Evaluating news sources is one of the more contentious issues out there. People have their favorite news sources and don’t like to be told that their news source is untrustworthy.
For fact-checking, it’s helpful to draw a distinction between two activities:
- News Gathering, where news organizations do investigative work, calling sources, researching public documents, checking and publishing facts, e.g. the getting the facts of Bernie Sanders involvement in the passage of several bills.
- News Analysis, which takes those facts and strings them into a larger narrative, such as “Senator Sanders an effective legislator behind the scenes” or “Senator Sanders largely ineffective Senator behind the scenes.”
Most newspaper articles are not lists of facts, which means that outfits like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times do both news gathering and news analysis in stories. What has been lost in the dismissal of the New York Times as liberal and the Wall Street Journal as conservative is that these are primarily biases of the news analysis portion of what they do. To the extent the bias exists, it’s in what they choose to cover, to whom they choose to talk, and what they imply in the way they arrange those facts they collect.
The news gathering piece is affected by this, but in many ways largely separate, and the reputation for fact checking is largely separate as well. MSNBC, for example, has a liberal slant to its news, but a smart liberal would be more likely to trust a fact in the Wall Street Journal than a fact uttered on MSNBC because the Wall Street Journal has a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy that MSNBC does not. The same holds true for someone looking at the New York Observer vs. the New York Times. Even if you like the perspective of the Observer, if you were asked to bet on the accuracy of two pieces — one from the Observer, and one for the times, you could make a lot of money betting on the Times.
Narratives are a different matter. You may like the narrative of MSNBC or the Observer — or even find it more in line with reality. You might rely on them for insight. But if you are looking to validate a fact, the question you want to ask is not always “What is the bias of this publication?” but rather, “What is this publication’s record with concern to accuracy?”