Fake News? 8 Ways to Determine If a News Story Is Reliable

Fake News? 8 Ways to Determine If a News Story Is Reliable

During a 2017 interview on the Christian Trinity Broadcasting Network, President Donald Trump claimed his use of the word “fake” to describe the media was “one of the greatest of all terms [he’d] come up with.”

While he was mistaken about his creation of the phrase “fake news,” Trump’s frequent use of the epithet to describe news media has no doubt popularized the label – and may have even led to the phrase’s inclusion in the Dictionary.com database.

It may seem at times like fake news is an epidemic unique to our current political climate, but it’s actually been around for centuries. Let’s take a closer look at what it is, how it spreads, and what you can do to detect it.

As its name suggests, fake news is false or counterfeit information reported in a newspaper, news periodical, or newscast.

Fake news differs from satire, farce, or hyperbole in that it’s a deliberate attempt to spread misinformation and manipulate public opinion for political, financial, or social gain. Inaccurate content is packaged to appear as fact, thus duping the audience into believing it’s true.

A story doesn’t have to be totally made-up to mislead; it’s enough to present subtle misrepresentations, critical omissions, or out-of-context information. Examples of recent misleading or false information include claims that:

All of the above have been labeled false by fact-checking organizations like PolitiFact, FactCheck, OpenSecrets, and Snopes, yet there are still those who believe these stories to be true.

Why does fake news spread so rapidly? As Craig Silverman of Neiman Reports writes in the Columbia Journalism Review: “[T]he forces of untruth have more money, more people, and… much better expertise. They know how to birth and spread a lie better than we know how to debunk one. They are more creative about it, and, by the very nature of what they’re doing, they aren’t constrained by ethics or professional standards. Advantage, liars.”

False stories have existed since the beginning of human interactions. The effects of these stories became especially virulent after the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg around 1439.

For centuries, the veracity of any printed story was hard to prove, mainly since publishers were more interested in circulation and profits than truth. As a consequence, fake news frequently led to widespread injustice, rebellions, and war:

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press to ensure transparency and accountability of government. The Founders’ intention was for the press to serve as a counter-balance for the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches. Unfortunately, history is littered with instances of newspapers publishing fake political stories to increase circulation or advance their owners’ financial interests. Since those under attack invariably claimed the information was a lie spread by political enemies – regardless of the underlying facts – “truth” depended upon the biases of the teller and hearer.

Using techniques pioneered by hucksters and snake oil salesmen, political operatives quickly learned to spread false, often lewd stories about their opponents while attributing only virtues to their clients. As a consequence, false stories about public figures in the media (and subsequent claims that the reported information was false) have been a part of American politics since George Washington’s presidency:

“Objective news” didn’t become popular until the early 1900s, when Adolph Ochs purchased the New York Times. In an era when newspapers, the mass media of the time, were filled with political disinformation, corporate publicity, and “yellow journalism,” Ochs believed a fact-based newspaper would be profitable. The New York Times subsequently developed the nation’s largest circulation base while winning more than 125 Pulitzer Prizes.

By the 1920s, journalism associations had adopted formal codes requiring “objectivity in reporting, independence from government and business, and a strict distinction between news and opinion,” according to Dr. Stephen J.A. Ward’s book “The Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond.” As journalists and publishers incorporated the new ethics into their reporting, confidence in the veracity of their stories began to rise.

By the latter half of the century, most Americans believed that national news sources, including TV networks, could be trusted, especially during and after World War II. Examples of journalistic integrity include:

Americans believe that what counts as “news” should not be determined by the press, but by events in the world as they occur. They expect news sources to be apolitical and factual, allowing the audience to interpret the impact or consequences of the facts.

Unfortunately, accuracy and objectivity can be difficult to achieve. In his book “Behind the Front Page,” David Broder of the Washington Post writes, “My experience suggests that we often have a hard time finding our way through the maze of facts – visible and concealed – in any story. We often misjudge character, mistake plot lines. And even when the facts seem most evident to our senses, we go astray by our misunderstanding and misjudgment of the context in which they belong.”

According to Gallup, Americans’ trust in the news media peaked in 1972, when more than 7 out of 10 Americans had a great deal or a fair amount of confidence in the integrity of news reporting. By 2016, less than one-third of the population trusted national news sources.

fact vs fake blocks

The decline of trust behind the increasing claims of fake news is due to several factors:

Television gradually replaced newspapers and periodicals as American’s primary source of news after 1950. John F. Kennedy, considered one of the country’s first “TV presidents,” was especially adroit at managing his image. Many credit his knowledge of the new mass media for his election in 1960.

The transition from print to TV news changed the focus and style of news presentation. Pew Research reports that viewers consider TV more believable than newspapers and periodicals, possibly because of the added visual media. However, TV often exaggerates and simplifies news to capture viewers with its time-limited broadcasts.

Critics say TV networks perform superficial fact-checking and are less likely than print sources to provide the five “Ws” considered necessary for accurate reporting: who, what, where, when, and why. While visual evidence is more credible than written claims, newspapers aren’t limited to space the way TV news is, and as a result, they can provide more detailed information and nuance in their stories.

The rise of the internet led to widespread social networking use in the early 2000s. At the end of 2017, Facebook had more than 2.2 billion members worldwide and Twitter had 330 million active members, including President Donald Trump, who has tweeted at least once a day since his inauguration.

The combination of instant communication and 24/7 access has led many people to rely on social media to supplement or become their primary news source. According to Pew Research, more than two-thirds of Americans use social media for all or a portion of their news today. Another Pew poll found that 74% of readers believed the information they got from friends’ social media posts was as reliable as that from traditional news organizations.

However, unlike traditional news media, there are few if any regulations governing the content of blogs, social media messages, and status updates. In other words, almost anyone can publish anything on the web without concern for quality or accuracy. Authorship is often unknown, as is intent, and opinions are easily represented as facts.

The lack of control over social media content allows foreign governments and other influencers to spread false information. American security services found evidence that Russian hackers and internet trolls attempted to influence the 2016 presidential campaign. In 2018, a Federal indictment charged 16 Russian executives with “information warfare” and attempts to “interfere with elections and political processes.”

The plethora of news sources, legitimate and otherwise, makes consensus over anything nearly impossible. Dr. Mary E. McNaughton-Cassel, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, states that the “ceaseless flow of news, social media, and questionable facts” enables us to favor information that reinforces our established opinions.

Consequently, we tend to think any information that conflicts with our position is fake news. This is especially the case when it comes to emotional topics such as politics and religion.

Conspiracy theories like the following demonstrate our willingness to deny facts that are too upsetting or anxiety-provoking to allow into our belief systems:

In 1949, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a report requiring radio and TV broadcasters to devote a portion of their programming to controversial issues of public interest, including the airing of opposite views. Broadcasters were also required to notify anyone subject to a personal attack and allow them an opportunity to respond.

Broadcasters quickly challenged the FCC position, known as the “Fairness Doctrine,” on the basis that it violated the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. The FCC successfully defended the doctrine in the courts for several decades but repealed it in 1987 under pressure from Congress.

Politically oriented radio shows exploded in the early 1990s after the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. Several years later, the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan Supreme Court ruling found that public figures could not sue for libel or slander even in cases where the information was false. No longer required to present a balanced viewpoint, radio stations focused programming on analysis and opinion rather than pure news reporting.

Attorney Steven J.J. Weisman, Legal Editor of Talkers magazine, subsequently stated that talk radio hosts “could be considered pretty much libelproof.” Anyone claiming to have been libeled by harmful, untrue statements, he said, “would have to meet that very high standard of having to prove that the radio talk show host had acted with malice.  This is indeed a difficult standard to prove.”

According to WIRED magazine, conservative Republicans are especially likely to gravitate to talk radio. Conservative and Libertarian talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck became media stars in the ’90s, drawing huge audiences with their controversial statements. Their popularity birthed additional public outlets for questionable news masquerading as “opinion” and outrageous hosts on both sides of the political spectrum:

Hyper-partisanship began in the 1980s with the election of Bill Clinton. Before that time, partisan political conflicts rarely spilled over into nonpolitical aspects of people’s lives. Today, political parties have become tribes, and tribal loyalty is intense. Each tribe considers the other’s members evil or dangerous people who will destroy the nation.

Dr. Sean Westwood, a professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College, describes this evolution in an interview in The New York Times: “Partisanship, for a long period of time, wasn’t viewed as part of who we are. It wasn’t core to our identity. It was just an ancillary trait. But in the modern era, we view party identity as something akin to gender, ethnicity or race – the core traits that we use to describe ourselves to others.”

According to a 2009 Stanford University study, people even tend to choose their mates based on party affiliation. Democrats and Republicans rarely marry members of the other party, and mixed-party couples account for less than 10% of marriages.

Fake news has a ready audience in today’s environment of hyper-partisanship as people seek out reports that confirm their biases. Stories that support their chosen narrative, no matter how outlandish or questionable, are embraced as fact, while information that favors the other side is discredited and labeled fake. For many people, facts are fluid – “alternative facts” according to President Trump’s spokesperson Kellyanne Conway – and are manipulated to serve the storyteller’s purpose.

While our digital world has made it easier than ever to spread fake news, the upside is that it also makes it easier to disprove fake news. As Silverman writes on Neiman Reports, “Never has it been so easy to expose an error, check a fact, crowdsource, and bring technology to bear in service of verification.”

Before you accept a new story as fact, experts recommend taking the following steps:

Few people are able to maintain a truly impartial view of current issues. We all have personal prejudices based on our culture, environment, and experiences. Knowing your self-interests and how they affect your judgment is key to evaluating information and making rational decisions.

Are these sources legitimate? Have they proved reliable in the past? Do they have a discernible bias? Information reported in the The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times is likely to be more reliable than that in a little-known conspiracy website. Try to discern the motive of the source publishing the information.

Shocking, controversial, or surprising events are always reported by multiple sources across different forms of media. Be suspicious of significant “news” that’s limited to a single newspaper, TV network, or website. Check the details of the story on several sources, especially those from contrasting political stances, to differentiate between fact and opinion.

Media companies depend on readership for revenue, whether through ad sales or subscriptions. Editors know that dramatic, exaggerated headlines attract readers even when the content is pedestrian and non-controversial, so don’t rely on a headline to give you the full story.

Established networks and periodicals rely on identified reporters and legitimate experts whose education and experience can be verified. Fake news often lacks an author or source.

Most reliable print sources clearly delineate between actual news reporting and editorial opinion. News stories on TV and radio talk shows are harder to categorize since the hosts can opine about current news from a particular political perspective. Free speech protects even outrageous, exaggerated, and false information under most circumstances, so be prepared to fact-check any information you hear on these broadcasts.

Old news stories, especially audio and video sound bites, frequently reappear long past their original publication date. While their information may have been accurate once, it’s easy to take it out of context, dramatically changing its meaning. Views, opinions, and circumstances can change over time, so make sure you understand the information in its original context.

While many social media sites are initiating new security measures to identify and remove fake news, their efforts are likely to be less than 100% successful. The following fact-checking sites can help you spot fake news:

Fuzzy facts and personal biases fuel our society’s current polarization. Driven by extreme partisanship, “alternative facts” undermine confidence in America’s fundamental institutions and threaten the bedrock of American democracy.

Testing and verifying the information you receive is the first step to counter prejudice and blind acceptance. As Scientific American magazine puts it, the best way to guard yourself against bias is to learn to “accept ambiguity, engage in critical thinking, and reject strict ideology.”

To avoid becoming a victim of misinformation, each of us needs to include fact-checking as part of our consumption of news media. Verifying a tweet, double-checking statistics, and researching rumors are all critical for an informed citizen and a democratic society.

Do you ever check questionable information, especially information that contradicts your position? Are you guilty of spreading controversial stories on social media before confirming the facts? Are verifiable facts relevant to your decision-making?

Updated: July 3, 2018
Categories: Economic Policy, Economy & Policy

Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike’s articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He’s a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas – including The Storm.

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