How to Distinguish Trustworthy Media

06.10.2016, Laboratory

Art critic, journalist

In a noisy information arena saturated with news websites, it's often difficult to determine which media outlets are worthy of trust and which, are not only not to be trusted, but also subject to dismissal.

And if you want to be an  conscious consumer of information and not a passive reader, it's a good idea to ascertain the real status and position of a media platform. Trustworthy media outlets can be distinguished by a few simple features (we won't address more complex, underhanded manipulative tricks now).

1. What is the first prerequisite of a trustworthy media outlet?

A trustworthy media outlet is never anonymous. A website positioning itself as a professional media outlet will include information about its founders, editorial team, and reporters, and its contact information: the address of the editorial office, phone numbers, email addresses, and so on. 

Usually websites have an "About Us" section, where apart from the aforementioned information, the media outlet's concept or working principles may be published. And on the site, there can't be articles without bylines or signed by fake authors. That is to say, there has to be the opportunity to call or write a message to both the chief editor and each journalist. 

Websites that should be dismissed usually haven't listed an address and don't provide an opportunity for feedback.

2. To what extent does the open data about the media outlet guarantee accuracy of the information?

They guarantee partially, since that's only a starting point. The next step for verification is the structure of the articles themselves. That is, the journalists' professionalism. There are a few mandatory conditions (and not only in the journalism sector), which are always worth remembering. News stories must be impartial, honest, and conscientious.

And so that that these mandatory conditions don't seem unsubstantiated, let me add that the priority is for the story to be comprehensible and complete. What, where, and when it happened must be clear to readers after they read the story. Of course, sources must also be stated — and not the hazy "based on our information" or "according to our sources" phrases be used.

The existence of factual, verified information and balancing different parties' views will tell you that the media outlet can be counted among the trusted.

3. Do many and diverse stories prove professionalism?

Not always, since on the internet now, there are many aggregators, which don't create their own newsfeed but gather information from various platforms and place them on their site without additional verification or correction. The purpose is to ensure site visits, which means that it will emphasize scandalous and easily-digestible information, the verification of which is not mandatory.

Remember that websites publishing news are still not media outlets. 

Rather, they're accumulators, which might publish suspicious, directed, or clearly false information — without justification or references. News are usually presented with screaming and enticing headlines. 

4. Is it bad that the headline is screaming and scandalous?

A screaming headline is neither good nor bad: it's simply a matter of the media outlet's style. The only issue is that the headline and the story shouldn't contradict each other and deliberately confuse readers. 

Sometimes someone's thought becomes the headline, but it's presented not as an opinion or theory, but as fact (without quotation marks). It may be that the headline has absolutely no connection with the story — that is, it's bait.

Writing headlines is practically a separate branch of journalism, since now under conditions of rapidly developing events, what's important is not only what you write, but also how you deliver it. Professional media outlets try to do both well.

The construction of the news shouldn't yield to content. Or, yield a little. A headline is part of the construction, since it's the first thing that's seen. Then comes the time to notice the details. 

5. What are the important details?

The news doesn't have value if no one is responsible for it. We already said that the story has to have an author, but it's no less important that the information in the text also has its auteur mark.

If you see that the information is provided with a credited photo, or the photo's usage rights haven't been violated, then the media outlet is working "clean".

The same thing refers to the text: if you read, for example, that so-and-so said so-and-so, you have to be given the opportunity to check the remarks by visiting the source. For example, a hyperlink to the media outlet that published this first. This way, neither your colleagues' nor your readers' trust will be shattered.

It would be good if the source was an international news agency or if we're talking about local news, witnesses and direct participants — so that the news' "authentic" component, so to speak, is ensured.

Emotional tranquility is another important detail. If you see that the media reports are trying to evoke an overly emotional reaction and are intensifying the "colors," you have the right not to trust.

Don't forget that the trustworthy media outlet is not a courtroom. Nor an office accepting commissions. 

6. How to distinguish news stories written on commission?

Clients often aren't very delicate or prudent, and if they want to commission "news" articles praising them or tarnishing their competitors' reputation, they do so in a frontal or sloppy manner. To distinguish articles written on commission, pay attention to the basis for the allegations. If an accusation is made, then the accused should be given the right to respond. Or if remarks about unprecedented growth are made, they should be accompanied by numbers and statistical data. 

Actually, news stories written on commission are instinctively implicit. Try not to lose the instinct to doubt, verify, again doubt, and again verify. 

Doubting and not trusting are fundamental rights. And a professional and trustworthy media outlet takes into account the rights of its readers.

It would be good to remember this under all circumstances — even in a complete information drought. That is, if a media outlet doesn't treat its readers as naive fools, it already inspires confidence.

Nune Hakhverdyan

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