America is rich in opinions. This is especially true when it comes to its politics. Between newspaper and magazine columns and television and radio commentary, it is always easy to find pundits from both ends of the political spectrum freely airing their views on any number of subjects. But although opinion pieces leave plenty of room for flaunting biases, that doesn’t excuse flouting the facts. And the reader must still determine whether opinions have a basis in fact—and whether the writer presents them with integrity and credibility.
That was the task of a team of high school students from Grinnell, Iowa, taking part in the News Know-how news literacy program, sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and supported by the Open Society Foundations to involve high school students in news literacy education. Using public libraries as their “newsroom,” students learn to distinguish facts from opinions, check the source and validity of news and information, and identify propaganda and misinformation.
The high school students, Dana Brown and Joshua Randolph, attended a workshop in Des Moines, where they learned about the elements of journalism, among them that “the first obligation is to the truth” and “the first loyalty is to the citizens.” They also learned about the right of the citizen to believe that the journalist has correct information and must approach news with an open mind.
Dana said the students also learned about a process called CHECK that can be used to evaluate information. The five letters stand for the following:
- “Confirm Your Information Neighborhood.” Is it news, opinion, raw information or propaganda? Who was it created by? And for what purpose?
- Have high standards for credibility. Are there many credible sources? Is there a bias?
- Ensure that the information has been verified. Who was it produced by? Is it reliable?
- Consider responsible next steps. If you have found an error and a reliable source to correct, do you share that information with others, say by leaving a comment on a blog?
- Know what you can believe and ask critical questions.
When evaluating opinion writing, Joshua said, you must also know some dos and don’ts of opinion writing. One must, for example, provide supporting information, while one must not present generalizations or be absolute. Also, one must “disprove opposite views or at least acknowledge their existence.”
For their project, Dana and Joshua evaluated opinion columnists Steve Huntley, a conservative-leaning columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, and Rekha Basu, a liberal-leaning columnist for the Des Moines Register. Dana said she closely studied Huntley’s columns, saying, “He has a lot of great pieces and a lot of solid facts. But sometimes he does slip up,” she said, giving the example of one column where he misstated the number of jobs created during Barack Obama’s presidency. “Getting your facts straight from the start is extremely important,” she said, noting that an error can be taken out of context and have a snowball effect.
Joshua evaluated Basu’s work, learning in the process that “Even the liberal leaning people make mistakes as well.” He said there was an article that stated that when Obama took office in 2008, approximately 750,000 jobs per month were being lost, when in reality, according to the Economic Policy Institute website it was 82,000 in the first quarter and 510,000 in the fourth quarter.
Not all columnists lean left or right. They also looked at another columnist from the Des Moines Register, Kathie Obradovich. Both said they were baffled by her columns when trying to detect whether she had liberal or conservative leanings.
During their presentation, the two recommended several sources for fact checking, including Politico, Snopes.com, Rumorcheck.org, Factcheck.org, Politifact.com, and the Washington Post Fact Checker. In particular, Dana recommended Factcheck.org. She said, “It is a great site. It is completely unbiased.”
The students’ journey into the world of opinion columns has had a natural outcome. Both have posted their evolution as “News Media Watchdogs” on a blog, Sleepy Hedgehog Publications. For Joshua and Dana, the News Know-how program has turned them into informed consumers of news, but it has also turned them into informed commentators.