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Sifting through the sources: how to really know which source has the ‘truth’


by John Bowen
In their book, “Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload,” Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel speak of a news process they call “skeptical knowing.” Applying this process, they say, will help journalists and audiences better evaluate information they receive – and pass on. The process involves not only evaluating news but also applying ethical values.

This lesson will explore the basics of that process in trying to determine whether facts and sources used lead to reliable, credible and complete storytelling.

Summative evaluation tool: Class discussion, student-created outcomes
Primary Common Core: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.8
Secondary Common Core Standard(s) Addressed: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.5
21st Century Skills Incorporated: Critical thinking, communication, information media skills, ethical evaluation
Supplies, Technology, Other Materials Needed: Internet
Length of the Lesson: 100 minutes
Evaluation tools: Communication, application of skills, student-created product
Appropriate for Grades: 9-12
Created by: John Bowen, MJE

Brief description of lesson: A journalism professor at The University of Kansas tweeted a reaction to the September 2013 shooting at Washington, D.C.’s, Navy Yard. Reaction was swift and widespread. He was placed on indefinite administrative leave following his tweet denouncing the National Rifle Association and inaction toward gun control.

Lesson overview: How well did media report the incident? This lesson takes four online resources and to build source evaluation skills and question the ways students perceive, receive and distribute information. In that process, students will also see how ethical thinking shapes decision-making.

The process: Ask students to talk about how they tell what information, as well as news sources, they consider reliable, credible and thorough. After students have reflected on the knowledge process, have them read this source:
• Blur: introduction of the book, especially skeptical knowing.

Once students have read about “skeptical knowing,” tell them about the suspension of the University of Kansas journalism professor. Ask them to talk about how they verify information and how they determine which sources to trust.

In relation to that story, ask students to read these stories and evaluate the sources and the information of each story for class discussion:
• J prof says he hopes for murder of NRA members’ children
• Kansas j-school professor on leave after tweet about DC shootings, NRA ‘sons and daughters’
• Gun-grabbing University of Kansas journalism prof wishes death on children of NRA members
• U of Kansas professor is placed on leave after tweet denouncing NRA

The questions
Once students have read the stories, urge them to consider the following questions (among many possibilities):
• What sources are used in the stories? Why should I believe them? What additional sources might add depth, more information?
• How would students check the credibility and reliability of sources and information?
• What level of sourcing are we dealing with: experts, authorities, knowledgeables, reactors?
• Are the reporters asking these sources questions they are qualified to answer reliably? Are the sources speaking within their fields of expertise?
• Which information and which stories do they consider the most reliable?  Credible? Why?
• Which the least, and why?
• Is the information complete, or what information is missing?
• Is there a clear line between fact and speculation?
• Does the information in the story have a context? Can the reporter – and the audience – understand the impact of that context?
• What criteria do they use to determine credibility of information?  Of sources? Is there reputable verification of the information?
• How important is their understanding of what words used in the stories mean? Are words and facts used in a context that helps understanding?
• Am I as journalist learning what I need to, and is the audience?
• What have they learned from this activity they can use to improve their own reporting?
• How did the “skeptical knowing” process help them look at the stories and understand the newsgathering and sharing, process? Understand sourcing?
• Which of the stories helped you make sense of the situation? Why?

Additionally, have students read “Ask these 10 questions to make good ethical decisions,” . See if student answers or insight change.

In “Blur,” the authors also make this argument: “In a news story, audiences expect an independent description of what has happened, why and with basic facts offered in a way that everyone could agree with.” Did that happen in each of these stories? How can the journalist and the audience tell?

As a concluding activity, have students develop a set of guidelines they would use, based on their discussions, to best fulfill their obligation to “skeptical  knowing.” As an additional activity, ask students to do the same thing, but as guidelines audiences should use to evaluate reporting.

• Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Bloomsbury, 2010
•The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, Three Rivers Press, 2007.






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