Remember that “news” story reporting that dozens of people had died of marijuana overdoses on the first day recreational use became legal in Colorado? I do. It was all over my Facebook feed in the early days of January 2014, accompanied by much hand-wringing and cries of “What’s this world coming to?!?” But it never happened. It turns out, that story was posted on a satire site, the Daily Currant, which states pretty clearly on their “About” page that all of their articles are purely fictional.
Why were so many people duped? They didn’t take the time to research the source of the “news,” or possibly even read the story. They just saw an inflammatory headline and hit the “share” button.
These days, “Fake news!” is the rallying cry of anyone who wants to discredit a news story. How do you tell real news from fake? The quick and easy way to fact-check a story is to search for it on websites like snopes.com, factchecker.org, or politifact.com. Get in the habit of being skeptical, and get ready to do some research. Here are some questions to start asking yourself before you hit “share.”
What’s the whole story? Read the entire article, not just the headline. Sometimes headlines are purposefully outrageous and don’t reflect the facts. Also, keep in mind that quotes and photos can be used out of context to create confusion. Investigate the original source and context. Just because a meme states that a quote came from People magazine doesn’t mean it actually did.
Who says? Investigate the source of the news. Is it a reputable news site? Sometimes fake sites masquerade as real news sites. Look carefully at the URL: abcnews.com is legit, but abcnews.com.co is not. What is the site’s mission? Read their “About Us” page. Who is the author of the article? Do a quick search on the author. Are they credible? If no author is listed, that’s a red flag.
Is there any support? Click on all the links in the story. Do they link to other stories on the same site, or outside sources? How credible are those sources? If you do a web search on this topic, is anyone else reporting on this?
Is it current? Check the date of the article. I cannot tell you how many times—recently!—I have seen people post the news story of Don Knotts’ death on Facebook, to many cries of, “OMG, sad!” It was sad…in 2006. And why is it always Don Knotts? I couldn’t tell you.
Is it satire? Satire is “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.” In other words, it’s a joke. Investigate whether a site is satire before posting a story as fact. Otherwise, the joke is on you.
Am I biased? Consider whether you want to believe this story because it conforms to your pre-existing beliefs. Are your beliefs affecting your judgment?
Here is a list of library resources to help you maximize your media savvy:
Opposing Viewpoints in Context
If you’re looking to educate yourself about current events, the database Opposing Viewpoints in Context is the best library resource you could ask for. Just click on an issue—for instance, health insurance—and you will see an overview of the topic; viewpoints from all sides of the issue; statistics and reference materials; magazine, newspaper, and academic articles; audio files, such as stories from National Public Radio; videos; websites; and primary sources, such as legislation and court rulings. All of this information has been vetted for you and is credible.
Explora for Public Libraries
Another great database available to members is Explora, which searches multiple reference databases and is available for elementary students, secondary students, and adults. Explora has many categories, but for our purposes here, evaluating news, the most useful will be Current Events. Click on a topic, and you have access to ebooks, academic journals, Associated Press videos, texts of speeches, news, and magazines.
Arguing for Our Lives: a User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog by Robert Jensen
Jensen, a professor of journalism, law, ethics, and politics, has written this primer on critical thinking as a guide to help people think and communicate clearly. He includes chapters on “Thinking Critically about Politics” and “Thinking Critically about News Media.”
Losing the News: the Future of the News that Feeds Democracy by Alex S. Jones
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Jones examines the major changes the news media have undergone recently and how they affect the cornerstone of our democracy, a well-informed voting public. Topics covered include the First Amendment, objectivity in journalism, media ethics, the decline of newspapers, and the rise of new news media.
Understanding rhetoric—the art of persuasive speaking or writing—is key to understanding propaganda. You can come at the problem of evaluating news sources from the back end by figuring out the techniques that are being used to persuade you to a certain way of thinking. Or, you know, if you want to learn to write persuasively, this book is good for that, too.
Women for President: Media Bias in Nine Campaigns by Erika Falk
If you ever wondered how the news media treats certain people differently, this book is a real eye-opener. This book provides critical analysis of the media coverage of the nine female presidential candidates through 2008. Did you know there had been nine female presidential candidates? I sure didn’t. I’ll be having a talk with my high school history teachers about that.