NEWS LITERACY

With the advent of social media-propagated "fake news" and digital echo chambers, separating fact from fiction is only getting harder. Living in the heart of Silicon Valley, in many ways, I'm in the belly of the beast. But that's only boosted accurate coverage and critical media consumption to the forefront of my mind. As a reader, I question incessantly; as a writer, I check my facts meticulously; as a former news editor and now as an EIC, I tread cautiously. At every stage of production, I try to fight bias before it manifests. Before cycles, my co-editors and I take care to assign stories to writers with minimal personal stakes in the subjects. Once the reporting begins, I work with writers to craft precise accounts of local affairs. Oftentimes our weightiest covers begin more akin to editorials than features. That's where I come in. Working with writers, I push them to select sources representative of both (or more) sides of each debate. While that sometimes leads to murkier narratives, the resulting mosaic of perspectives yields a more authentic and nuanced story. 

Popping the Bubble

In fact, my very first article for Verde was an opinion piece about news literacy. Entitled "Popping the Bubble: don't believe everything you hear," this humorous perspective discusses the dangers of living in echo chambers, especially in an era of fake news. I researched how social media sites like Facebook create newsfeed algorithms that perpetuate ideological bubbles and incorporated data from the Stanford History Education Group, which found that 80 percent of students are unable to differentiate between ads and news — highlighting my generation's susceptibility to "alternate facts." To aid my peers in gaining access to accurate facts while gaining exposure to heterogeneous perspectives, I suggested the following simple tips, which you can read about here

 

Shown to the right is the print design and text for "Popping the Bubble" published in volume 18, issue 3 of Verde. 

Balanced Reporting, Representative Sourcing

In both of the new stories to the left, for which I was the editor, the initial drafts conveyed relatively skewed portrayals of the respective debates. In the sex education article, for example, middle school parents uncomfortable with their children learning about certain sexual topics at that age were portrayed as socially regressive. This was likely in part due to the bias the writer and I both had in favor of the newer, more comprehensive curriculum. To keep the article more balanced and neutral, I urged to writer to dig deeper and find a source from the other side of the debate. For the solar parking article (right), our initial understanding was that the project was going through smoothly. It wasn't until the last days of production that we discovered from another source that opponents of solar parking were planning to voice concerns to the school board and incorporated their perspective into the article.

Checking My Bias

Within local politics, housing development is as polarized as it gets. Which is why, for my first feature, it was important not to let any single narrative dominate, nor let my family's personal zoning views cloud my judgment. Following a recent city council election and controversy around the city's Comprehensive Plan, a land-use guide book, my co-writer and I interviewed 12 Palo Altans from all major positions on the debate — from city council members and political action committees to long-time residents, new couples and students — to uncover local answers to the question facing our city: to grow or not to grow? Not only did I actively seek out sources with diverse beliefs, but I also made sure to provide clear, historical background on the development debate. This helped contextualize source quotes, lend credibility to our feature and keep it nonpartisan and factual. Take a look at the article below or read it here.

RIGHT — verbatim transcriptions of my interviews with Palo Altans attending and in the vicinity of a city council meeting. I talked to a total of eight residents that night in an effort to represent a myriad of perspectives. 

Expert Input

In fall 2017, Palo Alto grappled with its own relics of bygone times  two middle schools named after prominent eugenicists. Weeks later, the Charlottesville riots began. While the events in Virginia sparked nationwide dialogue about discrimination, that conversation didn’t seem to extend into my surroundings. Connecting Palo Alto's own tainted history with the nationwide debates of today in "A Heritage of Hate," I sought to spur introspection where there had previously been complacency.

 

Scouring historical association archives for missing pieces of the puzzle and sleuthing the internet for witnesses of local neo-Nazi bombings, KKK marches and housing discrimination, I wracked my brain for ideas on how to turn a historical timeline into a story. Slowly, my research began to coalesce into a cohesive narrative. However, I wasn't clear how much was authentic and how much was speculation. To verify my information and gain additional context, I sat down with the most knowledgable sources I could find: the city historian and the Palo Alto Times' lead reporter during the '60s. 

 

From my hours-long interviews with each, I confirmed my information and learned new revelations — about a clandestine FBI investigation, about gory neo-Nazi scare tactics, about everyday microaggressions in schools. In some cases, the facts seemed more fantastical than fiction; however, by checking mine with the experts, I made sure to present no less than the truth.

I first contacted former Palo Alto Times reporter Jay Thorwaldson to fact-check my feature story; his tale was so riveting, my story partner and I decided to make him the subject of his own sidebar. Read it here.