News 101: Finding an unbiased news source

The question of where one should get their news seems to have become a controversial one in recent years. With the increase of social media usage and drastic polarization of politics, it can feel like information overload, and it can be an overwhelming task trying to decipher if the information one reads is credible.

In order to find an unbiased news source, one must understand what news is as well as the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The United States has the freedom of a free press. According to The American Press Institute, “News is that part of communication that keeps us informed of the changing events, issues, and characters in the world outside. Though it may be interesting or even entertaining, the foremost value of news is as a utility to empower the informed.” The origins of how America’s freedom of the press came to be can be traced back to Cato’s Letters, which were a collection of essays written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon under the pen name “Cato” and published during pre-Revolutionary America that were highly critical of British politics. According to Middle Tennessee State University’s Free Speech Center, “No single work had as much direct influence on the revolutionary generation’s understandings of free speech and conscience as did Cato’s Letters…The First Amendment drew much of its language from Cato, who wrote that the people must be able ‘to represent their public grievances, and to petition for redress to those whose duty it is to right them.”

According to the ACLU, a free press is “critical to a democracy in which the government is accountable to the people.”

For a more in-depth explanation of the first amendment and what it entails, refer to: First Amendment explained: What are the boundaries in the rights of citizens? Written by journalism student Audrey Hurlburt.

For those who think there are no unbiased news sources, Journalism teacher Angie Noble said, “It is due to [a] lack of media literacy. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost that…I think social media has aided in that. We can fact check everything; we can look up everything, and no one really takes the time to do it, or they don’t know how to do it.”

Misinformation can and does exist, but it’s important to understand that laws and ethics are put in place to prevent false news from being published. “People don’t understand [that] journalists have a lot to lose. If you are a journalist who is going out and constantly reporting false news, you’re losing your integrity; you’re [going to] get sued for libel or slander or only be able to find a job at a tabloid magazine that doesn’t care about ethics. Most of those who are true journalists have spent a lot of money on their education and losing their credibility and integrity is not worth it to them- they’re working to uphold a free press,” Noble said. According to Freedom Forum Institute, the First Amendment does not protect against defamation which includes slander and libel.

Mark Curnutte was a race and social justice reporter at the Cincinnati Enquirer for 25 years. He was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for “Seven Days of Heroin” in 2017, was selected top reporter three times in the state of Ohio, and is the author of Across the Color Line: Reporting 25 Years in Black Cincinnati and A Promise in Haiti: A Reporter’s Notes on Families and Daily Lives. Curnutte, who now teaches in the department of Sociology and Gerontology at Miami University said, “Journalism really is a pillar of democracy, …and that is the need of journalism to provide fair, accurate information even if you don’t agree with it. I think we’ve gotten to the point as media consumers where we want to consume information that affirms the positions we may already hold.” Curnutte added, “If human beings are involved in anything there’s always bias… [but] we [take] a lot of pride in telling the truth, and in fighting like crazy to make our stories bulletproof.”

There comes the idea of “Journalism of Affirmation” or “Confirmation research.” As defined by Psychology Today, “Confirmation bias [or research] occurs from the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When people would like a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. This error leads the individual to stop gathering information when the evidence gathered so far confirms the views or prejudices one would like to be true.”

“I lean pretty far left; I’ll admit it,” Curnutte said. “However, … I’ve had to become aware of not watching MSNBC because all it really does is affirm what I know or [what I] think I know, and support my political opinion as opposed to maybe challenging me with more balanced information.”

When searching for an unbiased news source, it’s also important to take into account the difference between a journalist and a commentator. A journalist’s job is to report the news accurately, fairly, and effectively. News commentators, on the other hand, as the name suggests, comment on news stories and share their own input on matters. An excerpt from The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel said: “Watch these commentators carefully- Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly… Their currency is emotional mobilization more than ideas. Much of their conversation focuses on the wrongness of the other side, or the anticipation that there lies trouble ahead for the obviously misguided opponent.”

Associate Editor for Cincinnati Magazine and McNicholas Class of 2015 graduate Lauren Fisher has extensive experience in the world of news and journalism. Fisher was the Editor-in-Chief for the Milestone during her time at McNick, graduated with her degree in journalism from Ohio University in 2019 where she also served as Editor-in-Chief for their campus newspaper, The Post, and holds numerous internship experiences with The Clermont Sun, Cincinnati Magazine, The Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism, The Palm Beach Post, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. Fisher said, “Because journalism depends on living, breathing journalists, there’s always going to be some degree of bias in the news we consume. Everybody’s a little bit biased — even reporters. When you’re covering a polarizing topic, you’re going to form your own opinion on it,” Fisher said. However, Fisher added: “There are so many safeguards in place at reputable news outlets to make sure the public is receiving information that is truthful, honest, accessible, and accurate.”

Journalists have been under attack in recent years. A 2018 shooting at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland left 5 journalists dead. During his presidency, former U.S. president Donald Trump repeatedly attacked the media and journalists on Twitter, stating that certain news sources were the “enemy of the American people.” “We always thought of ourselves as [the] eyes and ears of the people,” Curnutte said.

Ideally, no one should look at one single source to get all their news and information. Noble suggests checking at least 3 news sources, and make sure they fall as close to the middle of media bias charts as possible. “I always start with the Associated Press. I check NPR. I go to the Washington Post, I do read the New York Times, and beginning this year I have started subscribing to the Wall Street Journal… I [also] like to look at a cable news source that leans left and one that leans right.” Noble said. She also reads the Cincinnati Enquirer to keep in touch with local news.

“I think the best source globally of international news is BBC… I subscribe-as a former employee, to The Enquirer; I like USA Today because it’s very straight down the middle,” Curnutte said.

“I always try my best to make sure I’m consuming news from a variety of reputable sources,” Fisher said. “I’m a big fan of NPR News Now to keep up with quick headlines throughout the day, and I can’t go a day without listening to The Daily from The New York Times.” Fisher added that when she wants to get straight to the source, she knows she can trust the Associated Press and Reuters.

When reading news, it’s important to make sure you are actually reading news. There are three types of journalistic stories:

News: Facts and only facts. News stories tell the public what is happening accurately and fairly. This story written by former Journalism student Amanda Braig would be considered a news story. Braig conducted interviews with both experts on the topic being that she got her information first hand, and followed the Associated Press news writing format.

Feature: Sometimes considered “soft news,” feature stories are defined by dictionary.com as “a newspaper or magazine article or report of a person, event, an aspect of a major event, or the like, often having a personal slant and written in an individual style.”  This story written by Journalism student Jackson White would be considered a feature story. Feature stories focus on the human element; more on people, as opposed to hard news stories where the emphasis is more on the event(s.) White’s story is about the Men’s Basketball Team, the start of their season, and interviewed players and the coach. If this was a hard news story, it would focus more on an event, such as the team winning a game.

Editorial: As defined by Oxford Languages, an editorial is “a newspaper article written by or on behalf of an editor that gives an opinion on a topical issue.” An editorial piece of writing is the writer’s opinion backed with background research for both sides of the topic. There are 5 different kinds of editorial:

  • A persuasive editorial, which attempts to persuade the reader(s) to take action.
  • An explanatory editorial, which attempts to explain an event or action and its causes.
  • A critical editorial, which explains why an action is bad for a group of people.
  • A praising editorial, which congratulates a group of people for an action they took.
  • A response editorial, which responds to a criticism or answers a question from another source.
  • A staff editorial, where each member of a media productions staff contributes to the creation of the story, and more than half the staff agrees on the stance taken, such as this story which was written for the Milestone in February of last year.

The Fair Comment Rule protects an opinion and/or statement that which is based on facts, so long as it is not accusatory, threatening, or made with malicious intent.

To see the bias and credibility of a desired news source, check it’s standing on a number of media bias charts. This one by Ad Fontes Media was specifically designed to combat political polarization, and is updated every month. “If you know what to look for in the language that’s used… the rhetorical choices the writer uses, you can tell… it’s pretty accurate,” Noble said. AllSides.com is also a great resource, being that their “ratings are based on multi-partisan, scientific analysis.”

In the end, the good thing about news is that you don’t have to like it for it to be true. “You can’t go wrong when you tell the truth,” Curnutte said.

This media bias chart by Ad Fontes Media is updated every month. “If you know what to look for in the language that’s used… the rhetorical choices the writer uses, you can tell… it’s pretty accurate,” Noble said.

Thumbnail image courtesy of The Billings Gazette.


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