INTERPRETING & VERIFYING THE NEWS in an Era of Info Overload

by Alan Shapiro

 
 
To the Teacher
 
The student readings, discussion questions, and inquiry suggestions below focus on the need to critically interpret and verify what one sees, hears, and reads to avoid being swamped by information overload.
 
The first reading provides an overview of the media explosion, quoting first from Charles Weingartner's "The Interpretation of News," and then from The Elements of Journalism by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach. The second deals with some basic issues, including the understanding that "news is made, not collected," the need for good navigation skills. The third suggests a student inquiry into two conflicting reports on the death of a Palestinian woman in the West Bank.
 
See "Thinking Is Questioning" for exercises to help students with a question-asking, question-analyzing process that aims to help them learn how to ask good questions as the first step in making productive inquiries.
 
This is the seventh in a continuing series of readings at Teachable on the media and the news that includes: 
  • War and the Media: A Resource Unit (war reporting from Lexington to Iraq, analyzing a news story, the media business)
  • News, National Security & Democracy (secret prisons and eavesdropping on Americans)
  • What is 'news' and how important is it? (defining "news" and the importance of the press)
  • News Sources: Questions and Issues (defectors and government officials as sources)
  • The News & the Bottom Line (the news business and pressures for profits and the consequences)
  • Bush, Secrecy & the Press (the workings of the government's classification system and samples of presidential secrecy)
 

Student Reading 1:

Information Overload

In 1789, when George Washington was inaugurated in New York City as the first president of the United States, the news would not reach Boston for nearly a week—though it was only about 220 miles away. Americans in the state of Georgia would have to wait for about a month, the British twice as long.
 
Two hundred and nineteen years later, live video of Barack Obama's 2008 inauguration was instantly available worldwide.
 
The immediacy, diversity and volume of news sources and information of all kinds now available to anyone with an internet connection is impressive. Every day, an average of 247 billion e-mails are sent worldwide. The world had 234 million websites, as of December 2009, according to Pingdom, a website monitoring group. (www.royal.pingdom.com)
 
Some examples of popular Internet, mobile phone and cable media:
 
YouTube, a video-sharing website, had 14 billion viewers in May 2010. YouTube, like many other websites, can make anyone anywhere a potential news provider. For instance, Marie Corfield, an art teacher, gained instant fame last fall when a video was posted of her criticizing New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Facebook at last count had 500 million members globally; Twitter, My Space, and other social networking media attract many millions more.
Smartphones and other mobile phones allow texting and nonstop connectivity
Internet media sites compete with old print media outlets for dominance. Al Jazeera English, based in Qatar, broadcasts news to more than 100 countries 24/7, continuously live streams programs, and provides written news reports on its website at www.english.aljazeera.net. Huffington Post, an Internet newspaper, reaches millions with its articles, blogs, and news videos.
An array of cable channels, to name but a few, focus on sports (ESPN), learning (TLC), food (FN), and travel (TC), to news channels (Fox, CNN, MSNBC) and news satire (Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report")
Some "old media" newspapers, like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, are under such financial stress that they have abandoned print for online editions only. The Christian Science Monitor has become an online daily with a print edition weekly. Such major newspapers as the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times publish print editions daily as well as online editions. Printed news magazines like Time and Newsweek, still survive. AM and FM radio is still popular, especially for people in cars.
 
The media glut poses a challenge to everyone: What is really going on out there? Which sources of news are reliable and which aren't? What is important and what's not?
 
 
For discussion and writing
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. What are students' major sources of news and other kinds of information? Why are these sources important to them?
 
3. How aware are students of the possibility for conflicting, partially inaccurate, or false reports? What do they do when they become aware of such problems?
 
 

Student Reading 2:

Interpreting and verifying the news

Interpreting the news
 
In an essay called "The Interpretation of News," Charles Weingartner makes some observations about "news" that are just as relevant now as when the essay was published, in 1966. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he notes, had a very simple, and straightforward definition of the law: "The law is what the courts say it is. Nothing more. Nothing less. Similarly, news is nothing more or less than what reporters—with the encouragement or sufferance of their editors and publishers—say and write."
 
In short, Weingartner's definition of news is a combination of a particular reporter's "imagination… prejudices… courage…timidity…perceptual limitations. This definition implies, too, that news is not something 'out there' to be gathered or collected, as so many newsmen would like us to think. News is made, not collected. 'All the news that's fit to print,' if it means anything at all, means only the publicly asserted biases of the reporters and editors of the New York Times-which biases, I am sure you have noticed, frequently differ from those of the Chicago Tribune or the New York Daily News or the Columbia Broadcasting System.
 
"On the day Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, so did a hundred other people," notes Weingartner. "Yet we shall never know about these people or their reasons," since the newspapers and other media took no notice of those deaths. "An event in itself is not news. An event becomes news. And it becomes news because a reporter or editor has selected it for notice out of the buzzing, booming confusion around him. Of course, once he has chosen an event to be news, he must also choose what he wants to see, what he wants to neglect, and what he wishes to remember or forget. This is simply another way of saying that every news story—even though it be written in descriptive language—is an editorial.
 
Weingartner gives this example to illustrate his point.
 
1. "The streets of central Moscow are, as the guidebooks say, clean and neat; so is the famed subway. They are so because of an army of women with brooms, pans, and carts who thus earn their 35 rubles a month in lieu of 'relief'; in all Moscow we never saw a mechanical streetsweeper." (Wall Street Journal, July 31, 1962)
 
2. "Four years ago [in Moscow] women by the hundreds swept big city streets. Now you rarely see more than a dozen. The streets are kept clean with giant brushing and sprinkling machines." (World Telegram & Sun, July 31, 1962)
 
(Weingartner's essay appears in Neil Postman's book Language and Reality.)
 
 
Verifying the news
 
Decades after Weingartner wrote his essay, we still need to verify "the news"—even though the nature of media has changed dramatically.
 
Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach write in their book The Elements of Journalism: "We now live in a user controlled media world. People are their own editors, and the ability of the press to function as a gatekeeper over what the public sees, or to force-feed the public what it should know, is over."
 
A stunning example has been WikiLeaks' release of confidential and secret U.S. government documents. Among the revelations: The US military failed to investigate torture, rape, even murder by Iraqi police and other security forces; and the Obama administration successfully pressured German and Spanish officials not to investigate Bush administration officials accused of responsibility for prisoner torture.
 
"Our public discourse," Rosenstiel and Kovach maintain, "is now going to be a collaboration between citizens and consumers of information, and the sources from which they get that information. The real gap in the twenty-first century is not between those who have access to the Internet and those who don't; it's between those who have skills to navigate the information, and those who are overwhelmed by it and escape that sense of overwhelming by just going to the sources that make them feel comfortable, or to points of view that are comforting and familiar….
 
"The conventional press has historically always been too reliant on authority, on taking peoples' word for things just because they were officials, and being a conduit for those powerful voices." But digital technology is changing that, they argue. "Everyone is now in the breaking news business and they [government authorities] have to actively push against that.
 
"The ability to question, to be skeptical, now logically includes using the audience as a skeptical sounding board for the press. But it also means the audience themselves need to keep an open mind and not say, 'Well I like this guy, I like President Obama, and therefore I believe him' …
 
"It's incumbent on all of us to say, 'Okay I like you—now show me the evidence behind what you are saying….The people we like and the people we dislike in public life are capable of spin and shading the truth and exploiting statistics, and engaging in argument rather than explanation of things."
 
The transmission of information inevitably means the transmission of misinformation whether it is conveyed by the New York Times or via Huffington Post. Even young children playing "Telephone" discover this truth.
 
This means that it's not enough to be a passive, uncritical receiver of "the news" provided by media sources—or even of "information" passed on by parents, friends, acquaintances, and teachers. What we need, say Rosensteil and Kovach, is "a discipline of verification."
 
A short quiz
 
Below are, first, five statements about the Weingartner essay, then five statements about Rosenstiel and Kovach's arguement. In your notebook, mark each statement either "True" or "False." "True" means either that statement is made directly in the reading, or that there is enough evidence in the article to support it. "False" means that the statement is neither made directly, nor is there enough evidence in the reading to support it. Be prepared to support your choices by pointing to the evidence in the reading that helped you to make them.
 
Weingartner
 
1. The author says that news reporters gather all the news available to them.
2. The author says that the personal life of a movie star is not news.
3. The author says that important events determine what is news.
4. The author says that news reporters can be completely objective if they do their jobs properly.
5. The author believes that absolute objectivity is essential for all news reporters.
 
Rosenstiel and Kovach
 
1. The authors say that in the new media environment the press can no longer determine what people see and know.
2. The authors say that an important difference today is between people who have the skills to examine information critically and those who accept what they hear or read from familiar sources.
3. The authors say that new technology makes it easier for people to question official statements.
4. That authors say that the audience for news should avoid simply trusting government officials who are popular.
5. The authors say that everyone in public life, whether we like them or not, may avoid direct and honest explanations.
 
To the Teacher: The statements above offer a test of your students' ability to comprehend what they read. All the statements attributable to Weingartner are false. All those attributable to Rosenstiel and Kovach are true. However, students' reasoning is more important than the correctness of their responses.
 
 
For discussion
 
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
 
2. The Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) upheld a Louisiana law requiring racial segregation under the doctrine of "separate but equal." In doing so, it ruled against an African-American, Homer Ferguson, who took a seat in a "whites only car," would not leave, and was arrested. A later Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, overturned and declared unconstitutional the court's 1896 ruling because "separate but equal" "is inherently unequal." Do these contradictory rulings prove that, as Justice Holmes said, the law is what the courts say it is? If so, why? If not, why not?
 
3. Weingartner writes: "An event in itself is not news. An event becomes news." What do you understand him to mean? Do you agree? Why or why not? He also declares every news story to be an editorial. What do you think he means? Weingartner makes it clear that he thinks all news reporting is biased. What do you think he means by "biased"? Can news reporters avoid "bias"? If so, how? If not, why not?
 
4. Do you think the two news reports of street cleaning in Moscow support Weingartner's view that every news story "is an editorial." Why? or Why not? How would you define what he means by "an editorial"? 
 
5. What significant differences do you find in the two newspaper reports? How do you explain them? Do you find one of the accounts more believable than the other? If so, why? If not, why not?
 
6. If you wanted to investigate further the nature of street cleaning in Moscow in July 1962, how would you go about it? Where do you think you might find reliable information? How would you decide if it was reliable?
 
7. Rosenstiel and Kovach emphasize "a discipline of verification" as the essence of good journalism. What do you think they mean by this phrase? Why do you think they regard it so highly? 
 
8. They also emphasize the importance of "skills to navigate" the huge amount of available information. What skills do they see as essential? Why?
 
9. Among "essential skills," write Rosenstiel and Kovach, is "the ability to question." What questions do you think a critically thinking receiver of news and other kinds of information should always have in mind? Why is each of these questions important?
 
10. What do they mean by "a user controlled media world"? What evidence is there for such a world? What do you understand them to mean by "the ability of the press to function as a gatekeeper…is over"? Do you agree? What evidence do you know of to support your opinion?
 
11. Do you agree that "The conventional press has historically always been too reliant on authority…"? What evidence do you have to support your conclusion? If you think you need more information, how might you find it?
 
 

Student Reading 3:

Questioning news reports

 
Technology has given us access to a huge volume of information. But some individual or some group still must decide what information it wants to make available and what is news and how to report it—and what is not news and should be ignored. Sources of news continue to differ in reliability. Though 219 years have passed between the Washington and Obama inaugurations, facts are still facts; so are statements that look like facts. Which facts are chosen and which omitted make a difference, at times a vital one.
 
Educated receivers of news and other information have open, but not empty, minds, media navigating skills, questioning and other verification skills. They have a "built-in, shock-proof, crap detector" —that was Ernest Hemingway's response to a question about what a good writer needs most, but it also applies to a good reader.
 
Classroom Discussion

New Health Law
Consider these two quotes about an issue in the news, the new US health insurance law:
 
1. The new health care plan is a "government takeover of nearly 20 percent of our economy." (Republican Party of Florida, March 19, 2010)
 
2. "Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies." The new law "relies largely on the existing system of health coverage provided by employers." (www.politifact.com, December 16, 2010)
 
Ask students: What question or questions might help you determine which of the above statements, if either, is accurate?
 
Write 10 or so questions on the chalkboard for analysis. For question-analysis and continued inquiry, see "For discussion and inquiry" at the conclusion of this reading.
 
 
Barack Obama's citizenship
 
1. A CNN poll from July 16-21 found that 27 percent of Americans doubt Obama's citizenship. Eleven percent say Obama was definitely not born in the United States, while 16 percent say he was "probably" not born here.
 
2. Hawaii's Republican governor, Linda] Lingle, said, "...I had my health director, who is a physician by background, go personally view the birth certificate in the birth records of the Department of Health.… The president was in fact born at Kapi'olani Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii. And that's just a fact." (www.thehill.com, 8/4/10)
 
Ask students: What question or questions would you put to one of the Americans who doubts Obama's citizenship? How would you verify that Gov. Lingle is quoted accurately and that the statement itself is accurate?
 
A death in the Palestinian West Bank village of Bil'in
 
1. From a story by Isabel Kershner, "Tear Gas Kills a Palestinian Protester," in the New York Times (www.nytimes.com, 1/2/11)
 
"JERUSALEM - A Palestinian woman died Saturday after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli forces a day earlier at a protest against Israel's separation barrier in a West Bank village. A hospital director, Dr. Muhammad Aideh, said the woman had arrived on Friday suffering from tear-gas asphyxiation and died despite hours of treatment.
 
The Israeli military described the protest as a 'violent and illegal riot,' and said it had received a report from the Palestinians that a woman who was hospitalized after inhaling tear gas had been released and died later at her home. Dr. Aideh denied that the woman had left the hospital….
 
Local Palestinians, bolstered by international and Israeli supporters, have held weekly protests against Israel's separation barrier in Bilin for the past five years, turning the village into a symbol of Palestinian defiance. Other villages along the barrier route have since joined the protest movement.
 
Friday's demonstration was billed as a particularly large one to mark the end of 2010. Hundreds of protesters converged near the barrier, although the Israeli military had declared it a closed military zone, and activists said they managed to cut through the wire fence that makes up the barrier in this area in three places.
 
The Palestinians say the protests are meant to be nonviolent, but they inevitably end in clashes, with young Palestinians hurling stones and the Israeli security forces firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets.
 
Palestinian leaders have held Bilin up as a model of legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation."
 
 
2. Felice Gelman, in a post called "What Really Happened at Bil'in," on the blog Mondoweiss.net (www.mondoweiss.net/2011/01/what-really-happened-in-bilin.html, 1/2/11). Mondoweiss calls itself a "progressive Jewish blog" seeking "greater fairness and justice for Palestinians in American foreign policy."
 
"I was at the demo on Friday and at the funeral on Saturday…. The IOF [Israeli army] commenced firing heavy tear gas before demonstrators were within five hundred yards of them. A small number of people managed to penetrate the gas and get to within 15 feet of the soldiers. Obviously, this was a non-violent demonstration because they simply remained there, talking to the soldiers for at least an hour….
 
I can say that Isabel Kershner's comment in the New York Times, that these demonstrations 'inevitably end in clashes, with young Palestinians hurling stones and the Israeli security forces firing tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets' completely reverses the course of events. The IOF commenced firing tear gas long before any demonstrators neared them. There was little stone throwing during the demonstration and it did not commence until long after the tear gas.
 
For a group of demonstrators that got closer than I did (maybe 100 yards or so from the IOF), the soldiers fired a tear gas barrage in front of them, then behind them — trapping them. Then numerous tear gas canisters were fired into the center of the group — clearly a punitive, not defensive, action.
 
In addition, the IDF spokesman is claiming that Jawaher Abu Rahme was released from the Ramallah hospital and died at home. This is just an effort to complicate the chain of evidence that she was asphyxiated by tear gas. She died at 9 am in the morning at the hospital and many people, including Andrew el Kadi, waited there until her body was brought out to be taken to Bil'in for burial.
 
New York Times — all the news that's fit to print!"
 
 
Ask students: What questions do you think need to be asked that would lead to the verification of the accuracy of each report? How might you determine which of the two reports is the more reliable? 
 
 

For further inquiry

For any or all of the contradictory reports above, conduct this class inquiry.
 
List ten or so questions about the contradictory reports on the chalkboard without comment, then analyze each question in terms of the following questions:
 
1. Is the question clear? If not, how might it be clarified?
 
2. Might the question be useful in the verification process? If so, how? If not, why not?
 
3. Do any words in the question require defining? Which one or ones? Why? How?
 
4. Does the question contain any assumptions? If so, are they reasonable? If not, how might the question be reworded?
 
5. What kinds of information would satisfy the question? Facts? From what sources? Whose? Why? Judgments? Whose? Why?
 
When analyses are completed, the class might decide on what it regards as the three best questions and why, then discuss who will answer each and how.
 
Another approach might be to assign questions for inquiry to individuals or small groups of students.
 
 
 
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org