Uncovering Fake News: Advice from a TV Journalist

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News stories are everywhere – on TV, the Internet, social media and good old-fashioned print newspapers and magazines. But how do you know whether the news stories you  read are true or fake?

In a program sponsored by the Chicago chapter of the League of Women Voters in late September that I attended, journalist Dorothy Tucker of the local CBS affiliate addressed these issues. Fake news, she said, is deliberate misinformation. Sometimes called “yellow journalism,” its roots can be traced back to pre-Civil War and slavery. During those days, newspaper cartoons often depicted slaves as content and at peace with their role in society, which was not true.

When immigrants began moving to America, they were portrayed in political cartoons negatively, often as ignorant and subservient, which was also not true. The intent in both these cases was to depict these minority groups in ways that gave the wrong impression to the public. These stories were the original “fake news.”

Fast forward to the 21st century. Facebook is the by far the biggest source of fake news. Tucker said an estimated 22 percent of news stories funneled through Facebook prior to the 2016 elections was fake news. These stores were planted by Russian agents with the intent to deliberately mislead the American public about the candidates. In some cases, pages were set up by and for non-existent groups to feed off people’s fears and create divisions within the public.

To complicate matters, there are more news outlets covering events today than ever before. Twenty years ago, there might have been only a handful of journalists covering a story, five or six at the most, Tucker said. Today, with the impact of the Internet and blogs, there may be 50 or 60 people covering a story. Not all of today’s bloggers and website owners have a background in journalism or understand basic journalistic standards and practices. They often report events without checking the facts.

It’s a crowded field, and with so many people vying for a chance to break a news story before the next person, the truth can get lost in the shuffle. And with so much news out there, how does an individual like you and me decipher what is real and what is fake, or gossip, or just plain wrong?

It is up to us, as individuals, to be more discerning about the stories we hear and see. We can’t assume what we read on the Internet is truthful, nor can we assume that what we hear in any news media is fake. Tucker outlined some things we can all do to check out a story.

1. Check out the media source or news outlet that ran the story. Do a Google search to see if news outlet exists. If so, what other stories has it published? Does the organization have a website? If so, check it out. Is there an About page? What does that page say about the organization? Is there an editor or editorial board? Is there a way to contact the news organization? If there is no About page, no information about the news organization and no ways to contact them, chances are they are a fake organization publishing fake news.

2. Check out the author of the story. Search Google to see if their name exists. Have they written other stories at other news outlets? Do they have a website? Check their bio on their website, and make sure there is a way to contact them. Most legitimate author sites will have this information.

3. Check the published date of the article as well as any photo or image that accompanies it. Check the source of the photo or image. It might have been “stolen” from another Internet site, often without the knowledge or consent of the person photographed. The photo or story might have been published a few years ago. Fake news outlets have been known to take a story from a few years before and embellish it for their purposes. If you can trace it back to the original story, then you found a fake news story.

4. Check the content of the news story against fact-checking services like Snopes.com, Poynter Fact-Checking Tips and Factcheck.org. Insert the URL of the story into the space provided and these services will scan the story to determine how much of the story is factual.

As we move forward into the mid-term election season, we all have to exercise better judgment and stronger awareness of news sources. We need to look at each news story with a keen eye and healthy dose of  skepticism about what is factual and what is fake. We all have to take greater responsibility for the news we share with others too, especially on social media sites. We may inadvertently be spreading fake news. Like the old adage, if it sounds too good (or ridiculous) to be true, it probably isn’t.

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