This idea for this guide was partially inspired by the great work of the faculty at Stony Brook Center for News Literacy. The program, which started for students at SUNY Stony Brook, has grown to become a valuable public resource used in other schools. Check them out and show your support here: http://drc.centerfornewsliteracy.org/
Part of the mission of TheSexReporter.com is to expand media literacy, especially as it pertains to sex coverage.
Because sex isn’t a commonly accepted area of coverage in many outlets, stories about the culture, science, business and other aspects of sex aren’t always held to the same stringent scrutiny and editing as other areas of coverage. There can be disproportionate emphasis on sensationalist headlines, a very high number of “single-source” articles, and other things to look out for.
Below is a list of factors to look out for when reading sex stories. This list will continue to evolve and grow with feedback from both journalism and sexology experts. You can also submit feedback to loretta [at] thesexreporter.com if you think there’s something that needs to be added or fixed. Thanks!
1. What’s the outlet?
2. What type of content is it?
3. Who’s the source?
4. What are other people saying?
1. The first thing to check, when reading any article, is its publisher. Media outlets with established reputations are neither perfect nor the only sources of quality information. But they have, at least, proven over time that they hire competent, ethical journalists, they have reliable editing processes, and can stand by what they publish. If they have tendencies toward bias, those biases are likely well known (think, The New York Times vs. Fox News).
2. If it’s not from an established outlet: What is this outlet? Who owns it? Who is on staff? Do any of those people have known biases that could make their reporting more than reasonably subjective?
3. Bloggers, citizen journalists and other types of independent content creators can be great sources of information, but when consuming their content it will take a little research to figure out what they advocate for, if anything. If you’re a fan, you probably already know where the creator’s biases lie, and all of their statements should be processed through that lens. It’s ok to agree with them and to trust them, but they are human after all and have less of an obligation to be objective than their peers in mainstream outlets.
4. How is the creator/publisher funded? Is the content you’re looking at sponsored? Is there any other reason to believe the creator was incentivized to present it in a certain light? This goes for creators from all outlets, from media conglomerates to bloggers.
How this applies to sex coverage: There is still a somewhat lower bar for sex coverage because it’s still treated as a novelty, even by mainstream media. Outlets rely on one another for news tips in areas that they haven’t assigned a staffer to cover on a regular basis. That results in an echo chamber of shallowly reported news, every time something that sounds interesting hits the Internet. So pay close attention to where the outlet is getting its news and data from; if you do a little Googling, you can usually track a story back to its true origin—which might be an outlet with a not-so-great reputation.
Put simply, there is traditionally a difference between news, which tries to be objective and fact-based, and opinion, which reflect’s a writer’s subjective point of view.
Reputable publications still enforce a strict separation between news and opinion staff. But today, a lot of content crosses the boundary between the two types, and media consumers should understand what they all are to best judge their authority.
1. Traditional articles: reported with the intention of being as objective as possible, presenting the truth as best can be determined based on vigorous and fair investigation
2. Columns: Regularly-published opinion-based pieces. Most columnists are on staff or regular contributors to the outlets they write for. When published by mainstream outlets, these are subject to editing and are expected to be accurate when citing facts.
3. Op-eds: Opinion pieces, often written by people who are not on on staff at the outlet. They may be opinion-leaders within the industry they’re writing about. These should also subject to editing and facts cited are expected to be accurate (but the process tends to be less stringent in practice, so false statements slip by more frequently than with staff pieces).
4. Editorials: opinion pieces that represent the collective, agreed-upon opinion of an outlet’s editorial board. Note: Not all newsrooms share the beliefs of their editorial boards.
5. Personal essays: 100% opinion-based writing told from one person’s point of view. These are increasingly common on new media outlets, and are not scrutinized by editors like any of the aforementioned categories.
6. Content designed to be shared on social media: Be skeptical of anything that looks like it was created to tug at your heartstrings, because that’s exactly what it was created to do. It may very well be factual, but it was produced for its emotional/entertainment value, and maximum impact (clicks and shares), not its factual/journalistic value.
How this applies to sex coverage: Sex is a highly personal subject, which means that within sex coverage there is usually a disproportionate number of personal essays, or content that reacts to news and is based on little more than one person’s experience or point of view. It can be entertaining, but extra attention should be paid to who the authors are and what the purpose of their content is. There is also a disproportionately high rate of sensational content created for social media.
1. Where did this information come from? Is there more than one source? Are the sources named? If you notice there’s only one source for any story, that’s a red flag. Unless this one person is named and their opinion can reasonably be assumed to be one of consequence or authority, you’ll need more information to verify its content.
2. If the piece presents anything that should be backed up with evidence, where is that evidence? If the outlet does not have a good, established reputation, has the writer/producer taken the time to verify the evidence with its original source? Does the analysis of said evidence come from a credible source, who can be reasonably expected to know what he/she is talking about?
How this applies to sex coverage: A lot of sex coverage claims to be based on “science,” or “studies,” or other types of “research.” If a study or “scientists” are cited, look up the original study. Note that like media “articles,” not all scientific “studies” are created equal. Just because something happened in a lab doesn’t mean it’s definitive evidence that someone’s hypothesis is true.
Try to figure out how big the sample size was, whether it was random, whether it was controlled for gender, race, geography, income and other factors, etc. Very often, sex studies raise more questions than conclusions, because there are limits on sexual research on humans and people tend to lie about private sexual behaviors. Good science takes this into account, and explains its methodology. So be extra careful when reading any scientific “article” that presents a question as a conclusion.
Never rely on one source for your information. If someone is reporting on something that seems like it’s an important development, a simple Google search will show how other outlets have treated it. If only one website has reported it, or if only obscure websites have reported it, that’s a red flag, for a couple of reasons:
1. Reporters make mistakes. There are times when even the best of the best will misread something, misunderstand something, or have a bad source(s). When news events are major enough, their peers should also be reporting the same thing, unless their peers check the story out and discover that it isn’t actually a story. It can be tricky in this case to tell the difference between a story that is a well-sourced scoop, or a story that just isn’t verifiable, but it’s best to check around to try and figure it out.
2. It could be fake. “Fake news” outlets have gotten very savvy about designing their websites to look like legitimate outlets, and to optimize their websites for search engine rankings and social media sharing. Some produce exaggerated, sensational content; others will disguise opinion as fact, and others will flat-out lie and fabricate information. If something is of significance, it is often reported by more than one place.
How this applies to sex coverage: Unfortunately, sex is one of those topics that people like to jump on and repeat even without the same level of careful analysis. Google searches for sex headlines will often turn up dozens of the same, thin story. One thing you can do is reach out to someone you trust who is knowledgable about the subject. I am happy to take requests when I have time, and am compiling a list of journalists, sexologists and other experts to follow here.