Evaluating News

May 3, 2023

In our last installment, we talked about the public’s failing confidence in, well, just about everything. Science, government, religion, education, health care, law enforcement, the media—all are measurably less trusted now than in years past. Even faith in our neighbors is eroding, with 64% of Americans stating in a recent Pew study that their trust in their fellow man has decreased. 

The factors driving this decline are myriad, and so far, the search for a root cause has turned up nothing more than a grudging admission that our current era of increasing global interconnection and late-stage capitalism is a tough time to be alive. There is a sliver of good news here; despite the grim trend of distrust, a sizable number of people believe that our institutions can still turn it around. A recent Pew study found that eight out of ten Americans (84%) believe that it’s possible for the government to improve the level of public trust. Even more (86%) stated that they think trust in others can be rebuilt, although there seems to be no clear consensus on how to get that done.

One other finding from the same study came with a bit of personal sting for me; of those who report declining confidence in our institutions, 10% believe that the news media is to blame. 

Now, I’m no social scientist—I’m just a simple newsman—but I’ve been reporting on the events of this great nation for nearly four decades, and I have noted some trends. I agree that yellow journalism is on the rise, especially in science reporting, but more troubling to me is the inability of my fellow citizens to see it and call it out for what it is. Many media outlets now focus much more on entertaining the public than informing them, spawning the term “infotainment,” which is one of the most distasteful portmanteaus I have ever had the displeasure of learning. 

In short, they discovered that people prefer to be entertained with sensationalism that reinforces positions they already hold. Reporting that challenges common beliefs or shakes up the status quo just doesn’t sell as well. After a few decades of that, the integrity of the fourth estate has become an endangered species, and the critical thinker is all but extinct.

That’s not what we do here at the Planetary Broadcast Network. So, to do our part in initiating a course correction, here is a basic little tool box for our audience to use when evaluating news stories.

  • First, know what type of piece you are reading. Is it presented as hard news, or is it an editorial, opinion piece, or the dreaded “sponsored content”? 
  • Consider the author and publisher. Are there possible conflicts of interest, obvious biases, or a lack of journalistic credentials?
  • Examine the evidence presented. Is it presented in context? Is it verified, is there corroboration, and are the sources named? Are there multiple sources? Are the sources well informed, or experts in the field? Is it secondhand (hearsay)?
  • Where possible, seek out other coverage of the same story. Check to see if evidence provided by common sources is reported in the same way. 

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive method for avoiding the shills, but it’s a great place to start. The next time you encounter a breathless report that confirms one of your pet conspiracy theories, seek out the answers to a few of these questions before you rush into the office break room yelling, “I #&!%*$@ knew it!”

And another great step you can take toward news literacy is to stay tuned to the PBN Evening News. We invite you to apply these tools to our reporting, and if you find us lacking, hold our feet to the fire. At PBN, we believe that you, the informed citizenry, are what makes our national democratic experiment work.