Interpreting Content Online – Differences in News Content and Why You Should Care

November 10th, 2016. Janet Granger-Wilcox


In the brave new world of Internet journalism, where thousands of news sites of various quality and ideology compete in an all-in battle royale for your clicks, it pays to know the differences in news content. Here are some tips for interpreting media content online.

Newsroom politics

In the quest to predict whether the next iPhone will come with a headphone jack or not, news sites are practically falling over each other to make predictions based on vague evidence. It’s mostly harmless, and because most websites generate revenue based on the number of clicks, it only seems fair that almost anything bears reporting.

All this changes when things get serious. Tech site Wired used wildly different reporting on the recent investigation into Benghazi. Wired reporter Issy Lapowski looks at the actual outcome of the probe by House Republicans. The investigations looked into the Obama administration’s handling of the events surrounding the 2012 attacks which led to several deaths, including that of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. Lapowski points out:

“As media consumers, we now have the freedom to self-select the truth that most closely resembles our existing beliefs, which makes our media habits fairly good indicators of our political beliefs.”

In the case of the Benghazi Report, which was the real story? Was it, as right-wing Breitbart News reported Benghazi Committee Releases Final Report, Slams Clinton? Or was it, as the more left leaning Daily Kos reported: House Republicans release anticlimactic Benghazi report?

Lapowski thinks it’s both, pointing to the fact that the primary document, the report, is 800 pages long and that:

The Committee both eviscerates the Obama administration for failing to adequately respond to threats in Libya and utterly fails to convincingly pin the blame on Clinton. Both, not either.”

So should journalists be objective?

Closer to home, Tim Dunlop asks the question at ABC News, Is media objectivity an outdated model?

Dunlop compares two reports on Tony Abbott’s National Security Speech back in February 2015 by seasoned political journalists: Michelle Grattan’s more ‘objective’ report for The Conversation and Lenore Taylor’s analysis at The Guardian.

Dunlop argues that while Grattan’s write-up might be perceived as the more traditional journalistic piece, in trying to present ‘just the facts’, it is actually Lenore Taylor’s analysis for The Guardian that is more valuable, providing much needed context for the reasons behind the content of the speech.

To back up his reasoning for this, Dunlop recalls the words of Glenn Greenwald, the blogger who worked with The Guardian on the Edward Snowden leaks (and now has his own media publication The Intercept).

In a discussion with former New York Times executive Bill Keller, Greenwald says:

“The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.”

According to Greenwald and Dunlop, reporters are never really objective, so it’s better to honestly disclose your assumptions.

If all sources are biased, how can I find the truth?

This is a tricky question. As we’ve found, objectivity might not be as real as we might hope it to be. Perhaps the better practice is to know the difference between a fact and an opinion, and how various services, sites, journalists, bloggers and commentators might use facts to back up their opinions.

The good news is that we, the great big Internet audience, determine how successful subjective journalistic practices are with our browsing habits. If we can’t have objectivity then maybe we can demand transparency in our quest to find the truth.

A clearer picture through transparency

At Mădălina Ciobanu looks at how providing analysis rather than striving for objectivity can provide a clearer picture in journalism. Ciobanu quotes several sources, including Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a columnist for The Independent.

“In moments of high panic such as the war on terror we are in, journalism becomes much less able to sustain its distance from power. We need to ask ourselves where something is coming from, why, what are the questioning stories we should be reading and writing?”

Alibhai-Brown rejects the notion of loyalty in journalism, saying “It’s important for journalism to be disloyal to everybody,”

While that might seem a rather hardline stance, there are organisations like ‘The Trust Project’. Funded in part by Google, the project features media institutions as diverse as Al Jazeera, La Stampa, Mother Jones and The New York Times, which aim to reinvigorate honest reporting. According to their mission statement the Trust Project “crafts tangible digital strategies to fulfil journalism’s basic pledge: to serve society with a truthful, intelligent and comprehensive account of ideas and events.”

Organisations like this might help stem the tide of partisan promotional content dressed up as news, at least in major publications. But what about smaller sites, and those websites that seemingly spring up overnight, churning out barely rewritten copy from other sites with little to no useful information?

Should I care?

With so much conflicting information out there, it’s hard not to be a cynic, and it’s probably wise to view news on the Internet with a critical eye. Media plays such an influential role in our social dynamics that unless we pull the wires from the wall and go full hermit, it’s hard to avoid the overflow of opinion pieces in the 24-hour news cycle.

While discussing the biases and ideologies of various news sites might not make for great party banter, it’s at least worth being aware of how new media on the Internet works. Everything from the way we vote, to our purchasing decisions, right down to the way we react and interact with people, is influenced by the media. In the case of subjective journalism, knowing is half the battle.