In today’s media landscape, we’re bombarded by news from a variety of sources — some legitimate, some not. Much of the information comes to us from people we trust — our friends and family on social media. Some of the information is true, but we suspect that some of it may be false. So how do we know what to believe? One way is to learn the basics of media literacy – or more specifically, when looking at reports from news sources and journalists, apply the skills of news literacy.

What’s news literacy and why is it important? Let’s begin by looking at the diference between it and media literacy.

Media literacy is generally defined as “the ability to read and understand different types of media in order to navigate today’s confusing media landscape.” To be media literate, you must be able to think critically about the information you read and hear every day.

News literacy is applying those important skills to the news that you consume in order to identify reliable sources of information. Common Sense Media defines news literacy as “the application of critical-thinking skills to the identification and consumption of news and journalistic information. News literacy includes skills in analyzing and evaluating the reliability of news information, specifically in discerning fact from opinion, bias, or agenda.”

Four Steps to Consuming News

When consuming news from TV, radio, online or a print publication, it’s important to be somewhat skeptical of everything and to search for credible sources of information. Here are a few general ideas to keep in mind:

  1. Know the difference between fact and opinion. Facts don’t lie; they are an accounting of what occurred.
  2. Investigate the writer/speaker. Are they a journalist? A lobbyist? A political columnist? Writers who present more than the basic facts of an issue often include bias in their news reports. (Hint: If the writer/host’s name is in the title of the TV show, blog or podcast, then it’s probably biased information).
  3. Evaluate reporting not only for what is included in the story but also for what is left out. Leaving out facts or quoting only those on the same side of an issue is a sneaky way of disguising biased material as a factual news story.
  4. Verify the source for transparency. The media should be clear about who they are, who owns them and if they are writing to appeal to a particular group of people (for example, liberals, conservatives, gun owners or the pro-life movement). This is often easier to determine on websites than on other formats.

Be Wary of Confirmation Bias

We all have experiences and backgrounds that lead us to form our own opinions about what is happening in our communities and our world. If at the end of that news report or podcast your first response is something like, “I KNEW it!” then it might be time to take a step back.

Consider this: One study gave a series of false reports about controversial topics to teenagers and adults. The study found that the false claims were more often considered to be true if they aligned with the person’s prior views. In other words, they believed that the information was true because they wanted it to be true. Their own internal biases made it difficult for them to analyze the reports for their bias and reliability.

And because so much of the news we read about every day comes from social media, we have to fight against algorithms, too. Did you click on that Facebook link from your Uncle John about why that bill being debated by Congress is great for America? Then you will probably find more and more of that type of news showing up in your news feed – to the exclusion of all other sources of information and viewpoints on the topic.

It may be comforting to “only read news that I agree with,” but it also is a sign that you are living in an information bubble. Learning what others are reporting about a particular issue helps you to understand all sides of a topic. Then you can form your own educated opinion about the issue.

Become a Smart News Consumer: It’s Never Too Late

Habits can be hard to break, but it’s important to become more aware of the news we’re consuming and – more importantly – the news we’re sharing.

Just because you enjoy a comment, news article, video or meme posted by a friend on social media doesn’t mean you have to share it. Be skeptical of bold claims that confirm your point of view. Look up these claims by simply Googling them. Sort through the search results to see whether you find other high-quality sources confirming or disputing the claims. Then form your own opinion on the quality and reliability of the post.

If you find yourself watching one particular cable news channel repeatedly, why not turn the channel? Consider another perspective. Or, shut off the TV and seek out reliable news sources on other platforms.

Of course, the best way to start good news literacy habits is to start early. Children today also are bombarded by news from a variety of sources, and like adults, they can feel stressed and uncertain about what to believe.

This report about how kids are impacted by news states that “Children have difficulty determining whether a news story is fake; less than half (44 percent) of children agree that they can tell fake news stories from real ones. And, among children who have shared a news story online in the last six months, 31 percent say they shared a story that they later found out was wrong or inaccurate.”

For this reason, many schools are now teaching news literacy to children, to help them identify credible sources, distinguish between facts and opinion, understand biases, and become active consumers of media.

The Final Word

News literacy is important as we all navigate a world of information overload. Responsible news consumers seek the facts, avoid fake news, and share only reliable and accurate information.

At Ad Fontes Media, we’re working to provide tools to help consumers do that. These include the Interactive Media Bias Chart to help people navigate today’s complicated news landscape, and our SUMMA News Literacy training for students and for lifelong learners. A focus on news literacy can lead us all to a society with more educated citizens and more informed political debate.

Beth Heldebrandt

Beth Heldebrandt

Beth is the public relations director at an academic library in East Central Illinois. She is an adjunct journalism instructor at a university and was a newspaper editor for more than 20 years. She earned a B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in English. Beth began working for Ad Fontes Media in February 2019 as an analyst, and she now continues as a media research specialist. A lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, Beth loves to travel and has been to 45 U.S. states and six countries.