Critical Media Literacy: Watching the Reporters

(with apologies to Elvis Costello)

In a couple of recent posts, I’ve contrasted the coverage of a story in The New York Times with that of The Guardian (UK).

Comparing the different ways that the same story is presented in different newspapers is a good way to develop a critical media literacy approach to the news. (You can do it with news in any media, or across media – for instance comparing newspaper coverage with that of the TV news – but obviously it is easiest to do with online versions of newspapers. In the discussion that follows, I will stick to that for simplicity’s sake.)

There are a wide range of things you can look at. Who is quoted from, and at what length, in the different pieces? In what order do the quotes appear? Statements at the beginning of an article are going to be more widely read, and ones at the end will have the proverbial last word, and thereby more influence.

Does the language used in the article tend to lend more weight to one position or another? For example, as I mentioned in my earlier post on “critical media literacy,” saying that a union official “claimed” while the corporate spokesperson “said” or “stated” tends to give more credibility to the corporate spokesperson. A variety of other rhetorical strategies can be used to favor a particular position, even when in some bland, stripped-down sense, all or most of the same points are being raised and facts being given. In discussing the Global Humanitarian Forum report on deaths attributable to climate change, both NYT and The Guardian raised questions about the “robustness” of the mortality figures, but NYT played up the doubts and criticisms to a much greater extent.

Pulling up articles on the same news story from two different sources, side by side, can be very revealing – showing you a whole range of devices that skew the story in a particular way. It’s a great way to develop those critical media literacy skills, but it is also time consuming – not really practical to do with all your daily news.

But putting some time into comparisons of this kind can give you insight into how the various news sources you’ve been relying on project their particular biases and perspectives onto the stories they tell. It might – for example – help you “wake up to the fact / that your paper is Tory,” as Billy Bragg sings. You might continue to read the same paper/website, but you will be more aware of its slanting of the news, and able to correct for the bias. Or, by engaging in side-by-side comparisons between various news sources, you may find one or two that seem to suit you better than others. I tend to rely on The New York Times and The Guardian as my principle sources for mainstream news – for various reasons which I won’t go into now – and with time have learned when and how to correct for their various biases and idiosyncrasies.

There are also a number of watchdog organizations the investigate and analyse media bias and distortions, including

FAIR – Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting
medialens – correcting for the distorted vision of the corporate media

Checking these out periodically will help you gain a better understanding of the way various news outlets slant the stories they tell, and will help you to further develop critical media literacy skills and the ability to see and correct for biases and distortions.

Also incredibly valuable is a source I’ve mentioned a couple of times already: SourceWatch – Your guide to the names behind the news. Whenever someone is quoted in the news from an organization with a vague or general sounding name, like those talking heads on TV news programs from “think tanks” or “policy institutes,” check them out on SourceWatch. You will very quickly develop a healthy distrust for those talking heads – who so often are parroting the covert agenda of corporate masters.

Here’s the Billy Bragg song, “It Says Here,” quoted from above:

And here’s the Elvis Costello song pointlessly alluded to in the title of this post:


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