Lexington, Ky. (June 18, 2019) – The internet is a tremendous and powerful platform for researching, communicating, learning, and staying informed about news from near and afar. Whether we are checking for local stories or news from around the world, the internet has revolutionized the way we consume and share news with colleagues, friends, and family. Gone are the days when we waited for the 6 o’clock news to learn about the events of the day.
Today, we are able to learn about important events in real time. In cases of natural disasters and other unforeseen emergencies, the media is able to relay news via various platforms within minutes. Not only does this ability to rapidly deliver news alerts or warnings save lives, it also provides citizens opportunities to assist in gathering and deploying resources required to assist victims. During hurricanes and other emergencies, we often hear stories of heroes who travel to affected areas with boats, food, and other resources to offer support. In some ways having access to news is critical to saving lives.
Research shows that while television remains the most common medium for accessing news, it has been steadily declining over the last few years—mostly thanks to the use of mobile devices. According to the Pew Research Center, from 2016 to 2018, the percentage of people who got their news from television declined from 57% to 49% as the percentage of people who got their news from either news websites or social media increased. Social media is particularly interesting as national and local news media have adopted a model of sharing breaking news via popular platforms like Twitter and Facebook with links to full articles on their websites.
When searching for online news, we may unknowingly be exposed to so-called news content from “shady” sources. Despite the fact that most applications that offer news also provide filters for us to control what we can see and who it comes from, we are still inundated with a tremendous amount of information. It is then up to us to make judgements on whether an article and its author are reliable.
As the amount of news content available online has skyrocketed in recent years, so has the threat of “fake news,” which is defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.” This phenomenon is driven by malicious actors whose goals are to spread disinformation masquerading as real news—with the goal of shaping opinions or even just causing chaos.
With all its incredible benefits, social media is also an effective tool for spreading fake news. While some of these fake news articles may seem mostly implausible, others appear genuine and can gain traction and spread to all corners of the globe within minutes.
So what can you do to ensure you are accessing legitimate news article and not falling victim to malicious actors?
The first tip is learning to identify what constitutes a legitimate news article. A true “news story is a factual, prose story for print or broadcast media about a person, place or event answering these five questions: who, what, when, where, why and how. A news story is written in the inverted-pyramid style, giving the most important information first and additional details later.”
Other types of articles that may be published by news media include opinion pieces or editorials. Opinion pieces are articles that offer the author’s personal views, which may be nonfactual and controversial. With the rise of cable television and the rise in political punditry, opinions can sometimes be mistaken for news. When dealing with opinion pieces, it is important to recognize that they may sometimes be inadvertently informed by fake news.
Editorials are articles “written by an editor that expresses a newspaper’s or publishing house’s own views and policies on a current issue. If written by an outsider it normally carries a disclaimer saying the article does not necessarily reflect the publisher’s official views.”
When evaluating news articles—particularly from unfamiliar news sources—it is advisable to take some steps to ensure that what you are consuming is reliable and trustworthy. Harvard University published an article entitled “4 Tips for Spotting a Fake News Story” by Christina Nagler, who provides valuable information to consider when reading news articles. Below are Nagler’s tips:
Vet the publisher’s credibility.
- Would the publishing site meet academic citation standards? Just because a site is popular among your friends does not mean its content is accurate.
- What is the domain name? Be wary of unusual top-level domain names, like “.com.co.” A second-level domain like “abcnews” may appear credible. But note that abcnews.com.co is a different and illegitimate site, though designed to appear similar to the original.
- What’s the publication’s point of view? Read the “About Us” section for more insight into the publisher, leadership, and mission statement. Also, confirm that you have not stumbled upon a satirical news site, like the Onion.
- Who is the author? Has he or she published anything else? Be suspicious if the byline, which names the author, is a celebrity writing for a little-known site or if the author’s contact information is a G-mail address.
Pay attention to quality and timeliness.
- Do you notice splling erors [sic], lots of ALL CAPS, or dramatic punctuation?!?!?! If so, abort your reading mission. Reputable sources have high proofreading and grammatical standards.
- Is the story current or recycled? Make sure an older story isn’t being taken out of context.
Check the sources and citations.
- How did you find the article? If the content showed up in your social media feed or was promoted on a website known for clickbait, proceed with caution. Even if the information was shared by a friend, be sure to follow the steps below to vet the publisher’s credibility.
- Who is (or is not) quoted, and what do they say? If you notice a glaring lack of quotes and contributing sources, particularly on a complex issue, then something is amiss. Credible journalism is fed by fact-gathering, so a lack of research likely means a lack of fact-based information.
- Is the information available on other sites? If not, then it’s very likely that the journalistic jury is still out on whether this information is valid.
- Can you perform reverse searches for sources and images? By checking cited sources, you can confirm that the information has been accurately applied and not altered to meet the author’s point of view. The same goes for images. In an era of Photoshop magic, you can’t always believe what you see.
Ask the pros.
- Have you visited a fact-checking website? There are many good ones, like https://www.factcheck.org/, International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), com, or Snopes.com. Do your own detective work and feel more confident in being able to identify fact vs. fiction.
Lastly, don’t fall victim to the temptation to spread fake news. Sharing these fake stories only serves to feed the beast as malicious actors are encouraged to continue such practices when thousands of people share these articles.
 Shearer, Eliza. “Social media outpaces print newspapers in the U.S. as a news source.” Pew Research Center. December 10, 2018. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/12/10/social-media-outpaces-prslaint-newspapers-in-the-u-s-as-a-news-source/. Accessed May 28, 2019
About the Author: Heather Gate is the director of Digital Inclusion for Connected Nation. She is responsible for strategy development and implementation of programs that impact Digital Inclusion for all people in all places. She provides project management services including identification of program challenges and goals as well as day-to-day oversight and funding research. Heather also serves on the Federal Communications Commission’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (ACDDE).
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