- Accuracy. A story must be reported correctly, facts must be based on solid evidence, quotes must be accurate and free from any distortion, sources must be identified.
- Completeness. Information must contribute to informing audience and must be essentially complete. Essentially complete means including sufficient information that excludes incorrect understanding of facts and their contexts.
- Fairness and balance. Information must be fair and balanced; a story must represent all those opinions that help understand the essence of an issue.
Sources and balance
Information relies on sources which may be classified into three categories:
Human sources include first-hand sources (direct participants in a process, witnesses) and second-hand sources (experts, representatives of a particular sphere, government or other interested parties).
Physical sources include documents, photo and video material, records, statistics, directories, articles, et cetera.
Internet sources include both human and physical sources; however, given the abundance of digital sources, additional efforts are required to verify their credibility.
An individual source of information is never neutral; therefore, a journalist must give consideration to a possible interest and bias of a source of information and act in accordance with a “two source principle.” This principle requires the verification of information with at least two independent sources. In addition, there may be more than two parties to a story and all parties must be allowed to provide their positions so as to ensure that a receiver of information gets a comprehensive picture of an event.
A journalist may rely on an anonymous source when need be, because some sources only agree to provide information on issues of public interest on the condition of confidentiality. In such a case, journalists shall first become convinced of reliability of anonymous sources themselves, find out a motive of the anonymous source, verify the provided information with other sources, obtain documentary or other evidence convincing the journalist of truthfulness of the fact. Journalists shall inform audience that their sources are anonymous, thereby making their own activity transparent and reliable. At the same time, a journalist must never use an anonymous source for conveying an opinion of a third party.
A fact must be clearly separated from an opinion in a journalistic material.
- Fact is something that is verifiable.
- Opinion is a conviction or attitude of a particular person and is not verifiable. An opinion may be based on facts and emotions.
It should be noted that a comment-oriented press is mainly characteristic for a media model of polarized pluralism whereas an information-oriented media is characteristic for a liberal media model.
To ensure impartial reporting, a journalist must observe balance when producing a material and duly present positions of each and every party. Observing balance means not just reflecting opinions of all parties in arithmetically equal amounts but rather equally representing all important opinions. A material may reflect arguments of both parties, but it will be biased if presented evidence and opinions favor only one party.
What is a news story?
According to Melvin Mencher, newsworthiness of events is determined by the following criteria:
- Timeliness. Today's events are more newsworthy than yesterday’s;
- Impact. The more people affected, the bigger the story;
- Prominence. The better known, the bigger the story;
- Proximity. The closer the event, the bigger the story;
- Conflict. Battle or debate, struggles make news;
- Unusual. The unexpected and the different = news;
- Topical. Suddenly, the silent is given voice;
- Necessity. A situation the journalist feels compelled to reveal.
A news story must inform audience on what happened, when and where it happened and who was involved in it. A good piece of news also answers the questions as to how and why it happened. Thus, a news story answers six questions: Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? An answer to a question “why” may vary and therefore, a journalist must describe an event in a neutral manner and seek different opinions about causes of the event.
Agenda setting theory relies on an assumption that a public agenda, i.e. what people discuss, think, are concerned about, largely depends on and driven by a topic which the news media selects to cover. This means that if a news media decides to cover budget deficit extensively, this topic will become the most important issue on a public agenda. By setting agenda media influences public opinion. It is worth to note that when media tries to inform society about current events it not only reflects the reality but at the same time filters certain information and takes decisions on which issue to put on the agenda.
How to analyze a news story critically?
- A media consumer must distinguish between a news story and an editorial opinion. An editorial reflects a personal opinion of a journalistic on this or that fact or event while a news story must be free from an opinion of a journalist or an editor.
- Is a story anonymous or authored? How reliable is the author?
- Does a story cites at least two independent sources?
- Who are the sources and how diverse is the spectrum of sources?
- Does a journalist apply double standard towards various sources?
- Is a consumer provided with a possibility to learn about arguments of various parties in order to form his/her own opinion?
- Is a story reported neutrally or from a perspective of any of the parties?
- Does a journalist interpret facts?
- Does a story miss an issue that is essential to understand it?
- Is the context provided?
- Do a title and a photo correspond to the text?
- Is a reporting stereotypical?
- Does a journalist use neutral language?
- When an issue is of public interest, is it reported as a main story (when it is a TV report, whether it is among opening reports of news program; in case of print and online media whether it is placed on leading pages).
- Whether all mainstream media cover the same important news story or there is a media outlet(s) that avoids covering certain pressing issues for society.