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The Reliability and Bias of News Sources

By Luke Jacob, director of writing, communication and media literacy
The founder and CEO of Ad Fontes Media visits LJCDS.
On Wednesday, March 1, Vanessa Otero, founder and CEO of Ad Fontes Media, spent a day on campus as part of LJCDS’ media literacy program. Ad Fontes produces a well-known “media bias chart” that provides a scatter plot visualization of news articles to identify how reliable a given article’s information is and roughly where its political slant lies. Ms. Otero spoke with students, faculty and staff, and parents in a variety of settings.

Students in the Grades 7 and 8 elective Design for Marketing learned what Ad Fontes does and asked questions about online information. “I appreciated having Vanessa give my students an introduction to data visualization that used data my students find relevant, such as the media produced by their favorite influencers, and present it through an interactive visualization tool,” notes Casey Walker, Design and Innovation teacher. Seventh-grader Kate Fay explains that “it was interesting to see how they could look at and assess news networks, and even individual episodes of podcasts, for political bias.”

After viewing examples of news items that have been evaluated for the media bias chart, the 12th-grade students in Ivy Guild and Marianne Zupanc’s Environmental Systems, Art, and Culture course queried Ms. Otero about exactly how Ad Fontes does what it does: how analysts are trained, how teams of analysts work together, what exactly an Ad Fontes reader looks for when evaluating a given story or site, and so on. Dr. Zupanc comments that it was “a joy to see how our students engaged with her, asking mature questions…relating to the topics we’ve discussed this year.”  

During before- and after-school sessions with parents and faculty/staff, Ms. Otero detailed both the nuts and bolts of the process of media analysis and the theoretical underpinnings of such work, including explaining the original impetus for the creation of the bias chart. During the 2015–16 election cycle, she was disturbed by the “vitriol” she saw in online environments—especially social media. People were sharing articles not just to inform but to inflame, and opinion and analysis were often presented as being interchangeable with news reporting. Then a full-time patent attorney, Ms. Otero created the first version of the now-famous chart, which spread quickly. The rest, as they say, is history; the chart is now used widely in settings like university classrooms as a starting point for discussions of the concept of “bias” in the information ecosystem.

“I am extremely impressed at the effort the faculty, administration and parents…are putting into media literacy throughout all grade levels,” shares Ms. Otero. “They are tackling the new and rapidly-changing challenges in this space like true thought leaders, and it shows in the level of engagement the students have around issues of information quality.”

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