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How to find facts in a world of fake news

Fake news has become a major topic. It has always been relevant, but in the past it was usually described as “incorrect reporting” or “corrupt journalism.” Facebook recently launched a campaign to shut down fake news (which consequently blocked one of our posts for being a political piece that wasn’t published by a major news outlet.) All of the buzz got me thinking about research papers I wrote in college, and how I was taught to choose credible sources. Many of those tactics work well with modern news articles.

First, check the source. Is it the Onion, or a similar satirical source? Not reliable. Some random website that was reposted on Facebook? It’s possible that it’s reliable, but unlikely given the context. You’ll have to do more digging. Is it a news source that’s known for being extremely right or left wing? It probably is accurate but biased. If you’re unfamiliar with the source, do some research about it. Physically printed books and newspapers usually are best, but they are by no means infallible. Anyone can self-publish if they have the appropriate resources; it’s just time consuming, and most people go through more editing processes than those who write online. When in doubt, try to find out more about the author.

An online article that doesn’t list an author usually should not be trusted. The exception is typically if it’s part of a larger, trustworthy organization. For example, the FBI.gov Scams and Safety page does not have an author listed, but it’s reliable information. If there is an author listed, you need to do research about them. They should either have higher education or direct experience dealing with the topic. If they have a degree in political science or have a history of working for political campaigns, they probably have some understanding of how politics work. It’s important to note that education does not equal credibility the same way work experience doesn’t. An accomplished business owner does not automatically understand politics, and someone with a Ph.D in calculus may not be qualified to speak about the electoral college. They might have done outside research, but because you have no way of knowing that you must assume they have not. And just because they are informed about the topic does not mean they are unbiased.

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Bias is one of the most difficult to catch ways to skew the meaning of information. If someone is blatantly lying you can discover the truth by researching further. But if someone is writing information that is technically true but presented in a misleading way, that’s harder. Some biases are specific, for or against certain noteworthy figures or political parties, and others are more general, against race or sex. Every single person has implicit biases that come from interacting with toxic influences that are inevitable throughout life. A very common example of biases in media and journalism is what pictures are used for suspects of crime. If the suspect is white, very frequently they will be shown in newspapers and online articles with reasonably nice pictures. A white husband and father who killed his whole family is shown posing for a picture with said family. A black father who killed a man who was harassing his daughter will be pictured with a mugshot from the time he spent a night in jail for getting in a bar fight. Both committed a crime, but one is shown in a much more humanizing context. These pictures are the first thing the reader sees, so they form opinions on the quality of the person being referred to before even knowing the story.

The person who chose the photographs might not realize that they did that, especially if they formatted those articles on different days instead of side-by-side. The man was pictured with the family he killed because it shows the victims and criminal in one fell swoop, or because it’s more shocking that such a happy family was murdered by the father; the other man was shown with his mugshot to emphasize that people with criminal records are more likely to resort to violence rather than using their words. To the journalist in charge of the pictures this feels like sound justification, but the problem is that this is an incredibly common happening. Black men and women are pictured with mugshots or photos in which they’re scowling, and white people are more likely to have a nice picture that shows their family or a graduation. It’s rare to see it the other way around. A good journalist will be conscious enough about these biases to actively look for them in their writing. It’s nearly impossible to be completely neutral, but a person can get close. The less bias an article has, the more credible its information.

A simple way to see if an article is accurate is to find others about the same topic or event. These should be from different sources and various perspectives. For example, if you’re trying to fact check an article from a very conservative news outlet, your research should include a few conservative, moderate, and liberal articles. Many times, foreign newspapers will be more neutral than local ones if it’s not an issue that directly affects the country in which it was published. That’s because the writer is more emotionally removed from the issue. If the issue is a U.S. president’s plan to distribute taxes from one area to another, people in other countries probably won’t feel too strongly. If the article is talking about corruption within the Catholic church, articles from areas that don’t have a strong following of Catholicism are likely to be more indifferent about the issue than people who are surrounded by the Catholic church who either love or hate it.

Most people who spread misinformation or skewed information are not intentionally malicious (although occasionally they are, but that’s less common). Journalists and other writers hold a great responsibility in being as accurate as possible, for the pen truly is mightier than the sword. Unfortunately, many are either uneducated about fact checking or are unaware of their unconscious biases. Thus, readers and observers of current events must be vigilant and aware of ways news sources can be incorrect. Before you believe something, make sure that it is worthy of your trust.

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I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.

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