Can You Spot Fake News?

It may not be as easy as you think

Photo by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash

Our country is not in a good place. We are in the midst of a major pandemic and economic recession. We are experiencing racial and political tension. Now, more than ever, we need accurate, reliable journalism so we can make informed decisions.

To be clear, reliable journalism is information collected and disseminated by professional researchers and writers who are skilled in obtaining, vetting, and carefully communicating information to the public with the intent to inform. As much as possible it should be done without the journalist’s personal opinions.

How do we know when the information we are reading online is true or at least responsibly reported?

Learning to recognize it is becoming an increasingly important skill so we don’t consume it, and so we are not complicit in spreading misinformation and/or disinformation.

Misinformation is false information. It may or may not be intended to mislead readers. Sometimes the data is twisted or communicated poorly. Sometimes it is misheard, or details are forgotten.

Disinformation is false information deliberately being used to manipulate a narrative. It is also referred to as propaganda.

Consuming and spreading reliable journalism increases the demand for good reporting. As responsible citizens, we should take pride in spreading the truth and assuring we don’t accidentally spread false information.

Here are a few tips on how to spot good (and bad) journalism:

What is the source?

The more closely you read articles and look for misinformation/disinformation, the patterns will emerge from sources who do a better job fact collecting and verifying what they report than others. Those who are sloppy or silent in explaining where they got their information stand out. If a source is continually reporting stories that end up being false, it might be a good idea to avoid all of their articles.

Look for more than one source

If you see only one outlet making an especially important or sensationalized claim, it is good to question why only one small, unknown source is reporting it. A major news agency isn’t going to pass on a major headline, even if they are not the first to report on it. While this is not 100% foolproof, it can be a warning sign that perhaps other outlets passed on the story because the facts didn’t check out. Sometimes major truthful reporting starts with a single reporter, but just be cautious.

Read the story, not just the headline

A headline is not enough to gauge accuracy, ever. It’s all too easy to scan the headlines and think you understand what’s going on in the world without further inquiry. I am guilty of this, especially if I feel the gist of the article is shared in the headline. However, reading the entire article can give detailed clues to its accuracy (or inaccuracy). It is especially crucial to read the whole story if you plan to share the article on social media.

Corrections

All news agencies get it wrong sometimes, but reputable ones will post corrections. Sources that take pride in providing accurate reporting go to great lengths to maintain their reputation, so are quick to admit when they have made a mistake.

Does the article show both sides?

This one is important to me. I don’t like the idea of being spoon-fed my beliefs, so looking at what both sides are saying helps me understand my viewpoint and keeps me from just agreeing along my party line.

Good journalism should track down information from all sides. If a news source only shares the opinion of one side of the story, it is a sign that the information you are receiving may be biased. Sometimes journalists cannot obtain a statement from “the other side” of some reporting, but responsible ones will at least indicate that they tried to reach out to other parties for their response to story allegations.

Does the content provoke strong emotions?

If what you are reading, watching, or listening to makes you feel angry or gives you other strong emotions, the information is possibly being used to exploit your own biases. Good journalism seeks to present the facts. While sometimes the facts can make you feel upset, if this is something you notice happening regularly, it might be time to start looking for other sources. It is also important to be aware of your own biases. This helps stop media manipulation.

Follow the money

Some news sources openly disclose when a company that is the topic of a story is a contributor to their organization. News outlets, whether newspapers, radio, TV, have always relied on paid advertisements to financially support their business. It is common sense that one of a hundred small advertisers are unlikely to influence what stories are reported, but one or a few large advertisers can exert a lot of pressure. “Free to you” means someone else is paying the costs of the publication or outlet and that someone probably won’t want to get bad coverage.

Some journalists may find it difficult to report negative news about a large advertiser or financial contributor. It is wise to look into their paid sponsors and how they might influence their ability to disclose negative information.

Consult the experts

Many sites do a good job parsing out articles that spread “fake news.” Factcheck.org is, “a non-partisan, non-profit consumer advocate for voters to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.”

I have also used snopes.com to fact check shocking news I see on social media. There are many occasions when something is being spread widely and quickly. Better to know for yourself whether something is true, rather than feeling silly when you share something that later is proven to be fake.

Exercise good judgment

In the current political environment, there are so many articles that do little more than creating chaos and further partisan bickering. I think we all agree this is not good for us as individuals or for the country.

By doing our part in demanding good journalism, we can be part of positive change in this country.

George Bernard Shaw got it right when he said, “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.”

Written by

All American & ranked 1500 meter masters runner. SDSU XC/Track alum. Write about running, health & well-being. Editor at Runner’s Life. amywallauthor.com

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