillis and Schwartz gave Dr. Soon and Southern Company, who funded much of Dr. Soon’s research, the opportunity to respond to developments (Dr. Soon did not respond and Southern Company declined to comment on Dr. Soon’s research specifically, but stated “Southern Company funds a broad range of research on a number of topics that have potentially significant public-policy implications for our business”) (Gillis & Schwartz, 2015).

Because Gillis and Schwartz conducted thorough research, relying on multiple sources, and were completely transparent with their sources and findings, I would argue that “Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher” offers the reader a credible account.  The articles outlet, the highly regarded New York Times, also lends credibility to the piece.

References

Critical Evaluation of Information Sources. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://library.uoregon.edu/guides/findarticles/credibility.html

Gillis, J., & Schwartz, J. (2015, February 21). Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher. Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/22/us/ties-to-corporate-cash-for-climate-change-researcher-Wei-Hock-Soon.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&region=CColumn&module=MostEmailed&version=Full&src=me&WT.nav=MostEmailed&_r=0

Helpful Hints to Help You Evaluate the Credibility of Web Resources. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/web-eval-sites.htm

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2010). Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload. New York: Bloomsbury USA.

Naomi Oreskes. (n.d.). Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/bios/oreskes.html

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.giss.nasa.gov/staff/gschmidt/

Vis, F. (2014). How Does False Information Spread Online? Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2014/04/how-does-false-information-spread-online/

Who We Are. (n.d.). Retrieved February 23, 2015, from http://www.climateinvestigations.org/who_we_are

Determining the Credibility of an Article

Who Controls the Message? By Courtney Barker

The communication of messages through media is, and always has been, critical to knowledge production (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  From the written word through the Internet age, new mediums have created avenues for message dissemination (and control), self-expression and engagement.  Historically, oral histories played an important role in knowledge sharing and production (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  But, information relayed may have proved inconsistent (depending on the storyteller’s memory) and was delivered to a relatively small audience (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  As written media developed, consistent and precise information could be distributed to a widespread audience and used to shape opinions and beliefs (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).

The written word allowed individuals with power and authority to manipulate messages in order to form or change public opinion.  The English Tudor monarchs, for instance, were master public relations coordinators who re-wrote history to support their regal claim (De Lisle, 2014).  The depiction of Henry Tudor’s (Henry VII) nemesis, Richard III, as a deformed and evil monster originated with the Tudor propaganda machine (De Lisle, 2014).  The ability of the Tudor propaganda machine to shape “history” was so powerful that this depiction of Richard III was not seriously challenged until the 20th century (De Lisle, 2014).

While advances in media technology have enabled the spread of propaganda throughout history, they have also enabled the sharing of knowledge (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  In Blur, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue that each new advancement in media technology creates more consumer choice and access to information which, inevitably, leads to a more democratic society (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  Kovach and Rosenstiel use the advent of journalism in the early 17th century (made possible by the invention of the printing press) as an example of a new medium which provided the means to disseminate new ideas about human rights and self-governance (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  The spread of these ideas though a new and less costly medium were essential to the Enlightenment movement and the spread of democracy (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).

The advent of broadcast media allowed messages to be spread to a much wider audience regardless of their education (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  The ability to hear, and then see, events unfold first hand led to the modern empirical society we live in today (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  As Americans witnessed the carnage in Vietnam or the brutal backlash against the Civil Rights Movement unfold, people became increasingly skeptical of the messages put forth by the government (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  New sources of knowledge led to increased awareness of our government’s policies and the world (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).

In the modern era, as new media delivers messages from multiple points (local/national/international; government, corporate, non-profit and the average citizen), we have more opportunity than ever to form our own opinions and set our own agendas.  While traditional media is dominated by a handful of messages chosen for our consumption, new media offers information on countless topics from around the world.  Traditional media may still set the tone, but there are numerous other options for the knowledge seeker.

New media represents a shift in the way we engage with media messages.  The interactive element of new media allows us to respond directly and publicly to messages.  This has the potential to create a more equal society as governments and corporations are forced to address public concerns brought to light through new media.  In Blur, Kovach and Rosenstiel use the example of the online challenges to the Affordable Care Act to illustrate the impact new media can have on public opinion, and, by extension, public policy (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2010).  The constant stream of differing viewpoints on the Internet allows us greater freedom to formulate our own point of view as well.  During Presidential elections, I have access to a plethora of news sources as well as posts from friends, bloggers, activists and countless other sources.  Media influences my perspective, but the messages I receive are not unilateral.  In addition, I can easily engage in “public” debate with citizens across the nation which also informs and shapes my knowledge base.

New media is so ingrained in our everyday lives that it is hard to imagine that the Internet has only been around a couple decades!  I use the Internet every day to engage with friends and family via social media, find recipes for dinner and check the news.  Through social media and chat rooms, the Internet has had a significant effect on the way we socialize and engage our peers and the outside world (including the government and corporate world).  In addition, it has fundamentally changed the way we conduct our lives.  Many of us look for employment, attend classes, shop, monitor our health, and plan our vacations and other important life events online.  I used the web to plan my wedding, research baby names and, now, I am attending graduate school online.

While all media serves as a vehicle for knowledge delivery, new media represents a shift in the way we receive information.  We are constantly connected.  The challenge in the modern world has changed from ‘where or how do we access information’ to ‘how do we efficiently sort through the information at our fingertips.’

 References

De Lisle, L. (2014). Did Richard III Kill the Princes in the Tower? Retrieved February 10, 2015, from http://www.newsweek.com/did-richard-iii-kill-princes-tower-258395

Kovach, B., & Rosenstiel, T. (2010). We have been here before. In Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload (1st ed.). New York: Bloomsbury USA.

Who Controls the Message? By Courtney Barker