How to Read The News

by Trey Poche | May 2021
Being a critical consumer of information is the first defense against problematic news sources and misleading content. Learning the IMVAIN method, distinguishing between factual news vs. opinion and learning about journalistic history are the first steps for critically reading the news.
A card featuring information on how to detect fake news.

"IMVAIN" Method for Source Evaluation

Stony Brook Center For News Literacy, 2015

Keep the handy acronym "IMVAIN" on hand when reading through any text-based piece.

What is the author's motive in writing the story? Whose interests are represented? Consider who owns the news outlet. 

It is well-know that Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, one richest men in the world, owns The Washington Post. Although Bezos has stated he has no interest in micro-managing the paper, and the executive editor confirmed that he does not take direction from Bezos on editorial matters, the Post is unable to dispel a sense that it goes easy on its' owners multi-billion dollar company. 

Are the people quoted trying to advance their own agenda? We all have agendas, hopes and desires, but it is important to identify sources that are self-interested. It is wise to take self-serving accounts “with a grain of salt.”

Does the story include quotes? How many sources does the author include? Does the author include a wide range of opinions and perspectives on the issue? Is the source included the closest individual to the issue at hand? Is there someone else more qualified? 

Direct quotes can add clarity, credibility, accountability and unique expressions to a story. But quotes can also be weaponized to misrepresent a point of view, or be placed out of context to bolster false claims. Especially during periods of intense partisanship and political polarization, more extreme viewpoints are often amplified in news stories for shock value to attract attention. 

Political ads frequently take quotes out of context in order to better attack the opponent. For instance, during the 2008 presidential election, John McCain’s campaign team ran an ad attacking Barack Obama for his position on the U.S. war in the Middle East. The ad started with: Narrator: “Who is Barack Obama? He says our troops in Afghanistan are…” Obama: “...just air-raiding villages and killing civilians.” Narrator: “How dishonorable. Congressional liberals voted repeatedly to cut off funding to our active troops, increasing the risk on their lives. How dangerous.”

Obama’s full quote, which was made during a campaign event the year before, addressed whether he would move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan: “We’ve got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.” 

Does the article use evidence, examples and data to support the story? Do sources in the news story simple assert their opinion, or do they make factual claims backed by evidence? Does the article provide access to original information for readers to verify themselves? 

Conspiracy theories attract such wide attention because they provide convincing narratives that can be believed if a reader wants to believe, but have no real basis in fact--many outlandish conspiracies cannot be falsified due to the nature of the evidence provided.

Certain conspiracies are more blatantly obvious than others, such as whether or not aliens exist, and whether or not vote-by-mail will lead to “widespread voter fraud.” Because appeals to conspiracies are based in insufficient evidence, a sure sign of if someone is pushing a conspiracy theory is whether verifiable facts are included. 

What is the type of evidence an article presents? Does the author include expert opinion? Scientific claims should be backed by credible scientific institutions, such as the CDC, or FDA. 

Reputable news agencies provide up-to-date information. Does the article present the most recent information, and is it updated to reflect changing circumstances? Does the author break down complex issues effectively and accurately? 

In the new media landscape news stories written by trained, professional journalists often appear alongside news generated by self-professed citizen journalists, or just casual social media users who happen to come across a newsworthy event. Personal accounts of events can be useful, but they also increase the likelihood of errant reporting and mischaracterizations of circumstances. 

In the new media landscape news stories written by trained, professional journalists often appear alongside news generated by self-professed citizen journalists, or just casual social media users who happen to come across a newsworthy event. Personal accounts of events can be useful, but they also increase the likelihood of errant reporting and mischaracterizations of circumstances. 

Is the author of the article named? Most credible journalists are contactable and are able to be held publicly accountable. Are sources speaking on the record, or under the guise of anonymity? Was the information leaked? 

In September 2018, The New York Times published an anonymous letter allegedly written by a senior official in the Trump administration who asserted members of the administration had "vowed to thwart part of [the president's] agenda." The Times included a statement on the op-ed, which read:

"The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers."

Protecting the anonymity of sources is an important ethical consideration for journalists, but anonymity can allow critics to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the source. 

Distinguish between News & Opinion

There isn’t always an easy way to tell what is news and what is opinion.

The American Press Institute found that only 43 percent of Americans said they could easily sort news from in online-only news or social media. Traditionally, reputable news outlets have opinion sections or label opinion pieces in the title of the story, but the same is not true for information you can find on social media or small websites. 

It’s difficult to distinguish news from opinion on social media because people have different motivations for sharing content. Some people may share hard news one day, but then share an opinion piece the next so that their profile is patchwork of news and opinion. Accordingly, your news feed likely consists of a combination of hard news and opinion, but there isn’t always an easy way to tell what is what. 

Many smaller, online-only news websites don’t visually differentiate between news and opinion pieces because they don’t have enough journalists to provide factual reporting on a wide range of public affairs. These online-only outlets tend to leave the hard news reporting to the big papers and nightly news while they cater to a niche audience. Niche audiences share a common opinion or interest and want content that aligns with their belief system. This means that small, online-only news sites tend to be more opinionated and have slant.

Opinion can be a good thing, but it is important to know that you are reading an opinionated story when you are reading it. A surefire way to detect opinion is understanding the tone of a piece. Ask yourself, “Is there emotional language present?” and “What does the author want me to believe?” as you are reading a story. Authors of opinionated stories use emotional language and want you, the reader, to see the issue just like they see it. 

We all have opinions. Opinions are the backbone of a healthy democracy. But be careful not to let any opinion piece, whether it’s from New York Times or Average Joe’s, convince you that it’s hard news.