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News Literacy

How do they know that?

A simple but powerful question for evaluating the quality of the news you read.

How you can use "how do they know that?"


Sources & Evidence
  • When a journalist makes a claim, ask yourself, "how do they know that?"
    • Ways journalists demonstrate they know something:
      • They cite multiple sources
      • Those sources are people who know something about the situation or news event
      • The journalist was present at the event they are reporting on
      • The evidence may be a document - a report, email, memo, study, among others. See if you can independently verify the contents of the document, or if the journalist provides a link.
Expertise
  • When a journalist interviews an expert, ask yourself, "how do they know that?"
    • What to look for in experts:
      • They have demonstrated expertise in the area they are talking about. This can be expertise related to an advanced degree (a professor or researcher), their job (a diplomat, a city employee, someone who works in a relevant field).
Eye-witnesses
  • When you read eye-witness accounts, or view citizen-recorded videos of an event, ask yourself, "how do they know that?"
    • Questions to ask yourself about eye-witness statements:
      • Where they themselves present at the event?
      • How long ago did the event happen? Passage of time can affect memories
      • Does the eye-witness provide corroborating evidence, like photos, or videos to back up their account?
      • If a video, did they film the video themselves, or are they re-posting someone else's work?

Annotated Example Article

Let's examine an article from the Washington Post, published in December 2016. You can read the entire article on the Post's website.

The following annotations will illustrate how you could use the question "how do they know that?" to analyze the strength of this article.

Article Claim

This is the main claim of the article (first sentence):

"The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget..."

How do they know that?

Sources & Evidence
  • They cite and link to a report that backs up their claim, and explain who produced the document ("the Defense Business Board, a federal advisory panel of corporate executives, and consultants from McKinsey and Company").
    • They tell you how they got the document ("A 77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website")
  • A confidential memo from McKinsey, which they quote
  • They also quote memos from various officials
  • They interviewed people who have specific knowledge of the document, and tell the reader what that specific knowledge is. For example:
    • "'They’re all complaining that they don’t have any money. We proposed a way to save a ton of money,' said Robert “Bobby” L. Stein, a private-equity investor from Jacksonville, Fla., who served as chairman of the Defense Business Board
    • "...Deputy Defense Secretary Robert O. Work, the Pentagon’s second-highest-ranking official. At first, Work publicly touted the efficiency drive as a top priority and boasted about his idea to recruit corporate experts to lead the way. After the board finished its analysis, however, Work changed his position. In an interview with The Post, he did not dispute the board’s findings about the size or scope of the bureaucracy."
    • "'You are about to turn on the light in a very dark room,” Kenneth Klepper, the former chief executive of Medco Health Solutions, told Work in the summer of 2014, according to two people familiar with the exchange."
Expertise

The reporters cite a number of experts who have relevant expertise about this topic

  • Robert “Bobby” L. Stein, who is the chairman of the Defense Business Board (organization who created the report), as well as "campaign bundler for President Obama" (other political expertise)
  • Robert O. Work, Deputy Defense Secretary, and retired Marine Officer
  • Dov Zakheim, Pentagon comptroller under President George W. Bush
  • Arnold Punaro, retired Marine general and former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee
  • Peter Cook, spokesman for Pentagon chief Ash Carter

Eye-witnesses

This story uses a few eye-witness accounts, mostly of meetings:

  • "'Are you trying to tell me we don’t know how to do our job?' he said, according to two participants in the meeting. He said he needed to hire 1,000 more people to work directly under him, not fewer."
    • Unfortunately, we don't know who the two participants are. The fact that there are two is helpful, but it's better if they are named.

What's Next?

  • Try out this strategy next time you see a news article on social media
    • Are you satisfied with the quality of the article?
    • Do you think you need more information before you make up your mind?
  • Do a practice exercise on the next page!

This page is inspired by the Verification Handbook, a freely available resource edited by Craig Silverman

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