Anyone else feeling confused these days? In recent months it feels like every time we turn on the news there’s another crazy, often infuriating, situation to hear about. And with phrases like ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ being thrown around so often, it’s hard to know which way is up, especially when you’re also trying your best to learn about how to live an ethical life. So today I thought I’d take some time to talk about fake news, media bias, and trying to make sense of this whole mess. A lot of this info has been taken from the recent podcast from the Liturgists called ‘Fake News and Media Literacy‘ which I would massively recommend listening to also. Below I’ve condensed as much information as I think is useful, I hope it helps you today.
What is fake news?
Although this label has been thrown every which way recently by both sides of the political spectrum, the term fake news actually applies to news that someone has made up with false information, that is typically created to be polarising or exciting. The information is made up to drive traffic to a website, in order to increase ad revenue and make money. This information is usually fabricated by people with an advertising background to excite people and make them share and believe things that have no basis in fact, for the purpose of making as much money as possible.
How to spot fake news
The Liturgists podcast gives a great methodology for testing articles you see to deduce if they’re fake:
- Legitimate news media will name the author and contributors to any article they publish to create accountability. If you click an article and there’s no author named, immediately lower your confidence in the article and its claims.
- Where was the piece published? Have you ever heard of this media organisation? If it’s a site you’ve never heard of you want to know more about them before trusting their claims. If you have heard of them, what’s their journalistic reputation? Do they have an editorial review board? A board holds journalists and authors accountable, as well as fact checking their claims. Fake news sites won’t have such boards. Does this organisation publish corrections, retractions or letters to the editor? Aka is there are a way for the public to keep this media organisation accountable? Who owns the publication? Most of our media is controlled by a small handful of corporations, yes, but for example if you read a piece of climate change from a publication owned by the fossil fuel industry, again you’re going to want to reduce your confidence in the article.
- Is there a date of publication? Fake news sites often don’t add a date of publication so people don’t realise their articles have been out for months or years. Often they’ll report on facts from years ago and without a date with slightly different language, so people share as if it’s happening today. (I’ve seen this happen within my own facebook feed multiple times).
- Are specific sources named? Legitimate news will reference institutions, reports and studies by name, as well as dates of the studies. Fake news sites will often use phrases like ‘studies say’ with no reference or naming of the actual study. The word study doesn’t mean something is backed up by evidence. In the same strain, don’t trust graphs, charts or statistics that you see just because they are numerical, as these can be somewhat altered to make certain numbers seem more drastic than they are (this is expanded further in the liturgists podcast, go have a listen!) Additionally, sometimes legitimate news will protect their sources, for example keeping them anonymous if their job is at risk, so in these cases it’s important to note that you cannot fully substantiate claims in these articles from these sources alone.
- Is the article well written? Typos, grammar mistakes, bad punctuation and all caps are all signs that you’re not dealing with trustworthy writing from a reputable institution.
- Does anything in the piece make you feel angry or afraid? If so, it’s important to look deeper into the claims made before accepting the information or sharing it, because our emotions aren’t necessarily trustworthy when it comes to analytical thinking, and fake news is designed to elicit strong emotions. Many people accept a headline without reading an article, but often even trustworthy news outlets will write sensationalist headlines in order to attract readers, so have a lil read and think before you share away. (Also, be aware of satire. If people accidentally take what is written as satire as serious news, then it can become fake news.)
- Check your own bias. This one’s a toughie, but important. We’re likely to want to believe something that lines up with beliefs we already have, even if it’s not true, and reject news that opposes those beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. If you find yourself seriously agreeing with a story simply because it lines up with your thoughts, it’s important to be diligent in discovering if it’s actually true. You can cross reference facts using sites like snopes, politifact and factcheck.org
Nowadays many politicians are calling news media fake news if it counteracts their political goals or messaging, this is not what fake news is. News media often does make mistakes or express a bias, but in recent times people have used these excuses to to label legitimate sources of journalism as fake news.
The simple truth is this: you can’t call something fake news just because you don’t like what it says.
I spoke to Guimel Sibingo, who has a masters in journalism, and she told me the following:
‘Journalism does not strive for this stoic complete hard-lined objectivity, that’s a myth. Journalism strives to present you with the best version of the truth as can be obtained in the time reported. By best version I don’t mean embellished, I mean as much truthful information as can be found. No one [from legitimate news media] is cunningly hiding information or putting up fake news or intentionally going after Trump. But if the President has been lying 90% of the time then the media will focus on fact checking him, that’s our job. If it seems we’re going hard after him it’s because he lies a lot. But people live in a post truth world where all that matter is their feelings not facts. It’s hard to face the truth.’
So now that we understand what constitutes fake news, what’s actually more important is understanding and recognising the bias of the media you are reading.
What is media bias?
Every media institution has an editorial bias, even if they report true and honest facts. This bias can be seen in how facts are presented and how stories are valued and displayed, which are editorial decisions. What makes the front page and what is ten pages in shows what the media organisation values as important and wants to get across to its readers as a priority. Understanding the bias of a source of information is incredibly important, because then we can read with this in mind, and read from various media sources from across the political and bias spectrum to remain fully informed on what is happening. This also means that a disclosed bias is often better than a media source saying it is unbiased (which is on some level impossible). Good examples of news that clearly has a bias are left leaning online sites like VOX Media and BuzzFeed, both of which do good journalism but don’t aim to be fair and balanced. They are liberal outlets and don’t try to be otherwise, and it’s important to keep that in mind.
What you can do
- Learn about Reuters and the AP, where a lot of stories are pulled from and then edited. Look further into studies, statistics and press releases that are pulled for stories too. Looking for the source of information can help you grasp the facts clearly as well as see editorial media bias in action.
- Look out for opinion buzz words, and how to have a threshold of how many are acceptable.
- Check at the top of the page for what section an article is under. Opinions and editorials are usually clearly marked and will express more bias than the news section. Most traditional newspaper news sections will be more straightforward and tell you what you need to know.
- Keep in mind that we are in an incredibly polarising time so news media and newspapers are likely to be more opinionated.
- Support trustworthy news outlets and get your news daily from them. Outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post and NPR have an option to sign up for daily emails with the day’s top news, and the New York Times now has a 15 minute podcast called The Daily which focuses on what you need to know for the day. The BBC app can also be set to send alerts to you on important news.
- Get your news from a variety of sources – don’t just rely on television or your Facebook feed. Remember that television and online media are different to reputable newspapers, magazines and public radio, so try and listen to a variety of voices when you can.
- Follow news sources from outside of your country such as Reuters, BBC, Al Jazeera for the Middle East and EuroNews. European broadcast journalism (TV) tends to be more digestible and less sensationalised than American news, for example BBC, TV France or EuroNews.
- Remember that a lot of journalists do good work, and work very had. If you feel like you can’t trust the media read, listen to, and watch stories that won Pulitzer Prizes or from organisations like Pro Pública and the Marshall Project, which contain multiple great stories that have exposed wrongs or paid homage to the human spirit. These stories often do not get read because we are too busy for them and they aren’t necessarily as clickbait-y. This American Life also tends to do a great job of telling people’s stories more than traditional news media (for example their coverage of those affected by hurricane Katrina).
- Engage with local media as well as national or international (more on this below).
Remember, whilst media organisations have a responsibility to report as best they can, you are also responsible for becoming more media literate.
It can’t all rest on reporters. Keeping a steady diet of different news outlets and reading those critically is a huge part of helping with that. Education is one of the most powerful tools we have.
Let’s talk about local media
Local media can often be forgotten in the midst of global large scale news reporting, but reading from local media sources is incredibly important and useful for several reasons:
- You can fact check their articles personally. If there’s reporting on places or leaders in your area you can go to these places, meet and talk with your local politicians.
- There a lots of great reporting coming from local newspapers, radio stations and TV which will also give you a balance. Polls have shown the animosity against media is mostly towards national media so local news helps balance the intake.
- Local is more observable and more actionable. There aren’t as many intermediaries between you and your local mayor, school board or police chief as with the national leaders and executive government. It is easier to see change happen and keep your leaders accountable when you start local.
- Focusing on impacting your local community is a better use of time and energy as it has more impact on your life. Work on education, crime, housing, etc in your local neighbourhood first. You can’t elect a new president right now, but you can help the people, friends and neighbours around you.
TL;DR – Some things to remember
– Don’t believe everything you read. Consult the fake news checklist before blindly accepting information, especially if it creates a strong response in you.
– Often news can be real but sensationalised. The fact that it’s not fake news is your first step, you still want to be skeptcical. Anything that says it’s making systemic changes, upending our understanding of the world or saying that something is now radically different deserves intense, prolonged scrutiny. The bigger the claim, the more evidence required to support it.
– Bias is inevitable. Things can still be reported factually and well, it’s just a fact of life. Take news from a variety of media sources, biases and perspectives for a balanced understanding.
– Consume media consciously and healthily, not just because you scroll past it on facebook or it’s on TV. Every organisation providing you with media is trying to capture your attention and keep you watching/reading as long as possible. Keep that in mind. We have to take responsibility for our own consumption and media literacy.
– Society, people and our problems are inherently complicated. there are no simple, quick solutions to many problems. It can be disheartening. We can’t be experts on everything, but we have to try to educate ourselves and choose what we can and will play our part in, so getting involved locally is often a great step.
– We have to care for our minds, and it’s hard to gage if our consumption of media and information is healthy. Especially in a post truth, anti intellectual world. Don’t proudly embrace ignorance, but don’t use your intelligence to look down on people. Be media literate, be educated, be involved in making your local area better, be kind.
Until next time, stay magic y’all.
Remember to listen to The Liturgists podcast on all this here.