Like many people, I was glued to social media on the night of November 13th as the terrorist attacks on Paris unfolded. When something terrible like that happens, it is easy to become confused and bewildered by the conflicting reports that fly around on TV and online. So I decided to write a guide to understanding and demystifying the kinds of sources (newspaper articles, TV and radio reports, live blogs, social media posts, visual images etc.) that you will encounter in all forms of the media when a major news story is breaking. But what qualifies me to write such a guide?
While studying for a degree in history some years ago, I was taught how to analyse and interrogate sources of all kinds; a skill which has come in handy when attempting to understand how breaking news works. By ‘analyse and interrogate’ I mean placing a source (whether written, illustrated or audio-visual) in its wider context in order to understand and assess it. This involves asking a lot of questions about the source, its origins and its creator – the who, what, where, why, and when that you will see in this brief guide to interpreting and making sense of the media’s reaction to breaking events. The answers to those questions can help you decide whether a source can be trusted or whether it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt…
Who wrote/produced/directed/photographed/filmed this source? Are they a professional journalist/photographer/film-maker? Or are they a member of the public who happened to be there at the time and snapped a photo or filmed events with their phone then posted it on Facebook? If they’re a professional, what do you know about them? What can you find out about them? Are they well-known for personally having a particular political bias? Or do they work for a media outlet known for having a particular political bias? How might this affect their work?
Who published/broadcast this source? Is it mainstream media, independent media, citizen media, social media? Does the publication or broadcaster have a particular political bias? Remember that all sources originating in most types of media will probably have been edited in some way before publication or broadcast – but was it edited, for example, to fit space or time constraints, or was it edited to an agenda? It’s crucial to be aware that all media outlets are biased one way or another, whether this is immediately obvious or not.
What type of source is it? Is it a written document, a photograph, a TV or radio news report, a social media post of some kind, a newspaper article, a blog post? Is it an opinion piece or straight-up reporting of facts? What bias might it have? Is it an official report or statement from the government or, for example, the police? What bias might that have? Look closely at what it says – and what it doesn’t say.
Photographs and film can provide striking and powerful evidence of events, but it must be remembered that they are literally ‘snapshots’ of one aspect of what is happening or what has happened and cannot provide the full picture. They may be exactly what they say they are, but also remember that it is possible to edit and manipulate both still and moving images in various ways (and to various agendas – plus the editing may not be done by the original creator of the images), which means they may not entirely show what they purport to.
Where are these reports coming from? A newspaper website, a rolling news channel, social media? Is the reporter actually there, right where the events are happening? Or are they, say, in the studio or somewhere ‘safe’ and relying on what they are hearing from elsewhere? Is the information coming direct from officials or witnesses on the ground, or is it second-hand or even out-and-out rumour? Listen to/read closely what the reporter says (see below) – where has their information come from? How reliable is it? Think about any possible bias associated with the reporter and the news outlet.
As events develop on the ground, the story will change (as we saw in Paris on November 13th), and information will start coming from a variety of different sources of varying reliability. Remember, too, that eyewitness testimony in particular isn’t always reliable, even from those who were right in the thick of things. This is especially true when a witness has just experienced something unpleasant, violent or traumatic – they may not have processed, fully understood or realised the significance of what they saw, which can affect their perception of events.
Why was this source produced? Why would someone want to communicate this message? To inform? To push a particular political agenda? To create fear? To distract from events? In an attempt to calm people down? The same information is often utilised by different news outlets and by social media in different ways. Why is that? Looking at the differences and similarities in multiple media accounts of the same events can often give a wider picture of what happened, as well as demonstrating how identical information is interpreted depending on bias.
Why was this source produced in this particular way? Does that reveal bias? For example, an interview filmed for a news channel can be edited to an agenda, or simply to fit into broadcasting time constraints. The same interview published in a newspaper can be interpreted in a completely different way depending on how the journalist has written it up and, again, the way it is edited. Is there a reason for this? Is the journalist or reporter trying to make a specific point? Or show the interviewee in a particular light? Why might they do that?
When was this source produced? Before, during or after the events? This can have a major impact on what the source says, what it means and the information it contains. Always, always check the date, whatever type of source it is. This came up on November 13th, when many Twitter users retweeted a comment from Donald Trump that had been posted in January 2015, assuming it was from that evening. When people are worried, anxious or upset about events, it is very easy to get caught up in something like this, which makes it all the more important to keep checking.
Social media is a great tool, but it has to be treated with the same caution as any other form of media at times of breaking news. One issue to be aware of is that images purporting to be of specific events are easily spread on sites like Twitter and Facebook, but are often actually older images that were not taken when and where it is said they were – watch for the dates on those too (search engines can be of help here). With other online sources, if there’s no date given for an article on a newspaper website or blog, check the URL – you’ll often see that the original publication date is in that (as in the URL of this blog post for example).
On the subject of social media (and the media in general), here are two useful infographics from On The Media, which clearly and succinctly explain how to navigate through the maze of breaking news: