Image L.A. Times Carolyn Kellogg
Article written by Ben Rogers PhD. Norfolk State University. Ben teaches courses in American Politics and researches political behavior. Ben draws on techniques of machine learning and data analytics, while also employing theories about why people turn out to vote or form opinions from media. Here Ben’s CV .
Fake news! From the backrooms of media outlets to the Twitter feeds of prominent politicians, cries of misinformation seem to be everywhere right now, with half of Americans saying it’s a serious issue. But at the same time, it’s pretty easy to say something’s not true, and a lot harder to figure out if it is.
That’s where this toolkit comes in. A single item in a news story generally does not guarantee it’s a lie, misrepresentation, or just plain wrong. But together, several items can paint a picture of how seriously to take a news story. Putting the pieces together will make it easier to figure out if something should be believed, examined further, or ignored.
Straight news and opinion
The first task is to recognize straight news from opinion or commentary. News outlets like CNN, Fox, and the Washington Post will separate opinion sections from straight news. Twitter and Facebook will not. If there is no way to determine if someone is telling you the truth or not, then it’s an opinion (at best). This doesn’t mean opinions are wrong or fake. However, if part of what they’re saying can’t be proven wrong, and it’s not clearly described as an opinion, watch out!
The second task is to recognize our own desire to accept as true news that fits our political views. For example, Democrats are more inclined to believe unfavorable news about President Trump while Republicans are more likely to reject it. Everyone has political views and knowing yours will help you identify the warning signs of fake news.
Research demonstrates we are prone to trust news that says things we hope to be true. Therefore, a negative story about a political figure we do not like will be quickly accepted and labeled accurate. But a negative story about our favorite politician will be considered ‘wrong” or fake news.
In short, when we disagree with a candidate or public figure, news that makes them look bad is much easier to believe. Yes, some of it may be true. But check yourself after reading about the next scandal or transgression. Do you want it to be true? If so, you now know that it’s more believable because of your state of mind – which has nothing to do with the veracity of evidence or the reliability of news source.
Accepting the professional credentials and reputation of a news source is not enough. The Drudge Report, an ‘infamous conservative internet tip sheet’ (at least, according to the BBC), broke the Lewinsky Scandal. The prestigious Chicago Tribune called a presidential election wrongly. Unprofessional sources can be right and professional sources can be wrong.
So, who to trust? The third task: consider what happens to the source if they’re wrong. If the consequences are modest or nothing at all, then skepticism is your friend.
Further, two different sources can tell a similar story. Yet remember they may not have the same level of trustworthiness. One can have little to no reputation to uphold. If their story is proven wrong, nothing is lost. But if an editor for the Washington Post gets something wrong, it’s going to hurt the editor’s reputation, his credibility, and the paper – all he/she has. What price people or organizations pay for inaccurate news helps us determine what’s likely to be true.
This same logic applies to social media. A CNN hard news reporter will have a difficult day after a mistake on Twitter compared to a Twitter error by a Sinclair national opinion writer. And they’ll both have more trouble than someone whose livelihood doesn’t require political credibility – like a dentist, pharmacist or factory worker. These folks risk relatively little and so be cautious about random posts on social media.
This applies to all sorts of people and professions. Do the news sources work or have expertise in the fields they’re offering opinions on? If they do, then not telling the truth jeopardizes credibility with peers and perhaps risks future employment. Tread with extreme caution when sources have little or nothing to lose.
Yes, I recognize much in this article is known and straightforward. However, when people read and discuss politics, things can quickly run off the rails. We lose focus and often ignore the source of news, we wish the story true when it’s not, and we use emotion instead of intellect to judge credibility and veracity. So, stay composed and remember,
- Separate commentary/opinion from straight news – hard facts. Most conventional news organizations offer separate sections for straight news and commentary. Go ahead and use a fact checker, you will be surprised what you discover!
- Recognize that all of us are prone to believing in what we wish to be true. Check that impulse!
- Trustworthy sources are generally those that have the most to lose if the information is inaccurate. Be aware of the source!