When you were in school, sourcing was simple. Encyclopedias counted; tabloids didn’t. Textbooks and research papers counted; Wikipedia didn’t. But now that you’re out in the real world, it’s not quite as simple. The combination of social media and fake news means that it’s more confusing than ever to tell if an individual story or even an entire website is legitimate, and even professionals in the media and news world have been taken in by an urgent tweet that turned out to be untrue.
Even if you’re not a journalist, looking informed and sharing good-quality information is something many smart citizens value. After all, it’s hard to be a part of the conversation if you’re not sure of what you’re reading. So how do you determine what’s fake news and what isn’t? We asked two journalism professors for their impartial opinions on how to tell what’s news and what’s not.
Look past the headlines
At first glance a lot of fake news looks real–that’s why it gets shared in the first place. “Unintentionally or not, social media is an information democratizer, and you come across all these sources that are designed to look the same,” says Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College and author of a viral list on false news. It requires some actual reading to assess whether or not a story is what it appears to be. It’s not widely known, but it’s true that even at big news organizations, journalists don’t get to write their own headlines.
“I think a lot of readers feel betrayed by that, so in judging a story or a source, try to make it past that,” says Susan McGregor, assistant director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “Or maybe you choose your news source by how accurate you feel their headlines are! Because I think it does cause audiences to mistrust our work. It may be time to start rethinking as an industry how we treat headlines because we know how problematic they can be.”
Process is as important as product
“I’d like to say that broadly speaking it’s well-known what reputable news sources are, but some of them disclose more than others about what their process is,” says McGregor. “The Associated Press has their guidelines published online, how they choose what to photograph, etc. Also, ask how is it funded? Is it a normal commercial enterprise, or is it funded by a nonprofit who has affiliations you might be interested in?”
Both professors recommend doing a quick check of any unfamiliar website to see if they have a masthead (the list of editorial staff, often with links to their email and social media profiles) on their website, information about their mission and purpose, or anything about their editorial process and to be wary of sites that don’t have any of these. “Sources that aren’t particularly legitimate spend a lot of time circulating articles on social media, but they don’t spend much time building out a website, publishing their masthead, or sometimes even crediting authors,” says Zimdars.
Suss out sources
While popular imagination imagines that anonymous sources are always shady, that’s not necessarily the case, says McGregor: “Even very reputable sources are going to have anonymous sources with high-level political reporting. However, with most stories, look for real people being named.” Most legitimate reporters will always speak to more than one source (although sometimes there’s only one person who can speak to an issue), and they’ll include a sentence that explains who the person is, what their qualifications are, and other things that if you’re suspicious, you can look up for more information. That will help you account for news that isn’t necessarily “fake” but it is biased—when it’s all real people and real events, but they’re all people with an agenda that’s not adequately disclosed, like political affiliations, funding sources or business interests.
Zimdars also recommends taking advantage of hyperlinks, and suggests clicking through and seeing what other sources are being linked to. “You can go down a pretty deep rabbit hole, but see if you recognize the sources being linked to. In the fake news sphere, a lot of these sources just link to each other and copy-paste stories, which gives an air of authenticity, that it’s appearing elsewhere, but make sure these are sources you have some familiarity with. If they only link within the propagandasphere, that’s a problem.”
Feelings aren’t facts
“When you see a Facebook post in the feed that seems too good to be true, if it suits any agenda too perfectly, it’s probably inaccurate at best,” says McGregor. Or in layman’s terms, if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. “Humans suffer from confirmation bias. We want to see those things that validate us and our beliefs. If it hits that ‘oh yeah!’ note too perfectly, something is probably going on there. The strategy is to trust that instinct and follow it up by looking at their sources and attribution.”
Zimdars also warns against the emotional effect of headlines and images; especially those really clickbait words and forms. “They’re definitely meant to get you to read and share, so apply the same critical eye to the stories themselves. Actually read the stories you’re seeing—it’s easy to get fooled.” The same goes for visuals as well as headlines, she says. “If images appear heavily Photoshopped, that’s a red flag. We see the use of all caps or really loaded language, like ‘eviscerate’ or ‘slaughter’ as a red flag. More credible sources tend to avoid language like that in news stories. Because that language inspires an emotional reaction it’s more likely to be circulated and shared.”
Papers and people both publish
A big part of the confusion in the digital ecosystem is the difference between reported stories and opinion pieces. That’s why a piece you read on a site one day can be completely contradicted by a different piece published on that same website the next day. “Op-eds are important because they give voice to various perspectives, but they aren’t always clearly labeled, and I think it can be confusing to readers,” says Zimdars. “TV has really skewed the boundary of what is punditry and what is opinion. I think it truly feeds the assumption that all news is biased because people aren’t realizing that some people are there to offer a specific perspective rather than be perspectiveless.”
McGregor recommends doing your research into those individuals using the same tools they use. “When you start to see things from Twitter handles, look at how long the handle has been around. Can you find any information about the person? Something we’re seeing more and more today are real people sort of renting their social media handles to causes or interests, so what’s coming through their account is really a message from an organization. Look how frequently they’re tweeting, and if it seems like it’s coming from a real person.”
Coverage isn’t necessarily corruption…but it can be
Defining bias isn’t as clear cut as we might like it to be, but one thing to be wary of are people who insist that an entire subject area is the product of bias. “Covering unemployment, covering poverty, that’s not inherently biased,” says McGregor, just like covering the actions of public figures or of people in power isn’t inherently for or against those people. “Bias comes in when you have to ask what interests someone might be forwarding by speaking with a journalist. People speak to journalists because they have an agenda to advance, so think about what that agenda might be. If they all come from one direction, then you have a concern about bias,” says McGregor.
She also cautions against something that’s called false equivalence, which is an obfuscation writers with an agenda sometimes use to confuse an issue. “If 20 people say X and one person says Y, we don’t have to pretend that Y is as valid as X. It can be tempting to focus on the wild dissenters, but in general, if experts are mostly in agreement, it’s best to represent them proportionally,” McGregor says.
Another tricky tactic is in information that comes from nonprofits, which sometimes take advantage of the fact that people tend to trust non-profits to be less biased than for-profit organizations. “There are hate groups who do something called ‘information laundering,’ who use their status to make their opinions seem like facts,” says Zimdars. “Look at the history of an organization, and see if they’re being cited in research or in third-party databases like the Southern Poverty Law Center as a trustworthy source, or a problematic source. They’re very adept at cloaking information for certain purposes.”
The bottom line? Use common sense
Mostly, though, it’s important to remember that there’s no one right way to report on anything. “The classic notion of American journalism has this gauzy view of 1960s America when there was one point of view, one America, one truth. We were only concerned with one viewpoint and we represented it well,” says McGregor. “Now, we are going to cover things that are of interest to our audiences, but there’s a difference between that and misrepresenting things. There are facts that we can check, and that should be the basis of reporting.”
Zimdars addresses this same complexity with a piece of common sense advice that you might recognize from the fitness world: make sure your media diet is well-rounded. “No one should subscribe to one paper, watch one network or read one website,” says Zimdars. “The more types of information you come across, the more likely you’ll be able to tell the differences and get a reliable perspective on different events or issues.”