Taking Bearings on The Star

One thing people may not realize is I use the exact same techniques we teach to students in my daily work. The skills we are giving students aren’t some dumbed-down protocol. They are great habits for reporters, researchers, and other professionals as well.

As an example, this article came up in my news alerts this morning.


I’m interested in fake news in Southeast Asia, so I’m glad to read analysis and opinion from a place like Malaysia, but I want to source-check, even if I think I know this source. So we strip off everything from that URL and add Wikipedia.



This pulls up a relevant Wikipedia page:



And clicking through we are reminded that The Star is effectively owned by the Malaysian government.


And then we’re back to the article after a 30 second detour.

For the record, I still read the column, but I didn’t share it, and if had had shared it I would have noted that it was a legitimate news source to some extent, but possibly compromised by its ownership. Sam Wineburg has talked about this process as taking bearings, and I like that term a lot. Before trudging blindly into an article, pull out the compass and the map and figure out where you landed. It’s so simple to do, there’s really no excuse for not doing it.

(I should note that I’ve elided a number of things I do know about Malaysia and government propaganda there for the sake of clarity in this post — but the truth is if I have any doubt about the source at all I use the process, just the same as a novice. I had a vague memory about this precise ownership issue, but the process is always likely to give me a better result than my unaided memory. And it’s actually less cognitively demanding as well.)

(EDIT: changed “heavily compromised” to “possibly compromised” since the initial wording expressed more certainty than I had wished to portray. Legitimate news organizations with ownership issues are often fine on many issues, whether a particular news item might be influenced is contextual.)

5 thoughts on “Taking Bearings on The Star

    • This is a good question, and gets at some complexities where knowledge of the political context and local journalistic norms are helpful. But yes, even with much stronger journalistic norms in this country I would not trust Bloomberg news to cover possible presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg or his business interests fairly. The Washington Post has a longer history pre-Bezos and stronger norms and should be a bit better but I’d certainly choose another publication for Amazon coverage.

      But I’m not trying to do a complete analysis of a news source here — the web is abundant; if something smells off you can usually find another source. Nine times out of ten I’m not going to be smarter than Wikipedia, and take its warnings to heart. I think my analysis — that it’s a legitimate organization with serious reporters (engenders trust) but with some ownership issues (engenders distrust, at least on certain issues) is on target and can be reached by most people without a deep knowledge of Malaysia. It’s certainly the best starting point.

      If I was to go deeper into my own knowledge, I’d say that Malaysia is a fascinating country generally, with some fairly recent traditions of a critical press, but with the government’s recent passing and execution of a “fake news law” there have been questions about whether that continues. Opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad, who just yesterday won an unexpected victory, was actually being investigated by police under the fake news law. My understanding is that the press in that country — at all papers — was increasingly fearful of a crackdown and backsliding into autocracy.

      That possibly changed today as the ruling coalition lost power for the first time since 1957. I’ve seen reports that press in that country are hopeful. These things don’t always play out as planned, but it is a fascinating story to watch.

      Anyway, all this is beside the point, but yes, one would want to be careful of U.S. news agencies with an agenda as well (Sinclair is a recent example) and Wikipedia generally does a good job with highlighting that.

  1. First of all, thanks for the election update – I knew they were voting but hadn’t seen the result.

    Second, and more significantly, I was trying to draw out the comparison between scepticism of a newspaper that is state owned, and scepticism of a newspaper that is corporate owned. I would not trust Bloomberg on a wide range of things, for example, not simply coverage of Michael Bloomberg. There is a very significant pro-business slant in Bloomberg, a slant that is reflected to more or less a degree in all traditional media.

    More deeply, addressing questions of fake news by means of asking whether the source is authoritative is to my mind not a good strategy. We have seen numerous cases where the source is usurped or undermined – eg. The New York Times uncritical reporting on Yellowcake and the supposed WMDs in Iraq. The Washington Post has a very good reputation when it comes to criticizing government, but nothing like the same when it comes to criticizing corporations.

    • I don’t disagree — though I would separate it into levels — Bloomberg covering Bloomberg as a “just find something else” scenario and general corporate coverage as another more subtle issue. The Iraq War remains one of the great failings of the U.S. press (along with, I would argue, 2016 coverage) and is possibly due to a NYT bias and agenda, but also due to the same anonymous source/stenographic addiction we’re seeing still play out today. It’s worth noting that McClatchy/Knight Ridder is a publicly traded company and largely got the Iraq War right in its reporting.

      Looking at what the difference was in their reporting (at least as they detail it) it seemed to be less about influence and more about Beltway groupthink at the top. The Knight-Ridder people relied on beat reporters who had developed a network of lower level sources in government and academia. The larger papers like the NYT relied on “top-ranking sources” leaking to them — partially because they had the brand names to get those leaks. Knight-Ridder found very early on that the staff and the leadership were telling two very different stories and didn’t let go of that.

      We still see this, and it worries me more than corporate ownership. Maggie Haberman is a reporter that continually gets the NYT front page with “sources inside the administration say” scoops. If something serious start to go down internationally, she could easily be the next Judith Miller. But real journalism IMHO looks more like David Farenthold tracing patterns in Trump, or ProPublica’s used of prominent *named* sources in their coverage of Haspel’s involvement with torture. Anyway, my 2 cents on the lessons of Iraq reporting. Access to anonymous high level sources can be incredibly warping, and the best journalism seems to come about when that access is limited.

      • Unnamed sources are a scourge, to be sure. But I think the larger danger lies in corporate ownership, and a paper owned by a major corporation is just as untrustworthy as a paper owned by the government of China or Malaysia.

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