By Aly Colon, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics, Washington and Lee Universities
News consumers today face a flood of fake news and information. Distinguishing between fact and fiction has become increasingly challenging.
In the past, news organizations sifted through information to try to determine its validity and veracity. Being trusted for what they reported became an important part of journalists’ reputations.
But that was then.
You are part of the problem
Now the gatekeeping role that the legacy media newspapers and network television news once played falls to all of us. Today, everyone assumes the position of publisher. Technology has democratized the process of making, or making up, news.
Journalists no longer decide what goes public. Information flows unimpeded and unchecked through the internet, filling a multitude of websites, blogs and tweets.
All of it flows through social media streams and into our laptops, tablets and smartphones. Everyone who posts, or reshares, a news story on Facebook or retweets a link takes on a role once held by only a powerful few media executives. The problem that emerges today stems from the fact that most social media “publishers” fail to consider the responsibility for what they post.
It’s not that fake news is new. Thomas Jefferson complained in 1807, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.” Jefferson’s comment represents just one of many views regarding news not only in the U.S. but in Europe. Fake news can be traced back Italy in 1475 when a priest made a false claim about a child’s disappearance. Even the political battle between Marc Antony and Octavian to succeed the murdered Julius Caesar engaged the use of fake news. Octavian’s use of fake news enabled him to succeed Caesar.
And it’s not that the old gatekeepers were infallible or consistently apolitical. But in today’s technological world, we’re in the midst of an informational perfect storm. The equation I might offer would be: Velocity + Volume = Volatility. All the news on the internet moves so fast, and assaults us with so much, that the outcome becomes unpredictably dangerous.
Some people who use social media check what they publish. Others repost or retweet information without reading it carefully, much less doing any due diligence for accuracy. That plays into what those who produce fake news hope to accomplish. While some believe they hope to deceive people, press critic Tom Rosenstiel asserts, “The goal of fake news is not to make people believe the lie. It is to make them doubt all news.”
Some may think that young people, with their social media savvy, might be better able to assess the information they consume.
A Stanford University study found it shocking that many of them couldn’t “evaluate the credibility of that information.” The study noted that more than 80 percent of middle schoolers saw “sponsored content” as actual news. High school students didn’t verify photos. Most college students failed to suspect potential bias in an activist group’s tweet.
Step up your game
So what are news consumers to do? How can they act as their own gatekeepers, intent on vigilance and verification like the best journalists and publishers of old?
Here’s how to begin.
#1. Check out the source. This may seem basic, but it’s easy to read headlines without paying attention to who wrote it. Writers and websites operate with their own perspective. Some want to offer a balanced view. Some advocate a point of view. Others hope to deceive you.
Know the “who” or the “what” of the source. Is the source, website, Twitter handle or blog familiar to you? Have you read them before? Read other work they have done. See if writers you trust link to them.
Read the “About” section of the writer/website. Use search engines to track the name. Sometimes such sites as Linkedin or Facebook turn up basic background information. The key is to know where they are coming from.
Snopes, for example, reported that some of the “2017 inauguration photos” tweeted out of Trump’s inauguration were taken weeks or years earlier. One was a photo of the Kansas Royals baseball team rally. Politifact pointed out President Donald Trump’s press secretary’s assertion the inauguration had the largest audience – period – was disputed by other measurements. And FactCheck.org noted that former President Barack Obama “falsely claimed that a treaty he signed with Russia in 2011 ‘has substantially reduced our nuclear stockpiles, both Russia and the United States.‘”
Dick Grefe, a senior reference librarian at Washington and Lee University, alerted me that two professors at the University of Washington have proposed teaching a course “Calling Bullshit: In the Age of Big Data.” The course would “focus on bullshit that comes clad in the trappings of scholarly discourse.” What’s fake isn’t limited to news.
#3. Be aware of your biases. Remember that we tend to read, listen to and watch news with our own built-in prejudices. We evaluate information based on whether it supports what we already believe. It can be easy to discount that which upsets or challenges our worldview. Reports about “confirmation bias” abound. As studies and writers have noted, we basically believe what we want to believe.
The concern journalists feel about how misleading and confusing the news can be has prompted a number of them to offer their own guides to approaching biases and fake news. Journalist and media expert Alicia Shepard offers her suggestions on how to avoid being duped. Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who founded the News Literacy Project, grapples with confirmation bias head on. Steve Inskeep at NPR provides a guide to facts.
Battle your own confirmation bias by expanding the sources of information you seek. Be open to thinking about different points of view. Read widely. Read counterpoints. Watch for innovations from the media. For example, one recent study published on MarketWatch placed different news sources on the “truthiness” scale. Another, older piece on businessinsider.com could help you identify the ideology underlining your favorite source of news.
There’s no need to close the gate, but be sure you know what’s flowing in. It matters.