The Commerce Journal

September 20, 2012

How to know if politicians and journalists are telling the truth

By Caleb Slinkard
The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — There’s a ton of information at our fingertips. The Internet is full of facts, statistics and opinions. Often, it’s hard to know whether something a politician says or a newspaper prints is 100 percent accurate, partially true, or a complete fabrication.

There are some useful tips and websites that can be used to vet (or fact-check) some of the information we absorb. The first is a website run by the Tampa Bay Times, PolitiFact looks at claims by media organizations, politicians and political analysts and fact checks it against available information and expert opinions to provide a relatively unbiased opinion. They use a pretty neat device called the “Truth-o-meter” to rate claims, and go into a detailed rundown of how they came to their conclusion, complete with relevant links. The only drawback is that you’re limited to topics they cover, but they deal with a pretty broad range of political issues. And, their writing is far wittier and funnier than it has any right to be.

Another website, perhaps the most well-known of the bunch, is Snopes looks at rumors and myths that circulate the Internet and either confirm or debunk them. Snopes provides information on the sources it cites, and works quickly to keep up with the increasing amount of myths spread by gullible people via email chains, etc. If anything you read on the Internet sounds fishy, run it through Snopes first to see if they’ve reported on it.

Additionally, while news sources don’t usually get the full picture, professional publications are generally pretty good about providing correct information. The more well-read, prestigious and well-staffed a publication is, the more accurate and unbiased its information will be. Unfortunately, media organizations are both owned and staffed by individuals who bring their personal biases into their reporting and management. But journalists are trained to stifle their personal opinions as much as possible (except for TV analysts and column writers).

It’s important to understand the mission or role of media organizations when consuming information or analysis they provide. For instance, Fox News is owned by media-mogul Rupert Murdoch, who is known for his strong conservative political stance. Fox slants its coverage to promote conservative and Republican agendas, hires Republican politicians as talk show hosts, and generally serves as a right-wing news organization. Anyone who argues differently simply refuses to look at objectively at Fox News.

CNN and MSNBC do the same thing, but for liberals and Democrats. Their coverage is based on political and worldviews exposed by their owners, producers, journalists and analysts.

What does this mean? Well, for one thing, take news reported by both organizations with a grain of salt. Comparing coverage of the same event by the various media organizations can provide a more complete view of a subject than simply relying on one of them. Also, if these organizations happen to agree on something, odds are its probably true.

Another tip is to augment the news you consume with both online and print journalism. Local newspapers that serve small communities have problems- they can be rife with “good old boys” who support friends and local governments, they are often understaffed and underpaid, and the journalists working for these organizations usually aren’t the most well-trained. However, there are far fewer “buffers” between community journalists and local officials and they are often locally-owned, which means they are free from the control of major media organizations and their resulting political and social agendas.

National and international newspapers have their own agendas. The New York Times is considered a more liberal newspaper, while the Wall Street Journal, which was recently purchased by Murdoch, has begun to support conservative agendas. Still, both newspapers are largely staffed by competent journalists.

There are some media organizations that are renowned for their fairness in reporting. BBC is perhaps the most reliable international news source for Western readers, particularly on topics relating to the United States, since they are outside major American influence. Reuters and the Associated Press are also “fair and balanced.”

Simply reading a wide variety of articles on a specific subject and researching the topic via professional educational publications can also provide a more well-rounded understanding. You can even call experts or journalists themselves to get a complete view on a subject.

Understanding what politicians and journalists’ motivations are can go a long way to understanding how reliable the content of their messages is. When in doubt, research, read, and analyze and use online resources available to you. Do this, and you’ll have the wool pulled over your eyes far less often than the average media consumer.