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A free summer seminar for experienced high school journalism advisers

From the 23 teachers who attended this workshop in July 2019, we have included Solutions Journalism Story Ideas, other Story Ideas for a whole range of topics and Tech Examples of something they learned, many of these for data visualization, plus some resources anyone can use in the future for these topics.

“If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out”: Journalism and the Skeptical Way of Knowing

Image result for blur book journalism

by Amy Medlock-Greene

My 10-year-old daughter really wants to keep believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. As the child of two skeptics, though, it’s getting harder and harder for her to square that belief with the empirical knowledge that tells her neither exists. 

The journalists’ conundrum of what and whom to believe is a little more complicated than childhood faith in a jolly old elf and an egg-delivering rabbit. In their 2010 book Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel offer tips for both journalists and news consumers to help navigate the often tumultuous world of modern media as each seeks to uncover the truth. At the heart of the authors’ approach is the idea of the “Skeptical Way of Knowing.” 

“It is seductive,” they write, “in the era of television and particularly live cable television to be tricked into the simplicity of imagining that seeing is believing, that believing equals truth. […] But the skeptical way of knowing demands more. Seeing is not knowing. Sorting out what is true involves more than having one or two facts and passing them on. Distinguishing between fact and truth involves knowing how to weigh the value of different facts–in other words, knowing how to sort and evaluate evidence” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 107).

This process of “sorting and evaluating evidence” with regard to journalism has definitely changed over the years as society has shifted from the “trust me” era of news to the “show me” era of news. Here, Kovach and Rosenstiel use the example of Walter Cronkite, former CBS Evening News anchor, who at one point was considered the “most trusted man in America.” It used to be that Americans took Cronkite’s word as fact because “the fact that a trusted news organization thought the source was worthy of quoting was considered enough” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 33). In today’s society, though, the authors say that news consumers need to know why we should believe the sources or the facts/ commentary they share. I think about Kellyanne Conway’s famous assertion that Donald Trump’s Press Secretary Sean Spicer was presenting “alternative facts” when pressed by NBC anchor Chuck Todd about the “provable falsehood” Spicer shared during his first press conference about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. News consumers need reporters to challenge such assertions when they happen and to give the public as much information as possible so the audience can have enough information to judge the source for themselves. This, the authors assert, is the “show me” era of news. “That reflects the power shift in the digital age from the journalist as gatekeeper to the consumer or citizen as his or her own editor,” they write. “With that shift the consumer has now acquired a greater responsibility to adopt and perfect a skeptical way of knowing” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 33).

So how can we cultivate this Skeptical Way of Knowing in ourselves and in our student journalists? Kovach and Rosenstiel say when journalists are “independent of mind” and “learn to overcome their own emotional leanings toward one faction or another, [t]hey learn to practice […] the ‘way of skeptical knowing’” (30).

The process involves asking the following questions:

  1. What kind of content am I encountering?
  2. Is the information complete; and if not, what is missing?
  3. Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
  4. What evidence is presented, and how was it tested or vetted?
  5. What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
  6. Am I learning what I need to? (Kovach and Rosenstiel 32)

Using these questions to guide both reporting and news consumption allows journalists and their audience “to bring a more scientific mentality to our observations about public life and events. We become better at trying to understand facts and don’t take their meaning on faith. It engenders more curiosity, and it demands that our curiosity be guided by empiricism. Not all journalists have it, though they should. As consumers, we are often far less likely to employ it” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 116). 

One problem with the modern media landscape is that the lines between news, propaganda, advertising, publicity, entertainment [and] raw information are blurring. “Ads are embedded in movies through product placement. Publicity is embedded in news programs interviewing celebrities hawking movies or books. The ecosystem of news is splintering into different models of news with different values and purposes. And as consumers, we need to be able to recognize them” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 34).

One way to determine the veracity of a source or the source’s content is to decide which type of journalism it purports to be. Kovach and Rosenstiel argue that there are four distinct models:

  1. Journalism of Verification, a traditional model that puts the highest value on accuracy and context. 
  2. Journalism of Assertion, a newer model that puts the highest value on immediacy and volume and in so doing tends to become a passive conduit of information. 
  3. Journalism of Affirmation, a new political media that builds loyalty less on accuracy, completeness, or verification than on the beliefs of its audiences, and so tends to cherry-pick information that serves that purpose. 
  4. Interest-group Journalism, which includes targeted Web sites or pieces of work, often investigative, that are usually funded by special interests rather than media institutions and designed to look like news. (34)

Identifying the type of journalism we’re practicing as members of the media or encountering as media consumers is one of the key steps in the skeptical way of knowing. This approach is key when dealing with sources. Who or what is the source? What is its connection to the topic? How can I verify the information it provides? Each of these questions must be considered any time a reporter encounters new information, and each is especially important when covering any facet of government or any agency. This process not only works for the professional news media but for student reporters as well.

Former New York Times reporter David Burnham’s approach to covering a “beat” involves five distinct steps:

  1. Identify the stated goals of the agency you are covering.
  2. Identify what information would help tell you whether the agency is meeting those stated goals (i.e, the agency’s output).
  3. Follow what the data, the product of the agency, tells you.
  4. Measure whether the output suggests the agency is doing its job and, if not, ask why not and what job it is doing instead.
  5. Question the participants to get their views on what the evidence shows. (Kovach and Rosenstiel 154)

Following these steps will help journalists ensure that their reporting is both accurate and verifiable, thus helping instill trust in their media organization. When the audience is able to “develop this discipline and apply the formula of ‘show me,’ or ‘prove it,’ or ‘why should I believe it’ to evidence–particularly to evidence that may challenge [their] own beliefs”– they’re able to engage in the Skeptical Way of Knowing.

Kovach and Rosenstiel say “we use this kind of thinking in our daily lives all the time” (116), and it not only helps us become better reporters, but it helps us become better consumers of the media we encounter. This, in turn, helps us become better, more well-informed citizens–and better, more well-informed citizens lead to a better society for all.

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