Always Check Your Sources

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When one of my girls was in 6th grade, there was a new teacher at her school. She was young and cool and sarcastic, and very different from the teacher she’d replaced. Some of the girls adored her, some did not.

The girls who disliked her got the bright idea to try and get her fired – or at least, in trouble. They used the power of the playground to stoke the fires of discontent amongst the other girls. Some were susceptible, and girls who actually liked (or felt neutral about) this teacher were suddenly OUTRAGED at… something – her method of teaching, her sense of humor, the amount of homework, her shoes…who knows.

Every day for over a week, my daughter (who incidentally loved this teacher) came home and told me the frenzy these girls worked themselves into. It was maddening to her, but also fascinating, because she watched girls who also liked this teacher get sucked into the whirling dervish of outrage, and spit out on the other side ready for the revolution.

It was a really interesting and illustrative way to talk about the power of persuasion, and the importance of independent thinking and checking your sources.

The whole time that drama was happening, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel with politics in this country these days.

You have your beliefs and your issues and your side, and it is so easy (and deeply satisfying!) to have all of that validated – while at the same time denouncing the other – the other beliefs, the other issues, and the other side. And the more spectacularly that happens? All. The. Better.

Except.

Is it?

If ALL we hear is what we want to hear and what we already believe, how will we ever know more, or be more? How will we grow? How will we make better, more informed decisions?

It’s hard right now, but it’s more important than ever to make sure you’re getting the whole story – and looking for the other side of the story.

I no longer enjoy talking about politics with my family, for the most part. But I do have a cousin who is very well-informed and generally objective. We still disagree, but neither of us is just parroting the talking points, so we can have some pretty robust and civil discussions. This summer he asked me if I was living in an “echo chamber.” He didn’t ask in a snarky or accusatory way – he was genuinely wondering. And it made me aware that I probably was leaning my news-gathering to what I wanted to hear.

An echo chamber, if you’re wondering, is defined by dictionary.com as an environment in which the same opinions are repeatedly voiced and promoted, so that people are not exposed to opposing views.  

I have always – well, since I became an actual adult anyway – sought out news sources with different leanings to make sure I get the whole story. These days especially, it is exhausting to try and find unbiased, fact-only-based news. You have to REALLY go out and find it yourself. So much that’s out there is opinion-based. And, the more sensational, the better. FOR THEM.

News outlets are looking for users, subscribers, and clicks that translate into revenue. And many will do whatever it takes to monetize you as a news consumer. So you have to be careful – even reputable news sources have opinion pieces that will be skewed.

That’s why it’s important to always check your sources. 

My favorite resource is the AllSides™ Media Bias Chart. The chart shows you some of the different divisions of online news and how they skew their information. For example, the Wall Street Journal news is center, meaning it is pretty objective and without an agenda. The opinion pieces though, skew right. NPR, on the other hand, skews left in its opinion pieces, but is also center when it comes to straight news.

Another great one is the Ad Fontes Media Bias chart. This one ranks sources based on the reliability of their news and information.

It’s important to keep sources in mind – particularly in political news. Social media sites such as Facebook, Parler, and TikTok are not the most reliable and unbiased news sources. I’ve heard it said that your news should not come to you, meaning that it shouldn’t just pop up in your feed. You should go out and get your news – find your real information sources and get your information that way.

If there is a political story that delights you because it’s a major “gotcha” piece about the opposing side and makes you think, “HA! Take that, sucker!,” it’s important to check which news outlet ran the story. It’s possible (and probable) that it’s purely sensational, in the literal meaning of the word (thanks again to dictionary.com for the definition): producing or designed to produce a startling effect, strong reaction, intense interest, etc., especially by exaggerated, superficial, or lurid elements. Regarding news stories – if, like in life, something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t use biased sources. But know they are biased, and know you’re probably getting only one side of the story, and that side has a defined agenda.

If your kids are older and paying attention to current events, a great site for them to check out is MediaWise. MediaWise is available on all the best social media platforms. Kids send in news items they’re wondering about and MediaWise teens walk you through their fact-checking process. They explain how they find their information, the sources they use, and how they confirm facts. When they’ve walked through their sources, they rate the item – legit, not legit, needs more context, etc. It’s a good, interesting way for kids to keep up with current events and learn information literacy skills.

These are strange times – a contentious election in the midst of a global pandemic – and legitimate, actual news is more important than ever. Unfortunately, the onus is on us to weed out what is real and what really is fake news or just opinion.

What sources do you use to get your news? Do you know how objective they are?

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Wildly in love with her perfectly imperfect life, Kathy’s been married to her most favorite person in the world, “The Professor,” for 14 years. They moved to Columbia from Atlanta seven years ago and are enjoying raising their two girls, Gracie (12½) and Tate (10) here. After undergrad and her MBA, Kathy worked in Corporate America for 10 years before retiring to work full-time for the girls. Most recently, she was a grant writer at a college here in town, but had to leave that job when her family moved to New Zealand for six months for The Professor’s sabbatical. She started her blog, kathygoeskiwi.com, to document that amazing adventure, but now she’s home and trying to figure out what to do with her life. Again. Probably the loudest and most foul-mouthed introvert you’ll ever meet, she can usually be found curled up with a trashy romance novel, on the tennis court, at her awesome gym, or drinking wine with people she loves.

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