Wherever we are, my husband and I watch the local news. At home in Philadelphia, we record it so we can fast-forward the commercials and other segments illustrating the cliché, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Crime and fires really get old when they are presented repetitively and without any constructive solutions.
For the last several weeks, we have watched the local news in Phoenix, where we lived for eight years and now spend two months as snowbirds. While the newscast on NBC 12News includes its share of fires and crime, it also broadcasts a regular segment that Philadelphia TV news should steal.
It’s called VERIFY This, and it’s part of a national program available to all 64 TEGNA TV stations in 51 markets. TEGNA channels, including Phoenix’s NBC12 (KPNX), reach 39 percent of TV households nationwide — but they don’t reach Philadelphia. The closest ones to us are in Harrisburg and Wilkes Barre.
VERIFY This producers and reporters select a story — sourced from social media, or the news, rumors or viewer request — and then, concisely and effectively demonstrate how to check on the truth of the information. For example, VERIFY This once tested the claim that Black men were the first paramedics in the U.S.
How VERIFY This works
That particular segment, the first one we watched on Phoenix KPNX, began with a 2022 Twitter thread asserting that the nation’s first paramedics were a team of Pittsburgh Black men. The reporters then checked sources: University of Pittsburgh, the City of Pittsburgh, National EMS Museum, Senator John Heinz History Center, EMS1, the National EMS Management Association, and Kevin Hazzard, a former paramedic and the author of American Sirens.
VERIFY This then posted a check mark ✅ for true, validating the information that the first paramedics in the U.S. were Black men. Not all segments lead to a positive check mark, demonstrating the necessity to assess sources and make critical judgments. False stories get a red X: ❌.
TEGNA, the producer of VERIFY This, which identifies itself as a socially responsible and civic-minded media company, launched the brand in 2015. It expanded the program’s social media presence in 2021, when it also developed a dedicated website and email newsletter.
The show’s research is done by a staff of 19, including a number of investigative reporters with wide experience. Anyone can go to the VERIFY This website or their YouTube channel to watch a huge array of fascinating fact-checking segments.
Even though Philly does not have a TEGNA station, one or more of our local stations could be inspired to create a fact-verifying segment. Doing so seems particularly relevant as we watch Fox News try to squirm out of being sued for knowingly disseminating 2020 election lies.
Local news does good
VERIFY This is not the only example of fact-checking by local TV. Duke Reporters’ Lab (at Duke University) states: “Local television stations are the most active fact-check producers. Of the outlets that generated fact-checks at the state and local level this year, more than half are local television stations. That’s a change over the past two decades, when newspapers and their websites were the primary outlets for local fact-checks.”
Broadcasting segments about fact-checking, whether fueled by a national operation like TEGNA’s or a local station’s efforts, demonstrates a particularly effective example of the news itself taking responsibility for media literacy.
Anyone watching VERIFY is reminded that facts must be … verified, and that it’s important to consider the source and to interview and use multiple primary sources.
Media literacy must be pervasive — on TV, in the classroom and in the home
According to a 2022 Pew Research Center study, 33 percent of U.S. adults get news from TV sometimes and 31 percent do so often, while 33 percent of Americans get news from digital devices sometimes, and 49 percent do so often. Including a segment like VERIFY This in Philadelphia local news would be helpful but not nearly enough. Democracy depends on educated voters who do not take statements on social media — or statements anywhere — at face value.
The most important task in the digital age is to quiet the static and noise from the torrent of information now available, to identify useful information, make rational connections, seek additional pertinent information, and draw reasonable tentative conclusions. None of this is easy. It requires a habit of mind that must be cultivated early and continue throughout life.
Obviously, the best time to teach anyone about fact-checking is when they’re young. In fact, some states believe so strongly in the danger of an undiscerning public that they’re mandating media and information literacy in public schools. In a Citizen piece last month about a recently passed New Jersey law, writer Courtney Duchene elevates a number of frightening facts:
“According to a 2019 study from Stanford’s History Education Group, 96 percent of high school students believe claims found online without investigating the source. Fifty-two percent of students in the survey thought a falsified, grainy video shot in Russia was ‘strong evidence’ of voter fraud in the 2016 election.”
A similar media literacy law in Illinois requires only one unit on the subject for high schoolers, but the law itself involved six years of planning by secondary school teachers, librarians, and college professors. Another law in Delaware passed in January mandates media literacy education for all students, K-12.
Before new laws are passed, schools have existing options to promote media literacy. Students of all ages can be assigned to follow news in their schools and local communities.
Imagine if some local news-savvy Long Island student had paid attention to the reporting in the North Shore Leader, which exposed George Santos’ fraudulent résumé and criminal behavior in the run-up to the November 2022 election.
I’d argue that media literacy cannot wait until children are in school. Preschoolers can understand the fundamentals of verification. You can talk to your kids about what they watch on TV and what they see on their IPads. Ask them questions. Engage them in discussions. At every stage of development, it’s important for children to understand the adage that people have rights to their own opinions but not to their own facts — and that facts need to be checked.
Facts are not facts until they are checked
Beyond the classroom and media segments, every one of us should develop the habit of watching different kinds of news shows and regularly consulting a fact-checking site to verify what we are seeing. Berkeley has a good list of fact-checking organizations.
Take a look at Snopes, which has been around nearly as long as the World Wide Web, and calls itself “the definitive internet reference source for researching urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.” Annenberg sponsors an especially useful site at factcheck.org.
In a nation where large numbers of people believe without any basis that elections are stolen and FDA-approved vaccines are lethal, we have no choice but to move the verification of facts from the periphery to the center of our attention. If we cannot do this promptly, democracy is in real danger.
What you should do:
- Lobby local TV channels to add a VERIFY This-inspired segment.
- Suggest that Philly local news broadcasts do TEGNA’s VERIFY This one better by presenting verification of their own stories. It would be interesting for local TV to wait two or three weeks after running a story and then reveal documents illuminating how the earlier perceived facts had to be modified by new information.
- Lobby Pennsylvania legislators to pass laws requiring media literacy in the schools, with provisions to empower teachers to design those courses.
- Talk with your kids about checking sources and identifying facts.
- Urge colleges and universities to prepare pre-service and in-service teachers to incorporate critical thinking about the media up, down, and across the curriculum.
- In conversation on controversial issues, politely ask people to identify their sources.
Elaine Maimon, Ph.D., is the author of Leading Academic Change: Vision, Strategy, Transformation. Her co-authored book, Writing In The Arts and Sciences, has been designated as a landmark text. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Association for Writing Across the Curriculum. Follow @epmaimon on Twitter.
MORE FROM ELAINE MAIMONVERIFY This host Brandon Lewis.