Reviewing journalistic credibility, news stories that have defined a complicated year
Since its rapid emergence in December 2019, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has dominated headlines across almost all media platforms. Despite having convenient access to news at our fingertips, many significant issues that are impacting people around the world are receiving less attention than they would have before the pandemic. This is a critical time for reflections on journalism, as its influence continues to shape our world.
I interviewed Professor Timothy Sayle, the director of U of T’s international relations program, to learn how to identify credible news sources and understand the evolution of online reporting. Then, incorporating strategies mentioned by Sayle, I compiled an overview of current news stories that may not see as much extensive coverage or interest during the pandemic. After all, even though we’re living through a pandemic, the world has carried on in its own ways.
Consuming news from the internet
Nowadays, sophisticated algorithms are designed to curate the news that media companies think we want to read. Sayle indicated that the “major concern of consuming news from the internet is it [creates] a habit of selecting articles that we are expected to read.”
This phenomenon is most prevalent on social media platforms, which manufacture disinformation and misinformation for profit and more clicks. Is the number of clicks alone enough to define the significance of which news stories deserve more coverage? Clearly, lesser reported armed conflicts around the world will continue to cause havoc and destruction no matter how much attention they get.
One important story this year that received relatively minimal coverage is that, due to economic strains from the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations (UN) Office for Humanitarian Affairs announced the UK’s decision to cut back on funds designated for providing humanitarian aid to countries in need. What concerned the UN’s officials the most was the forecast that other countries might follow suit and reduce monetary donations to resolve the ordeal of people trapped in armed conflicts.
For Yemen, this decision will increase the likelihood of an acute famine, the likes of which the world has not seen for decades. The UK’s former secretary of the Department for International Development, Mark Lowcock, warned of a potential large-scale loss of life. He commented that such a decision will invoke “instability and fragility” in already vulnerable hotspots of conflict. The danger of wider international tensions escalating out of the past would have lasting effects on people’s lives around the world.
Cover visual: FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
This story made its rounds across multiple publications, but there has been relatively little follow-up on the potential consequences of this move from the UK. It’s impossible to quantify exactly to what extent the number of clicks impacted the coverage this topic received, but the point still stands: to a certain degree, the lifespan of a story is impacted not only by its quality and substance, but also by the interest generated by it.
Travelling down the lesser known road to safety
The rise in the internet’s popularity as a source of news has also inspired movements of “citizen reporting.” During our conversation, Sayle challenged me to think about the sheer number of reporters and journalists who are sharing news and stories that might not run on the 9:00 pm broadcast.
Not all of the quality information and evidence captured firsthand appears in published newspapers or on TV. Instead, some of it floods giant social media platforms such as Twitter.
Another digital news medium that has been growing in popularity is podcasts. However, it’s important to interrogate their credibility; while heightened “citizen reporting” and news production can be useful, publication does not equate to trustworthiness.
Sayle emphasized the importance of “investigating where the podcast comes from… and its reputation.” He also warned against only relying on one podcast or one news source as an absolute basis for information. Synthesizing information presented from multiple sources increases the quality of your perspective, and helps you draw a more well-rounded conclusion.
I attempted to use this strategy when researching how undocumented immigrants and previous asylum seekers in Europe are faring during the pandemic. I referenced the BBC and a Human Rights Watch report to develop a fuller understanding on the topic.
From the Human Rights Watch report, I learned that undocumented immigrants and previous asylum seekers have become particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, and many are currently living in substandard conditions. In September 2020, a devastating fire on the Greek island of Lesbos destroyed overcrowded refugee camps, which exposed the European Union’s (EU) inadequate response to the mounting border crisis.
Recalling the media attention and coverage of the refugee crisis back in 2015, I turned to the internet to investigate how these refugees are faring. An overview of immigrant and refugee experiences in 2020 from the BBC made it clear that not every member state in the EU has the capacity and resources to accommodate refugees. Border closings led to some asylum-seekers falling “into the hands of smugglers and illegality,” which led to a tragedy where authorities discovered dead bodies of several migrants in the back of a lorry headed for Austria.
The turning point of Europeans’ attitudes toward the arrival of refugees began when countries started to feel a strain on their resources. Political backlash on openness toward asylum seekers in Germany and Italy gave nationalist politicians opportunities to stir up support for themselves. Many European citizens agree with the anti-migrant sentiments expressed by some public figures.
Employment is one of the biggest challenges refugees face as they attempt to put down roots in their new home. Refugees with foreign qualifications and competent language skills are rejected from the workforce because their qualifications are deemed ‘invalid’ by European standards.
The BBC article concluded that the current approach to integration is “by no means perfect and there are still plenty of problems but hundreds of thousands of people — Syrians, Iraqis, and many others — are putting down roots.”
Having to look for non-traditional sources on this topic helped me to contextualize the European refugee crisis, transforming them into vivid narratives of enduring resilience.
The news source pyramid
Sayle introduced the concept of a ‘news source pyramid,’ which ranks the quality of different types of news articles. Instant news updates — such as brief breaking news articles — sit on the bottom of the pyramid, as they provide the least extensive coverage and information, and “more measured [takes] of news websites” are on the second level.
In-depth reporting from think tanks is found at the very top of the pyramid. Thanks to technology, an abundance of think tanks have moved their reporting online. After the interview with Sayle, I decided to explore the news source pyramid from the top down using the issue of gender inequality.
Starting at the bottom, I searched for instant news reactions to gender equality movements. My search returned an interesting protest in Switzerland in which women gathered to “mass scream” in protest of the gender pay gap. According to the piece in Global News, the Swiss women chose to scream at 3:24 pm, which is the time when women begin to work for free in an eight-hour work day when their wages are compared to those of men counterparts.
While this article was impactful, it lacked the historical context and statistics I needed to extend the story further. That led me to move to the next tier on the pyramid: the “more measured” and developed news takes.
I found a BBC News report about women in Scotland, who account for a significant part of the essential workforce, including in health care, schools, social care, and supermarkets. Those who were able to work remotely faced challenges posed by family responsibilities.
On top of adjusting to remote work, many Scottish women undertook an increased workload in terms of childc are and homeschooling, often without closing the pre-existing gap disparity in household chores. This article compiled many statistics, creating a more fleshed out story of how working women have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, I moved up to the top of the news pyramid, which is the heavily-researched think-tank reports. I began to wonder if there were any statistics or numerical data that quantify the phenomenon of gender inequality during the pandemic. I found a US-based think tank called the Institute for Policy Studies that launched a project to investigate and report on numerous aspects of inequality.
It revealed that the US also has a higher population of women working in service sectors deemed part of the “essential workforce” than men. This had an effect on the number of women confronted by layoffs. As the pandemic struck the US, women’s unemployment rate increased to 16.2 per cent, diverging from the 13.5 per cent rate of men’s unemployment. Due to increasing demand for family caregiving, women are more likely to drop out of the labour force at rates of 2.4 per cent, compared to a rate of 1.9 per cent among working men.
By working my way through the news pyramid, I navigated increasingly informative news-reading habits. Wading through the repository of information widely available on the internet, I confronted the hierarchy of quality information.
Although it’s not always reasonable to expect people to read long, dense think tank reports, doing so truly showed me the importance of context and depth in reporting.
Check out alternative media sources
A key aspect to identifying credible news sources is to have an open mind. Sayle mentioned that some new or emerging news sources can be excellent in quality. It is imperative to track reporting from news sources and compare them to other media outlets.
Prejudice against new websites and alternative news outlets can only be resolved through observation and comparison. I found that this principle can be applied to reports from news sources tracking climate crisis predictions.
Environmental Health News reported on a recent study from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that assessed the impact of the climate crisis on crop yield. It predicted that ongoing issues of food insecurity would be exacerbated in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and South Asia if the global temperature keeps rising.
This study focused on temperature variation, which is only one of the many aspects of the climate crisis. Irregular precipitation patterns compounded with extreme weather conditions will also cause dynamic change in farmland.
There is an intrinsic link between extreme weather events and the climate crisis, which highlights the danger surrounding the rate of global warming. This is an oft-repeated conclusion supported by observations that date back to the 1950s. The frequency, intensity, and even duration of extreme weather events had changed even then. At the present, such abnormal weather patterns are projected to continue to change amidst the unfolding climate crisis.
Although Environmental Health News is not a traditional media outlet to reference, its niche coverage reported on an important climate crisis study. Its credibility was bolstered by its factual reporting, and its less conventional nature allowed it to dig deeper into a topic that mainstream media sources would be less inclined to cover to the same extent.
Through all of my exploration and interrogation of the media news industry in this highly digital age, I’ve come away with an appreciation of the variety of reporting available. However, this variety may be a double-edged sword — so we should make sure that we adopt various strategies to verify the credibility of sources.
This is critical to shaping a well-rounded perspective on global issues. While we are steeped in an age of misinformation and disinformation, there is a way to stay well-informed. It just takes patience, practice, and a healthy appetite for news stories.