Making sense of the campaign: Information neighborhoods

CNL News Lesson

Lesson Outline

SERIES: Making sense of the campaign / Lessons in News Literacy. Drawing upon the 2016 presidential campaign for examples, this series of teacher's guides provides everything instructors will need to tailor foundational News Literacy lessons to their students and classroom. You'll find a detailed briefing identifying and applying specific News Literacy concepts, clear objectives and takeaways, multimedia, discussion questions and assignments that can be used in the classroom or as homework. We're also providing a PowerPoint presentation for classroom use that you can use or modify. We're also providing a PowerPoint presentation for classroom use that you can use or modify. As the campaign unfolds, we will supplement this guide with timely examples.

TOPIC: Distinguishing journalism from other kinds of information in the search for actionable information on the presidential candidates. 

CONCEPT: Know your neighborhood and VIA (Verification, Independence and Accountability — the three defining attributes of journalism). 

OBJECTIVE: By dividing the types of information bombarding digital age news consumers during this election season, students will learn to distinguish journalism from advertising, promotion/publicity, propaganda, entertainment and raw information. This is a critical skill at a time when the lines between these categories are blurring. . 

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Know your neighborhood
(It's easy for voters to get lost)

A front-page story in The Washington Post on campaign financing. CNN’s coverage as Hillary Clinton arrives at a debate. The New York Times website reports Donald Trump would be willing to talk to North Korea’s dictator.

If you separated the different kinds of information bombarding voters into neighborhoods, we would clearly be in the journalism neighborhood.

Sometimes, though, it’s not quite so easy to know where you are.

What about this web page? Is this journalism?

The question is an important one for news consumers, especially during presidential campaigns, whose wall-to-wall news coverage of the race to the White House can be overwhelming as candidates and their partisans spend billions of dollars and tour the nation to persuade and cajole the voting public.

How can citizens begin to sort fact from fiction, to distinguish independent information from self-interested promotion? How can citizens find reliable, actionable information as they make up their minds about whom to vote for?

Recognizing the information neighborhood you’re in tells you if what you’re hearing and seeing is intended to sell you on a candidate or a position or policy, or to make you look at a party or politician more or less favorably. Turn the corner and you may yourself in an information neighborhood that’s mostly about entertaining you.

The journalism neighborhood is the safest place to search for reliable information. What you see and read here is brought to you by an independent source that stands behind what it says. That’s pretty much News Literacy’s definition of news: Timely information of some public interest that is shared and subject to a journalistic process of verification, and for which an independent individual or organization is directly accountable.

Verification, Independence and Accountability — we use the mnemonic device VIA — are the three defining attributes of journalism. If all three are not present, you’re not in the journalism neighborhood.

Knowing that, let’s take a closer look at Verification, Independence and Accountability and whether each comes into play on the Clinton.News web page.


Verification is a process that establishes or confirms the accuracy or truth of something. News organizations hire editors and researchers to check information and assure reports are factual and fair.

Is there any sign of a verification process at work on the Clinton.News home page? Let’s look at the lead story, which was headlined: “BREAKING: FBI makes MASSIVE move against Hillary Clinton.” If you read the story, you find no evidence to support that headline. It appears to be based on reports that “the FBI may be set to interview Clinton.” This was not the product of any verification process.


We define journalistic independence as freedom from the control, influence or support of interested parties, coupled with a conscious effort to set aside pre-existing beliefs and a system of checks and balances. For journalists, independence means being able to report the news free from control by outside political or economic interests.

That doesn’t mean its opinion writers or commentators don’t take sides.  It means that when they do, their opinions are grounded in fact and arrived at independently. An independent news organization’s first loyalty is to its readers, not the people they cover, and to the truth.

A close look at Clinton.News reveals that every one of its stories disparages Hillary Clinton. She is accused of “charity fraud,” bribery and having “A Six Step Plan to Disarm America.” There is no information about who is behind the page, so there’s no way to know who might be funding the site. What is clear is that there is no pretense of impartiality or fairness. 


Journalists stand behind their work with bylines that identify the reporter and often contain an email link. They also take responsibility for their errors by publishing corrections.

Although Clinton.News includes a byline, it offers no information about how to contact the writer or editors.

By following all the links on the Clinton.News page, you do discover an affiliated site — Trump.News.

An archived post on this site reveals it was launched by Mike Adams, who calls himself “The Health Ranger” and runs another website called “Natural News” that challenges the validity of climate science and the safety of using vaccines. Though he refers to himself as an “independent” journalist, Adams says he launched the Trump site because Trump is “our last opportunity to save this nation from collapsing into a bankrupt police state run by the criminal elite.” The site also praises Trump as the only candidate telling “the truth” about the danger of vaccines.

Clinton.News and Trump.News are not journalism — verification, independence and accountability are each lacking.

The other neighborhoods

ADVERTISING: Candidates and political action committees pay to have advertisements placed on billboards, in newspapers and broadcasts or on the Internet. Advertisers control both content and presentation.

Although they are ubiquitous in print, on the Internet and in social media, the primary vehicle for political ads remains TV commercials. When you compare early campaign ads, like the animated 1952 “I Like Ike” commercial, with digital age videos, it’s easy to see they have grown slicker, more engaging and more sophisticated.

The key thing for news consumers to remember is that they are not independent — their primary goals is persuade, not inform. challenged this Clinton campaign ad’s contention that as secretary of state the candidate helped secure a “massive reduction” in nuclear arms with a 2011 agreement with Russia. “The agreement, known as New START, limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads — that is, nuclear weapons that are deployed on long-range (or strategic) launchers," Factcheck reported. "But it does not require either side to destroy nuclear weapons or reduce their nuclear stockpile, and it doesn’t place limits on shorter-range nuclear weapons.” tracked down the original source of the video the Trump campaign used in its first campaign ad. The ad suggests that masses of Mexicans are rushing for the U.S. border, when in fact the video in the ad contains footage of Africans on their way into Morocco.

PROMOTION/ PUBLICITY: One of the most prominent narratives of the 2016 presidential campaign has involved Donald Trump’s ability to generate publicity for his candidacy while his opponents have had to rely more heavily on advertising. The value of free publicity is what drives candidates to agree to appear on early morning news shows and late-night talk shows. The purpose is the same as any celebrity showing up to promote a new movie or concert tour — free publicity.

ENTERTAINMENT: Politicians and campaigns have long been a source of pleasure, diversion and amusement for filmmakers and comedians. A Saturday Night Live skit featuring Hillary Clinton offers an opportunity for political comment and some free publicity, but the primary goal is entertainment.

PROPAGANDA: The term is often used loosely. That flier some campaign worker left under one of your windshield wipers is not, strictly speaking, propaganda. We define propaganda as misinformation, ideas or rumors deliberately spread widely to help or harm a person, group, movement, institution or nation. nbsp;It may be biased or misleading information intended to promote an ideology or political view.

Nazi and Soviet propaganda campaigns, often crude and dehumanizing, offer the textbook examples. In the digital age, though, propaganda has grown more sophisticated and the Internet has made it easier than ever to spread it widely. While Soviet propagandists were famous for airbrushing exiled or jailed officials out of photographs, their contemporary counterparts have much better tools.

Consider this fake photo of Sen. Marco Rubio shaking hands with President Barack Obama, which was posted on the “Real Rubio Record,” a website sponsored by the campaign of rival GOP candidate Sen. Ted Cruz. “This person, we don’t know who this is — they Photoshopped Marco’s face onto this body,” Rubio adviser Todd Harris told The New York Times. The Cruz campaign didn’t deny the charge.

RAW INFORMATION: The advent of YouTube, social media and the digital-age phenomenon of news consumers becoming news producers has flooded the Internet with unfiltered information that bypasses traditional gatekeepers and mediators. Some of it has value and can inform or just amuse you. Some is intended to deceive or misinform you.

Consider this quotation making the rounds on social media, where misinformation travels freely.

The problem? It looks legitimate, citing a publication and year. But fact checkers at Snopes and elsewhere have not been able to find these words in the archives of People magazine.

A key test of reliability in the raw information neighborhood is to look at the source. If it wasn’t posted by a journalist or news organization, you don’t know if the information has been verified. Looking at source — is it firsthand information or something passed on by others — can tell you if the source in independent and accountable. On the eve of the Iowa Caucuses, the Cruz campaign tweeted that “CNN is reporting Ben Carson will stop campaigning after Iowa” and urged his supporters to shift their support. The secondhand report misstated CNN’s reporting of Carson’s decision to make a brief stop at home in Florida. It noted that the candidate had made clear that he was staying in the race.           

Sometimes, raw information is the starting point for journalism. A blog post by documentary filmmakers, ’63 Boycott:  A Living History, led the Chicago Tribune to search through its photo archives to find this photo of a young Bernie Sanders being arrested during a civil rights protest.

From the war in Syria to police shootings in America, it’s clear that photos and videos posted as raw information have powerfully changed the way information reaches news consumers. It’s critical, though, for news consumers to understand that so-called “citizen journalists” bypassing the filters of traditional news organizations may also be bypassing the journalistic process of verification.

Blurring the lines

As clearly as we have tried to define these neighborhoods, their boundaries are often blurred by information providers who stand to benefit from news consumers losing their bearings.

The concept of “native advertising,” for example, is based on the idea of making a website ad almost indistinguishable from the stories surrounding it. Can you spot the ad on this Yahoo! News page?

It’s the photo gallery featuring celebrities supporting Trump. News consumers have one clear indication — the gray label “Sponsored.” What isn’t clear is who paid for this posting. Considering the list of celeb supporters is led by Charlie Sheen and includes Mike Tyson and Hulk Hogan, it’s not entirely clear that the intention was to promote the candidate.

The entertainment world routinely blurs the lines with dramas “based on a true story” — words that should always communicate to news consumers that this is entertainment subject to dramatic license and not a documentary.

The rise of “fake news” shows like “The Daily Show” “Full Frontal” and “Last Week Tonight” offer a compelling and often insightful blend of news and comedy.

Is it journalism? While these programs try to be diligent about fact checking — not including obvious hyperbole — it’s clear that comedy matters far more than fairness. In fact, that may be the most important takeaway, Jon Stewart said in a Fox News interview with Chris Wallace. “Here’s the difference between you and I,” Stewart told the Fox anchor. “I’m a comedian first.”

With that in mind, watch this video. Is this journalism or entertainment?

Nylon is an independent media company that reports on fashion and pop culture on its website and in its glossy magazine. The video and story poked fun at Trump’s tweets as a pop culture phenomenon and a reflection of “what’s going on in this nasty election cycle.” The story carries a byline and Nylon shares with its readers the names of its top editors and how to reach them.

Verification is present here, too. Nylon documented the accuracy of the Donald Trump tweets it used by embedding screenshots of them in the video.

So we have VIA. But the use of actors and entertainment techniques blurs the line between the journalism and entertainment neighborhoods. You could make the argument that this is a nontraditional form of journalism or that Nylon produced the story and video primarily to entertain its audience. 

When the lines between neighborhoods blur, the best thing news consumers can do is to try to identify the information  provider's primary objective. Is it to inform me? To entertain me? To sell me on a candidate or position? To deceive me?

If the answer you arrive it is anything other than to inform you, you may not be in the journalism neighborhood.

Another important question to ask: Why are they blurring the lines?

  • ENTERTAINMENT borrows from journalism because jokes are funnier and drama is more compelling when they are grounded in reality.
  • ADVERTISING, PROMOTION, PUBLICITY AND PROPAGANDA borrow from journalism to give their messages greater credibility.
  • JOURNALISM borrows entertainment, literary and advertising techniques to compete for viewers and readers in the fight for ratings, revenue and relevance.​

Know your neighborhood is a critical skill for news consumers assessing the reliability of the information they are bombarded with daily. During an election campaign, when millions are being spent to influence the outcome of the coming election, making these distinctions may be more challenging ands more important than ever.

Howard Schneider and Jonathan Anzalone contributed to this presidential campaign lesson.


  1. The information bombarding prospective voters can be divided into “neighborhoods” to separate what’s reliable from what’s suspect.
  2. The most reliable information can be found in the Journalism neighborhood, whose three defining characteristics ─ Verification, Independence and Accountability ─ distinguish it from Advertising, Promotion/Publicity, Propaganda, Entertainment and Raw Information.
  3. In the digital age, campaign commercials have grown slicker and more sophisticated, as have promotional and propaganda efforts. 
  4. One of the primary challenges facing prospective voters is the blurring of the lines separating the neighborhoods. When they do, always look for VIA and try to identify the primary goal of the information provider.


  1. Is the use of “native advertising” to make advertisements blend in with journalism fair to news consumers?
  2. Did the Cruz campaign’s deceptive tweet suggesting Ben Carson had left the race or the doctored photo it posted of Marco Rubio affect your view of Ted Cruz? 
  3. Is the idea of a citizen journalist consistent with the VIA definition of journalism?
  4. Is the "Mean Girls" video journalism or entertainment?


Go to and find three videos — a news report on the 2016 presidential campaign, a video on the campaign that blurs the lines, appears to be journalism but isn't, and an example of raw information related to the campaign. In each case, tell us how you know it is or isn't journalism.

Include links to each video and explain for each — using VIA — why it is or isn’t journalism. Cite details to support your conclusion about each.


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