For the past couple of days I’ve been having a very thoughtful Facebook message exchange with my good friend, Dawn. She reached out to me in frustration over the influx of fake news stories in her news feed, wondering why it is so hard to decipher the truth. How can we know which sources to trust? A new study released from Stanford History Education Group reveals a troubling trend that our middle, high school and college students are easily duped with fake news while scrolling through social media sites. Apparently, adults are struggling with it what’s real and what’s fake, too. Educating ourselves and our children on how to be a smart news consumer is more important than ever. Some might say our democracy depends on it.
According to a report released in May 2016 by the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation, 62% of adults in the U.S. get their news via social media with Facebook leading the pack by a large margin. With Facebook being a wide-open exchange of information (by design), no one is really policing what is actually true, sort-of true, skewed, slanted, pure satire or downright false.
What really struck me during my exchange with Dawn is she is a highly intelligent woman and an educated and informed consumer of news. If someone like Dawn could become so frustrated with this, we’ve got a real problem on our hands. How did this happen?
As a journalist for over 27 years, I’ve seen the news landscape change dramatically. When I began my journalism career in the late 1980’s, you could generally count on any of the major news outlets to deliver reliable, fact-based news which, at its core, was the same basic news, minus the branding and delivery method. Over time, some news outlets began to target their news product to certain segments of the population – which meant subtly emphasizing some facts over others, elevating certain news items, or bringing in certain experts and voices that would ever-so-slightly appeal more to the demographic they were targeting. Finding success in this model, they gradually took it as far as they could while still maintaining their status as a reliable news source. It’s happened so gradually that many people didn’t recognize it, particularly young adults who’ve never known news any other way in their lifetime. Along with the subtle skewing of news came other more extreme and partisan voices who discovered like-minded audiences online via websites, email groups and message boards. Once social media came onto the scene in the early 2000’s, people soon discovered they could share anything they wished from any available source and it became an information free-for-all. Fast forward to today, where a multitude of voices claim to be “news” and many consumers take it at face value without really considering the source or thoroughly reading through the information with a critical eye for the way the information is presented. Some even claim fake news sites may have influenced the outcome of our presidential election and fanned the flames of political polarization, with those same fake sites being purely driven by economic gain with little to no regard for the social or political consequences.
This morning, my friend Dawn was able to show me two news items she found on Facebook, on the same story, delivered almost simultaneously in her news feed, that gave completely different accounts of what happened. She says, given enough time and effort, she can typically figure out what’s fake and what’s true, but it’s irritating that she even needs to do so. How frustrating for people who just want to know the truth.
Although some sort of source verification would be helpful from sites like Facebook, given the news climate of today, we would be wise to educate ourselves on how to decipher real news from fake news, without relying on social media sites to do it for us. Some suggestions:
- Before you even read a news article, look at the source.Is it from a news organization with a reputation for reliable and truthful news? Is it from a news organization that has a reputation for slanted or partisan news? Have you never heard of the source before? Does it look similar to something from a reliable source, but the web address contains odd or unusual characters? Keep the source in mind if you choose to read further. Some experts suggest looking for a two-character country code at the end of the source’s web address (for example .co) as a sign that the site and its news may be fake. However, this isn’t always the case; My Local News believes very strongly in truthful journalism and our web address ends in .us.
- When you read the story do you strongly agree or disagree with everything it says? When you read a balanced news story about something controversial or polarizing, you should feel a mix of affirmation of your own viewpoints and possibly a sense of curiosity or discomfort while reading the opposing viewpoint. If the whole story simply affirms everything you believe or opposes everything you believe, it’s likely unbalanced. Balanced news delivers equal information from all sides of an issue whenever possible, and the reader should be skeptical if it feels one-sided or skewed one way or the other. In a fair and balanced news story, the journalist would make it clear they’ve made every attempt to give all sides a chance for equal press.
- Learn to decipher opinion from fact. A reliable news source will clearly label opinions as such and attribute it to a source. Facts are verifiable and objective. Opinions are based on personal beliefs or judgement and are subjective.
- Consider how you consume news. Do you have a pretty good idea of the different news brands available to you and what they represent? Do you find yourself frequently blaming the media for giving you misinformation? Of being too liberal or skewed? Of course misinformation does happen, as members of the media are human and do make mistakes. But keep in mind that just because the particular subject matter of a news item pushes your buttons doesn’t necessarily mean it’s fake. A reputable news organization will do its best to deliver all the important facts necessary for the reader or viewer to be fully informed – not just deliver what they want to read or hear or only those items which support a particular point of view. If you deliberately seek out news that supports or skews toward one viewpoint, just be aware that you’re receiving information on a limited spectrum and you will likely come away only partially informed.
- Look for and support quality journalism. In the United States, we are very fortunate to have a free press. You have many choices in where and how you receive news. When you find a quality news source that provides you with fact-based, well-rounded stories, make a note of it – and do what you can to support that news source. Become a subscriber, follower, or “like” their page so that’s what appears in your news feed. When you come across questionable news, do not copy, forward or share it.