So what is a thoughtful news consumer to do in these difficult times? Here's a step-by-step guide to getting the best, most reliable information:
1. Rely on actual journalists.
While many amateurs out there do work that is journalistic in nature, trained pros are the ones who know what they're doing, and know how to sort BS from fact, and present it properly. There are many nuances to a proper journalism education that are difficult if not impossible for laypeople to pick up on the fly. Just as you wouldn't trust a medical diagnosis that didn't come from a doctor, don't trust news that didn't come from a journalist.
2. Punditry is not journalism.
There is a place in actual journalism for opinion and analysis, but these things are not news reporting. Regardless of whether you agree with the opinion being presented, if you are being presented with something that is virtually all opinion, it's not news--it's an editorial. These folks do have value, of course, in that they may get folks to think about an issue or an angle thereof that they may not have considered, but do not mistake them for reporters.
3. "Balance" for its own sake is not journalism.
A journalist's primary responsibility is to the facts of the story, not to his or her sources. If the preponderance of fact on a given story favors one side or another of a given issue, it's actually a disservice to try to get an equal amount of information from the opposing side in the interest of "balance." Giving newshole space to, say, Focus on the Family is about as responsible as giving it to the Flat Earth society. Example: Climate change. The vast majority of reliable scientists agree that this IS happening, and that it IS largely human-sourced. These are established facts. Giving column inches or airtime to fringe scientists who are on the payroll of BP in the interest of "balance" for a story on this topic is a huge disservice to an audience that needs actual fact on this subject to help guide the choices they make.
4. Follow the sources.
A hallmark of lazy and bad reporting is getting quotes and information from unreliable primary sources, or from secondary sources. Look at whom they're quoting: Is it a real expert in a given field, or just some go-to guy who's a quote-spewing machine? What's the agenda of the organization that source represents? If it's a matter of scientific or legal fact, do the people giving the information actually have reliable degrees from accredited institutions? Also key: Never trust anonymous sources, except in very rare circumstances (when the source legitimately requests anonymity due to serious personal risk.) Generally speaking, sources who aren't willing to go on record with their name shouldn't be allowed to go on record with what they're saying.
5. Follow the money.
Who's funding this news outlet? Do they have a political or commercial agenda that may mean they're leaving out some information, or framing it in a way flattering to their shareholders? Generally speaking, most corporate-owned media is useless, but some are worse than others. For a start, never trust anything that's under the parent company of News Corp., Clear Channel, Gannett or Tribune. Every one of those corps has a hardcore political agenda that they openly push on their news teams. Even though some of what they produce may be reliable, enough of it is tainted that the whole thing is basically worthless.
6. Wikipedia is not a primary source.
It's a good first stop to get a basic idea of a subject, but don't think of it as a source of fully reliable fact. Go to the sources each article uses, and weigh each on its own merits (or lack thereof.) Secondary sources (like Wikipedia, most news aggregators, etc.) are only as good as the primary sources they draw from.
6. When in doubt, check Snopes--but don't end there.
Snopes is one of the best, most reliable sources of factual, rumor-busting information, but, as with Wikipedia, it helps to check their work, too. The folks who run it are journalists of a sort, in that they go to primary sources and reliable experts to get their info, but there's nothing stopping you from going to those same sources to make sure. (Factcheck.org is also good, though I prefer Snopes.)
7. When you find an excellent source of true, journalism-based news, stick with it and support it.
Real journalism and news reporting is becoming a dying art, because so few people are willing to pay (either directly or as an ad consumer) for the information they get. Getting and presenting these stories is hard work, and the people who do it are worth their weight in gold. Please be willing to support them, or we will all be poorer for the lack.
I realize this sounds like a lot of work, and initially, it is. After a while, though, you'll get an instinct for which stories/sources are likely to be legit, and which are clearly horse hockey. And as a bonus, you'll get that smug sense of satisfaction, knowing you have some of the best information out there. Plus, you'll be kickass at bar trivia nights. ;)
The intarweebs are wonderful for many, many reasons. They are, however, also a source of endless lies, rumors and bullshit (See: Obama's "$200m/day" G20 trip to India.) Sadly, so are many traditional media sources these days. One can't automatically trust the talking head on your TV, or the front page of your local paper to give you accurate, timely news.