Accuracy is Power: Evaluating What You Read in the News

October 22, 2020

Shane Madill

News feeds and social media are essential tools to help people stay informed. However, the seemingly endless cycle of news from around the world, especially in a year with enough big headlines to last for decades, can be hard to process and absorb. This overwhelming quantity of content, articles and perspectives can also propel a single fact into countless subjective articles with subsequent biases and misinterpretations. It’s no wonder the current media landscape feels so muddled and full of misinformation.

As public relations practitioners, the state of the media is always at the forefront of our minds.  To communicate on behalf of our clients in a variety of different contexts, to internal and external audiences, requires an ability to sift through the noise to deliver accurate information and messages. This allows us to deliver accurate information to trusted news sources on behalf of our companies and clients, which helps build trust in them with members of the media and their audiences.

Journalists provide an invaluable and underappreciated service by helping people stay informed about the events and ideas that can influence their lives. Providing breaking news, information and features helps readers, listeners and viewers to form their own opinions and to take action. Practitioners and journalists will continue to develop ways of accurately communicating information to their audiences. These tips are simply a few things that a media consumer can do to stay alert about any accidental discrepancies or biases present in an article and better understand the perspective of the reporter.


Reading past the headline

A 2016 study from Columbia University, “Social Clicks: What and Who Gets Read on Twitter?” separated a data set between primary URLs and secondary URLs with the former representing the official accounts of the five news media picked for the study (BBC, CNN, Fox News, The New York Times and The Huffington Post) and the latter representing all other URLs. Once accounting for selection bias, secondary URLs accounted for 98 per cent of all URLs and about 60 per cent of them are never clicked.

These unclicked URLs represented 15 per cent of all shared content. This was partially attributed to their focus on niche topics for small audiences. According to the study:

“An interesting paradox is that there seems to be vastly more niche content that users are willing to mention in Twitter than the content that they are actually willing to click on.”

A post from WordStream, “Facebook Ad Benchmarks for YOUR Industry [Data],” detailed the average click-through rate for Facebook by industry, which represents the percentage of people who will click on a post after seeing it. This was 0.9 per cent.

Basically, a large portion of Facebook URLs shared are never clicked by anyone and only a small percentage of people will click on a link to read more.

Increasingly, headlines are often written by copy editors and senior staff at outlets rather than by the reporters who wrote the article. Especially for print products, this is due to potential space and layout limitations. The headline also tends to be the last part of the article to be finalized in the editing process after fact-checking and proof-reading.

This results in headlines that are, potentially, not descriptive enough for the body of the typically unread article. While these click-through rates would differ if examined for other sources, the most important takeaway is to actually take the time to read the article instead of making a conclusion about the article’s topic from the headline.


Seeing and interpreting bias

Once you get into the habit of clicking past the headline, the next step is to critically evaluate the content. Be aware of any biases in the piece. While in some cases, this may not be overt, the subconscious thoughts of the author(s) and editor(s) may be apparent. Nearly every piece of writing exhibits some sort of bias, so it is important to know how to spot these and to apply this critical thinking to your own writing as well. I encourage you to critically evaluate this blog post for bias as well.

Note: Online, some articles that look like news are actually opinion pieces. While these kinds of articles can inform, remember that they are one person’s opinion. While often valuable for the expertise of the writer, understand that they are a different type of content from the “news” section.

In writing, bias can show up in the language and word choice used. Vague or generalized words, phrases meant to invoke some kind of emotion, and positive and negative language are all things to look out for.

When it comes to stats and data, the three main categories of bias to watch for include:

Information bias, which is any error in the measurement of variables: Errors in gathering data, participant error in supply data and the inability to remember previous events or experiences accurately (recall bias) are all examples of this.

Selection bias, which is when the sample used for a study is different from the population of interest: As an example, if a study relies on people volunteering for it, then the study will only examine those who were engaged enough with the topic or source to want to volunteer.

Confounding bias, which is when a variable (z) affects both the exposure (x) and the outcome (y) and the study correlates x and y without considering the impact of z: The Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine’s Catalogue of Bias uses the example of the supposed beneficial effects of hormone replacement therapy in cardiovascular disease, but the findings of earlier studies were influenced by socioeconomic status and education.

One of the most difficult things to do is to evaluate bias in articles and opinions you agree with because they fit your perspectives, thoughts and logic. This has been called our “echo chamber” – information that repeats and validates the information we already believe to be true. Especially in these cases, try to step back and think about why this may be and what is missing or too good to be true.


Finding all the details

Reporters often have a limited amount of time to research and write their stories.  Hectic schedules and tight deadlines may require more, shorter copy, limiting the amount of detail that can be provided. This is particularly true on social media where only a small amount of information can be reduced to 280 characters.

Often, other sources can provide different angles and bites of information or context depending upon their focus. Reading different outlets and writers in your regular news cycle can help fill in the blanks. Articles with different sources, additional facts and contexts can add detail and improve your understanding of the main story.

Varying your daily reading list helps reduce the influence of selection bias because reporters and outlets often choose different sources for comment. Who they choose to interview, the questions they ask and what quotes they choose to highlight will add colour in terms of perspective and fact that will impact the topic.

Public relations practioners will continue to communicate on behalf of their companies and clients to develop trust with the media and their audiences, members of the media will continue to help people stay informed, and both will continue to develop ways of accurately communicating information. As you take a look through your social feeds, local newspaper or however else you choose to consume media, these tips will help you understand the full story and all of the contributing perspectives.

Have a question? Interested in finding out more?