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10 ways to spot junk journalism

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Those of us who have been in the news business a long time can spot junk journalism a mile away. But we've done a horrible job explaining the warning signs to the public, which has been thrust into the role not just of news consumer but news interpreter after the rapid rise of bloggers and all-day talk TV.

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There are some clear indications of when something is good reporting, and when it's rumor, biased or otherwise not worth one's time.

1. Attribution. This is absolutely crucial. Look through your average bylined news story. Is it a mystery where this information was derived from? Or does it clearly cite sources, such as the mayor or a teacher or a specific court file? In good journalism, a reporter relays what reliable sources have told him or her, and hopefully provides supporting or refuting evidence to those claims.

2. This is actually the same as No. 1, but it's so important, it's necessary to point out: If a reporter says, "Some people say" or "some will argue" or "they want you to believe" and doesn't say who those "some" or "they" people are, it's trouble. If so many people are saying it, it should be very easy to find someone to quote or run a sound bite from, right? But if they don't do this, they're lazy or just lying.

3. No journalist, no source -- no person, in fact -- knows what is inside someone else's head. If a report says someone "thinks" or "wants" something, run away. Have they said they want it? Have they said they think it? If so, then a good reporter can quote them saying it, and doesn't need to resort to reporting what someone "thinks" -- something that's impossible to know for sure.

4. No journalist, no source -- no person, in fact -- knows the future. Anyone who purports to know what's going to happen tomorrow, next year or in the next election is no more credible than a psychic or a tarot card reader. Anything said about what's going to happen instead of what already happened isn't news, it's speculation. This goes for climate scientists, political operatives and sports announcers. You can credibly report the facts of what we know, and if there's a pattern developing from those facts. But no one knows the future. No one. The 24-hour TV news networks are enamored with the idea of predicting what is about to happen, and spend almost no time anymore on what actually, factually happened. Of course, being wrong more than half of the time has apparently been a risk they're willing to take in the name of being first to proclaim what's about to happen.

5. Consider the source. If something is reported by a blogger with a stated political agenda, or from a source with a vested interest in "spinning" (fancy talk for "lying" or at least "exaggerating") a story, it's bad news.

6. Speaking of this, reporting "both sides" of an issue generally leads to quoting two people with diametrically opposed views, which almost certainly requires using fringe sources on both ends of a spectrum and ignoring any common-sense, centrist opinions. Be wary of that.

7. Context. The reporter has some amazing-sounding fact: "The government is spending $11 million on" this program or that. Is that a lot? How much did they spend on it last year? Or "50 people have died so far this year from" traffic accidents or some affliction. Is that more or less than last year?

8. Loaded language. If a reporter says someone "couldn't wait to" or "wasted no time in" doing something, the reporter is injecting bias into a story. You report what was done, not how big of a rush someone was in to do something. See no. 3 -- we don't know how much of a hurry someone was in implementing something. But bloggers love language like this, because it makes the story sound more dramatic than it actually is.

9. Are anonymous sources used? If so, do they need to be? People report that "sources tell us" or "a high-ranking official said" without saying why the source needs anonymity. Is their life at risk? Is there no one who would talk about this on the record? This isn't to say anonymous sources always mean a story is untrue or exaggerated, but it does say no one is willing to stand up and say it without being granted a veil of secrecy.

10. Self-congratulatory language is a warning sign. Does the news organization highlight words like "exclusive to us" or "we first learned" in their stories? Are they trying to promote themselves or report what happened? Again, it's a part of the industry -- albeit distasteful -- but self-promotion within a story shouldn't be necessary. If the reporting is solid, that will become one's reputation. It need not be suggested in every story.

The Wadena Pioneer Journal editorial is the collective voice of the editorial board, and not necessarily the view of all employees. Today's editorial was written by Steve Schulz, editor and publisher.

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