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?