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.

Is It Time to Declutter Your Facebook News Feed?

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Have you seen your Facebook news feed lately? I mean, really take a good, hard look at it? What do you see?

Whenever I browse my news feed, I notice several trends:

* I have more Likes of businesses and personal interests than I do Friends.
* Updates are negative, offensive or just plain depressing. This is true for both business updates and those from personal contacts.
* I see fewer and fewer updates from family and friends who have either gotten too busy to post updates, lost interest in Facebook, or found another way to connect with their friends.
* There are more updates from businesses promoting their products than there are updates from my contacts.

The reason I joined Facebook in the first place was to stay in touch with friends, former and current co-workers and old classmates that I had not seen in a while. Little did I know my constant Liking of companies and news organizations would develop into an avalanche of information that I am now trying to dig myself out from.

Obviously, in my line of work as a writer, I do a lot of reading and research. So it’s important for me to follow multiple news organizations covering the latest trends in the industries I cover – real estate, health and fitness, writing, and career development, as well as current social and political news. Naturally, my news feed is filled with updates, almost to the point that updates from my friends and family are getting buried in the “noise.” If it wasn’t for Facebook’s practice to list posts from my family and friends when I first open the platform, I probably would not see their updates at all.

The only problem is I wind up scrolling through my news feed twice – first to browse the updates from my personal contacts, then a second time through (after selecting the Most Recent in the News Feed menu in the left side bar) to see stories in chronological order. Going through the feed twice is a bit of a pain, but the news junkie in me wants to be sure I don’t miss any potentially important news items.

Add to that the retailers I have Liked over the years, and I’m overloaded with advertising and new product offers. It has all gotten to be too much, so now I am taking steps to declutter my Facebook news feed. Here’s how.

Problem 1:  Too many angry, offensive posts from friends. They mean well, but let’s face it, you aren’t going to see eye to eye with everyone you know. And people are free to express their different viewpoints. But if someone posts mean, spiteful memes about others, shares articles from questionable sources or spouts angry rhetoric, you don’t have to put up with it.

Solution: Hide their posts. The next time you see their update, roll your mouse over the upper right corner of the text box. A little downward arrow will appear. Click on the arrow to display a menu of options. You have the choice to Unfollow them, which means you will no longer be connected to them,  or Hide Posts, which means you will still be connected but won’t see their updates in your news feed. Or you can go to their page, click on the downward arrow on the Following button, and select Hide Posts. It will accomplish the same thing.

Problem #2: Declutter the advertisers and news sources in your feed. If you are like me, you probably Liked quite a few businesses for their products and services. It may have been awhile since you Liked them, which means it might be a good idea to review your list of Likes to see if you still want to follow them.

Solution: Unfollow or hide posts of businesses. Much like you did for your list of friends, you can also hide posts from businesses you know longer support or haven’t posted updates in a while. An easy way to do this is to go to your profile page. Under the main menu by your profile photo, select the More option. On the menu that appears, select the Likes option. It will open a page with all the businesses you like. As you scroll down the list, you’ll notice that each business has two buttons: Liked and Followed with a check mark next to each. Selecting those two buttons will remove the check mark, and you will no longer be getting updates from them in your news feed.

This process isn’t all that time consuming, maybe 15 minutes depending on how long your list is. But by going through this process every few months, it will feel like you are decluttering your closet or cleaning out your book shelf. You’ll feel lighter and freer and open up space in your news feed for things that are most important to you, things like updates from your Facebook family and friends.

How Online Commenting Can Be Hazardous to Your Career

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Can commenting on blogs and Facebook posts be detrimental to your professional well-being? What you say and how you say it in the online world says a lot about who you are, both personally and professionally.

If you’re like me, you read a lot of blogs and news articles online. It’s the key to keeping ourselves up-to-date on the latest events in the world. But what do you do if the author presents some provocative ideas that you disagree with? What if you jump into a heated debate between several posters online only to be gang tackled by other participants who disagree with your opinion? How do you disengage from this discussion gracefully and with your reputation in tact?

Read any news feed or blog and you’ll likely come across an article that has drawn hundreds of comments, many of them rash judgments and unsubstantiated opinions. I try not to read the comments section of most articles, but when I do, I am often struck by the angry, disrespectful tone of commenters as they spit out their opinions. And when it begins to get personal, with individuals hurling insults at one another like they are hand grenades, I quickly exit the site.

It’s often tempting to comment on issues that you feel strongly about. That’s understandable, and sometimes even necessary. We all have to stand up for what we believe in. Knowing when to speak up and when to keep your opinion to yourself is a delicate dance we all must do, especially in business settings when our professional reputation may be at risk.

While in most situations, your contribution to the online conversation may be harmless, there may be times when it is better to stay out of the fray altogether. Discussions about religion, politics and social issues tend to bring out the most heated responses, so I tend to avoid them online as much as possible.

When faced with the temptation to get involved in these online debates, you can do one of three things:

1. Jump into the debate right away. This might make you feel better in the short term, but a heated response can come back to bite you later in the form of broken friendships and lost business opportunities.

2. Wait before responding. It can be a few hours or one day. Give yourself time to cool off, especially if you feel agitated or angry. Return to the online conversation later only if you still feel a need to express your opinion. Sometimes time and distance can help you see things differently, and you may simply decide to walk away from the conversation.

However, if you still feel a need to comment, plan the message carefully. Focus on the facts, and site statistics if needed. That will add credibility to your commentary. Be sure to remove emotion or anger from your response. When you provide a well-thought out response and communicate articulately, your viewpoint may be taken more seriously, even if others don’t agree with you. Besides you never know who may be reading those comments anonymously

3. When in doubt, walk away from the argument. Most online debates are not worth risking your professional integrity. And just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean you have to express it. Sometimes the least said will work more in your favor.

Since you don’t know who may be reading your comments – family members, friends, employers, clients, colleagues, etc. – the best advice is to err on the side of caution and say nothing. Choose your battles wisely.

What you say, or don’t say, and how you say it often reflects a lot about who you are. Think about your personal brand. How do you want others to remember you – as an abrasive personality who runs roughshod over others who disagree with you, or as an intelligent individual who is open to hearing different points of view? Remember clients, colleagues and employers may be tuning in to what you post in the online world. Make sure what you say accurately reflects who you are.