It has been a busy week in East Africa; nominations of candidates in Uganda’s next presidential elections climaxed into a contest of who drew the largest crowds; in Kenya, over-priced sex toys unveiled by the public accounts committee dominated headlines, while in Tanzania, John Pombe Magufuli became the 5th president of the United Republic of Tanzania.
Here in Kigali, we were busy concentrating on making sense of the amended articles of the constitution, and following the Interpol meeting when a bogus news article hit the internet with outrageous claims that Rwanda doctored numbers in its latest poverty report.
How do you deconstruct a bogus news article like the one carried by France24? I will take you through a simple formula taught in a recently founded course, news literacy, whose aim is to help news consumers tell between bogus and serious news reports.
In this era of the internet, news consumers can easily be swept away by the daily information tsunami and instead of being informed end up misinformed; news literacy in this case can be regarded as a life-jacket to protect readers from drowning.
Last November, I took a news literacy trainer’s course at Stony Brook University in New York where the course was developed by American former editors who are now teaching journalism at the Long Island based college.
Senior in age and long retired from newsrooms to classrooms, these editors were clever enough to read into the future to know that with the internet, news consumers will need skills to enable them judge news sources and articles before basing on them to take serious decisions.
In the context of social media, ‘serious decision’ could mean sharing a bogus news article on your Facebook page or to your twitter followers which only helps to spread whatever harmful impact it carries, such as inaccurate facts that could cause mistrust or hurt reputations.
Look at a false news report as a pack of poison left in the vicinity of playing children, the effects could be fatal; however, with skills to deconstruct news, one is in position to tell which article to share and which one to not only shun but also warn the public about.
The course is actually not for students of journalism but people outside the newsrooms, those not involved in the news making process; news literacy is like giving news consumers the news editors’ guide book containing the kind of elements we look for before passing a story.
In USA, the course has become a movement being spread by high schools and universities; Stony Brook’s office for overseas partnerships has helped spread the course to China and Hong Kong, Vietnam and Poland.
Currently, I am processing to pioneer it in East Africa, based here.
During a news literacy class, students are asked to say, ‘I’M VAIN.’ They do so, obediently, not quite knowing why until the instructor explains that the acronym is the key to de-constructing a news article.
In news writing, the credibility of a news report is much determined by who says what and I’M VAIN helps a news consumer to evaluate the reliability of the people quoted in a story before deciding whether they were the right people to talk to or not.
Fortunately, in the case of the article by our friends at France24, most intelligent news readers were able to question the credibility of a professor of law and politics being quoted as an expert on statistics and poverty economics of a country he is publicly known to be biased against.
However, these elements may not have been so obvious to millions of other readers who don’t know the guy or who have no history to the story but innocently read the article and even shared it to their followers.
You know what Winston Churchill said about the speed of a lie, don’t you? ‘That a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on. I’m vain could help slowdown lies to allow truth dress-up.
So here we go!
I…independent news sources are better than those with self-interests in the subject being commented; always listen to an independent source and shun self-interested ones.
M…multiple sources in a news article are always better than a single source; always check how many voices the story has and check their independence on the subject.
V…verifying sources are better than those who simply assert. In the France24 article, there was a professor who was asserting but his assertions couldn’t be verified.
A…authoritative sources, those who are experts at a topic of discussion, are always better than those who are not an authority and therefore, uninformed.
I…informed sources in a news story are better but ensure they are informed from an authoritative perspective rather than informed from hearsay or secondary sources.
N…named sources are better than unnamed sources; whenever you see an article with too many unidentified voices, raise your guards, be suspicious, unless, there’s a good explanation presented by the reporter.
In most cases, it’s rare that a story will score ten out of ten based on this yardstick but the higher the score, the better and the lower the score…?