To Test Your Fake News Judgment, Play This Game
A Finder’s Guide To Facts by NPR
So here’s a finder’s guide for facts:
First, take a moment. If you have time to scroll Facebook or watch the news, you probably have a moment to decide if a news story seems credible. Ask some quick questions:
Is the story so outrageous you can’t believe it? Maybe you shouldn’t. Respect the voice inside you that says, “What?”
Is the story so outrageous you do believe it? That’s also a warning sign. Many stories play on your existing beliefs. If the story perfectly confirms your worst suspicions, look for more information.
Does the headline match the article? Many compelling headlines don’t.
Does the article match the news story it’s lifted from? Many sites rewrite other news articles to fit the political slant of their presumed audience. Look for links to original sources and click through and see what the original says.
Are quotes in context? Look for the sentences before and after the quote that makes your blood boil. If the article fails to give them, that’s a warning sign.
Is the story set in the future? It’s hard to get firsthand reporting from there. Any story that tells you what will happen should be marked down 50 percent for this reason alone.
Does the story attack a generic enemy? Vague denunciations of “Washington” or “the media” or “Trump supporters” or “the left” should be marked down 99 percent. Good reporting doesn’t make these kinds of generalizations and is specific about who is making a claim about what.
Are you asked to rely on one killer factoid? Not a good idea. If a hacked document “proves” an implausible conspiracy, look for the context that shows what the document really means. As for photos and video, use Ronald Reagan’s old slogan: trust but verify. If there’s any doubt about a “stunning” video, see if more traditional sources link to it. They love video clicks as much as anyone. If they refrain, there may be good reason.
Who is the news source, anyway? Traditional news brands may occasionally get it wrong — sometimes hugely wrong — but at least you know where to find them and hold them accountable. Less prominent news sites might carry compelling stories — but expect them to show you who they are and where they gathered information.
Does the news source appear to employ editors? Many news organizations produce stories that are checked before publication. Others don’t. It’s a big deal. Hiring an editorial staff shows the publication’s respect for you, and matters more than “political bias.” The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, for example, have different owners, audiences, stories, perspectives and obsessions. Both have made mistakes and omissions; but both send reporters out into the world and back them up with an editorial process that catches and corrects many errors. This means both can be informative, regardless of your politics or theirs.
Are you told, “Trust me”? Don’t. It’s the post-trust era! Expect everyone to show where their facts come from, link to underlying articles, and demonstrate that they’ve argued honestly. Here’s a way they may bolster their credibility:
Did the writer engage with anyone who disagrees? Did they call a senator whose legislation bugs them? Did they try to grasp what the president-elect was doing, or merely repeat one of his more outrageous statements? If it’s a broadcast interview, was the guest presented with genuine opposing views and challenged to answer? Those who wrestle with opposing arguments do you a service and often improve their own arguments.
These simple questions should take you a long way toward judging the value of a news story. While applying such questions to any given story, you can also take a few more general steps:
Broaden your palate. Make a point to check sites that do not agree with your politics. You may discover stories that are wrong — but you’ll know what other people are consuming, which will sharpen your own thinking.
Be open to the idea that some falsehoods are sincerely held. In spite of all the warnings here, some inaccurate news stories grow out of haste or misinformation rather than pure cynicism. (But they’re still false.)
If a news source consistently passes the tests in this guide, support it. Gathering reliable information isn’t free. Helping to pay for it aligns the news source’s interests with yours.
Both Mantzarlis and Zimdars agreed there are a few best practices people can use when reading articles online.
Pay attention to the domain and URL
Established news organizations usually own their domains and they have a standard look that you are probably familiar with. Sites with such endings like .com.co should make you raise your eyebrows and tip you off that you need to dig around more to see if they can be trusted. This is true even when the site looks professional and has semi-recognizable logos. For example, abcnews.com is a legitimate news source, but abcnews.com.co is not, despite its similar appearance.
Read the “About Us” section
Most sites will have a lot of information about the news outlet, the company that runs it, members of leadership, and the mission and ethics statement behind an organization. The language used here is straightforward. If it’s melodramatic and seems overblown, you should be skeptical. Also, you should be able to find out more information about the organization’s leaders in places other than that site.
Look at the quotes in a story
Or rather, look at the lack of quotes. Most publications have multiple sources in each story who are professionals and have expertise in the fields they talk about. If it’s a serious or controversial issue, there are more likely to be quotes — and lots of them. Look for professors or other academics who can speak to the research they’ve done. And if they are talking about research, look up those studies.
Look at who said them
Then, see who said the quotes, and what they said. Are they a reputable source with a title that you can verify through a quick Google search? Say you’re looking at a story and it says President Obama said he wanted to take everyone’s guns away. And then there’s a quote. Obama is an official who has almost everything he says recorded and archived. There are transcripts for pretty much any address or speech he has given. Google those quotes. See what the speech was about, who he was addressing and when it happened. Even if he did an exclusive interview with a publication, that same quote will be referenced in other stories, saying he said it while talking to the original publication.
Check the comments
A lot of these fake and misleading stories are shared on social media platforms. Headlines are meant to get the reader’s attention, but they’re also supposed to accurately reflect what the story is about. Lately, that hasn’t been the case. Headlines often will be written in exaggerated language with the intention of being misleading and then attached to stories that are about a completely different topic or just not true. These stories usually generate a lot of comments on Facebook or Twitter. If a lot of these comments call out the article for being fake or misleading, it probably is.
Reverse image search
A picture should be accurate in illustrating what the story is about. This often doesn’t happen. If people who write these fake news stories don’t even leave their homes or interview anyone for the stories, it’s unlikely they take their own pictures. Do a little detective work and reverse search for the image on Google. You can do this by right-clicking on the image and choosing to search Google for it. If the image is appearing on a lot of stories about many different topics, there’s a good chance it’s not actually an image of what it says it was on the first story.