The era when a network news anchor could influence how a nation viewed a war and two Washington Post journalists could bring down a president is long gone. Today, news breaks 24/7 and spreads instantaneously over cable TV and the Internet, amplified by social media and an endless supply of online outlets — all easily accessible on devices we carry in our pockets. With viral videos, blogs and tweets, we all have the power to break stories, opine on existing ones and find an audience.
But the democratization of news has its downsides. Many purveyors don’t adhere to traditional standards of accuracy; some willfully distort. Separating fact from spin — especially in a contentious environment — can be challenging.
Jeff Share Ph.D. ’06, who teaches media literacy at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, believes that in a democratic society, it’s more important than ever to think critically and make reasoned judgments while wading through the morass of constantly available information. In addition to teaching at UCLA, Share, who spent a decade as a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times and other publications, provides professional development on this topic to teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District and across the U.S. He offers the following advice.
Consider the Source
Not all news sources are equal. An astounding bit of information you learned from a Facebook post of a link to an obscure website shouldn’t carry the same weight as something you saw in, say, The New York Times. But it’s not always so black-and-white. Familiar outlets are not infallible, and they aren’t necessarily the only ones telling the truth. “Some people used to advise that if a URL ended in ‘edu,’ you could believe it,” Share notes, “but if it ended in ‘com,’ you couldn’t. Now there are plenty of ‘edu’ websites putting out things that are outrageous, and there are blogs putting out information that the mainstream media doesn’t dare publish.”
Get to the Viewpoint
As a photojournalist, Share saw how easily what is published or broadcast can be distorted. “I’d be covering something where nothing was going on, and then, people would see me and get riled up to pose for the picture; then, when the camera was away, everyone would disappear,” he says. “That experience made me far more critical of news media.” Later, as an elementary school teacher in the inner city, Share discussed with his students the negative ways in which the media typically portrayed their community, and he then had students take cameras into their own neighborhoods to document the things they loved.
The lesson: Don’t assume you’re getting the complete picture, in all its nuance, in any single news report. “All information is socially constructed — people make choices about what to tell and how to tell it,” Share explains. “Therefore, we need to always be skeptical.” Consider not only the overall leanings of a source, but also the possible biases of individual reporters and editors within that organization: “Ask questions about what’s missing and what’s being assumed.”
Watch Out for Hidden Interests
Before President Trump co-opted the term to mean something else, “fake news” was associated with deliberate hoaxes. The use of social media to spread falsehoods disguised as news during the 2016 presidential campaign showed how vulnerable technology has rendered us. Whether the purpose is to sell ads by generating clicks or to persuade readers to support a candidate or cause, such trickery is annoying at best, abhorrent at worst.
But Share sees more subtle forms of deception as cause for even greater concern, as well as vigilance. This includes the hidden influences of advertising and corporate owners, such as product placement within a story without disclosing that the placement was purchased. While we’re trained to recognize the 30-second spot on TV, in print or alongside Web content, it’s much harder to see the impact of advertisers in shaping the algorithms of our Google searches or the news we see on Facebook, for example. “We’re led to believe these are objective, but what pops up is often influenced by the profit motive,” Share says. Even when we can’t easily detect hidden biases, Share notes, we should remember that they’re there.
Be on the lookout for hyperbole. Words such as “incredible” can convey a breathless approach and partisanship, failing to acknowledge other possibilities. It’s a good idea to confirm and/or compare news reports and points of view with other trusted sources. “Always be willing to continue searching for more information to deepen your investigation,” Share counsels. “Most media messages have many layers and different interpretations.”
Expand the Bubble
Most of us depend on our chosen sources, what we see on social media, and what we hear from like-minded friends. So what we read and hear tends to confirm rather than challenge our worldview. “I don’t know that we ever actually get out of our bubble, but we can expand it,” Share says. He recommends seeking out sources with fresh perspectives, including international media, and finding multiple sides on a topic (a process Share refers to as "triangulating the news") to better understand biases and the big picture.
Don’t Stop Believing
Share also worries that hyper-partisanship is leading too many people to assume all news is badly distorted, or fake. “We need people to be skeptical,” he says, “but not to the point where you start to say nothing is real.” He points to the example of climate change, where skeptics have raised doubts in the minds of a significant segment of the population, even in the face of near unanimity within the scientific community. “That’s an example of the consequences of knowing when something is credible and when it isn’t,” Share says.
We are no longer merely media consumers. When we comment, forward, post and create information that can quickly go viral, we all can shape the media environment around us. We contribute to the discourse. We can elevate or denigrate, enlighten or enflame. “Creating, sharing and disseminating requires all sorts of new skills,” Share says, “and it comes with great responsibility.”