Voters want and need reliable and truthful information about candidates at all levels of government and from all political perspectives. But in an information age that overwhelms the electorate with sheer volume at breakneck speed, what factors should people of faith keep in mind as they glean information from mainstream and religious media?
"People come to media already with certain biases," noted Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, an organization for religion writers in the mainstream media. "Sometimes they can't separate out those attitudes."
Voters need to be aware of their own biases, including those in their own faith tradition. Then they also must look for the bias that the media they use also likely will reflect.
"World (magazine) may appear to be using the same standards and approach as the New York Times, but, in fact, it is using a Christian frame to everything it reports," Mason said. "That's not necessarily bad, … readers just need to recognize that."
Readers looking for information also should be aware that a look of professionalism, particularly online, doesn't necessarily mean the information is reliable.
"It's very easy to have a site that looks professional and sounds professional as if it has been done by professional journalists but that still is propagandistic," she said. "That is harder to discern."
But Mason encourages all voters to be as informed as possible and to use a variety of media as they research candidates and issues. She offered some tips for discovering legitimate and credible sources of information:
• "Look at the issues that are raised to high prominence," she said. Prominently featuring certain, especially highly emotional, issues, even when those issues are not major concerns in the campaign, could indicate a bias. Ask, "Are those editors using those issues because they are highly salient to a particular group?"
• Look for diverse comments on the site. "If the journalists are annoying both sides, sometimes that's a clue that the site is offering a little of both sides of issues," Mason said.
• Is the medium's ownership clear? "If you can't find out who owns it … or is producing it, you have to wonder why that information is so elusive."
• Don't assume a secular medium holds higher journalistic standards than does a religious one, with the additional assumption that one medium treats information more fairly or accurately. "The selection of news may be more narrow (in a religious medium), but the treatment of news may be just as fair, and the censorship may be light," she explained.
• Diversity can provide more angles to veracity. "Any story with diverse sources and with a lot of different points of view is going to get closer to the truth," she said. "Bloggers are basically offering their opinions."
Media consumers need to be aware of the difference between blogs—personal journals on the Internet—and news stories online. People "sometimes don't notice or discern the difference between news and commentary," she said. Realizing the distinctions will help voters determine possible bias.
• Voters must be cautious with political polls and numbers, Mason noted. "Numbers can be used in deceptive ways. It's important to look at where they (writers) are getting the numbers and how the poll is being done. Do they tell you how the numbers are being used? You can use numbers to support assertions or to deceive."
• Who has been interviewed for the article? While a story might quote sources, does it adequately identify the individuals' connection to the candidate? "The closer someone is to the person written about, the more accurate you hope the information will be," Mason explained. "But you also have to consider the level of the investment of that (source) in the candidate. But at least that person is on the record."
• Voters also must remember that today's media have "a huge opportunity for rumor and conjecture" because they must offer news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "That's what's so hard today—the 24/7 news cycle," Mason said. Media "risk publishing or distributing errors more frequently and more easily than with longer and more predictable publishing cycles."