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Evaluating Popular Non-fiction and News: Is this source reliable? Facts

News vs. Editorials vs. Sponsored Content

There are three basic types of content in most American news: 

  1. News
  2. Editorials
  3. Sponsored

Each type has different editorial standards. 


News or fact-based reporting typically attempts to present impartial or objective facts about important events. Most western news organizations apply strict fact-checking standards to news content and strive to maintain standards of neutrality and objectivity for this type of reporting. 

In newspapers, most content that is not labelled "Opinion," "Editorial," "Analysis," "Commentary," or "Sponsored," is typically fact-based reporting. 

In broadcast news (e.g. radio or television), it can be much more difficult to determine if an individual segment or even an entire program or station is analysis or fact-based news reporting. Cues that a segment is a news piece subject to fact-checking standards include:

  • All news organization staff involved are described as "anchors" or "reporters." No "commentators," or "analysts," are credited. 
  • If you look the piece up on the news organization's website, it is located in a section labelled, "news," and does not have label such as "opinion," "analysis," or "commentary." 


Editorial or opinion pieces or programs allows paid columnists, outside experts, and readers to make an argument about how facts should be interpreted. Most editorial pieces are not subjected to the same rigorous fact-checking standards as those presented in news reporting and do not attempt to maintain objectivity or neutrality. The lack of fact-checking in the opinion sections means that the savvy reader is required to do more work on their own to confirm that facts presented in opinion writing can be taken at face value, even when the opinion writing is published in venues with high fact-checking standards for news content. 

In newspapers and magazines, opinion content is typically labelled, "Opinion," "Editorial," "Analysis," or "Commentary," and may be published with a unique layout or design that visually distinguishes it from news content. Many newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, provide helpful guides explaining standards for news and opinion and the visual cues they provide to tell readers which section they are reading.  

In broadcast news (e.g. radio or television), it can be much more difficult to determine if a piece or even an entire program is analysis or fact-based news reporting. Cues that a segment is an opinion piece include: 

  • The news staff on the air are described as "commentators," or "analysts." 
  • If you look the piece up on the news organization's website, it is located in a section labelled, "commentary," "analysis," or "opinion, or has a label called "opinion," "analysis," or "commentary." 

Cues that an entire program or organization do primarily opinion and analysis pieces include: 

  • The organization has a low rating for fact-based reporting on the Media Bias Chart
  • Most editors associated with a program or station have titles that include, "Opinion." 
  • The program description mentions commentary, analysis, or opinion. 


Sponsored content is designed to read as if it is a traditional news or opinion piece, but is published because a third-party advertiser has paid for it. In traditional news reporting, external advertisers should never dictate the topics covered by the publication nor should they have any editorial input into the piece. Sponsored content blurs these lines. When interpreting the article, news consumers should be extremely attentive to verifying the validity of any facts presented and to discerning the likely motives of the sponsor in suggesting or funding the piece. 

To identify sponsored content on news websites, look for a label reading, "Promotional content," "Sponsored content," or a byline attributed to a corporation, as in this example from the Washington Post. To identify sponsored content in local broadcast news, cultivate a general sense of skepticism about any segments featuring salespeople or promoting products, and look for the segment on the program's website to check for labels like "promotional" or "sponsored," as in this example from Cleveland's Fox8 News

Learn more about standards for news, editorial, and sponsored content in the Routledge Companion to Journalism Ethics, especially Chapter 18, "Exploring Key Principles: Neutrality, Balance, Objectivity, and Truth,"  Chapter 44 "Native Advertising and the Negotiation of Transparency, Autonomy, and Deception," 

What is fact-checking and why does it matter?

Editorial fact-checking is a process by which each fact presented in an article is checked against the original sources used to create the piece. If concerns are raised about the quality of the original sources, additional sources may be sought to verify claims. At large, well-funded news organizations with reputations for accuracy, this work is typically completed by a dedicated fact-checker not involved in the original reporting. Smaller organizations may have the journalists and editors who created the piece do their own fact-checking. In broadcast journalism, fact-checking typically happens at the scripting stage before pieces are recorded. 

Fact-checking seeks to confirm: 

  • Is there a clear source for every discrete fact, statement, or claim?
  • Is the source reliable? 
  • Are the conclusions the piece draws from the facts reasonable? 

In the event that an incorrect fact survives the fact-checking process and is published, reputable news organizations will publish a correction. 

If you're not sure what kind of fact-checking a news organization uses, or whether it was applied to a particular piece, you can always ask! Look for a contact form, public editor, or ombudsperson for the news organization. 

Learn more in "Fact Checking," by Brooke Borel, chapter 5 of A Tactical Guide to Science Journalism

Are popular non-fiction books fact-checked?

No. Popular non-fiction books are not routinely subjected to fact-checking before publication. While egregious errors may lead to a lawsuit, correction, or retraction after a book is published, as a general rule, the burden of tracing facts to their source and confirming their accuracy falls on readers. 

Fact-checking tools

These examples of step by step fact-checking procedures for journalists can help you learn more about the fact-checking process. 

Fake News

Media outlets that are simply not attempting to adhere to any of the fact-checking standards described above exist. Learn how to spot them on the Fake News research guide