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Question everything: Journalism in the age of fake news
Tips for verifying accurate information and ethical storytelling on the internet.
Aspiring journalists and informed citizens today will find locating reliable, accurate sources of information to be especially difficult. Unlike vintage research practices which relied on printed encyclopedias and scholarly journals for information, Google and other search algorithms prioritize website performance, content freshness & popularity over accuracy. While this has empowered many journalists who did not have a platform previously, and has made information more readily available to the general public, it has also led to misinformation spreading like wildfire. Social media platforms have become the gasoline to that wildfire, since posts can be promoted by purchasing an ad regardless of that posts accuracy. Online, a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truth. This makes purchasing a social media ad a very good investment if you’re looking to spread fake news.Conspiracy theories have been around well before the internet. I can imagine it must have been more difficult to debunk a conspiracy theory back then. However, now that we have the world at our fingertips, there is no excuse to just blindly believe whatever you hear. The results of that laziness can be dangerous. “Conspiracy theories cause real harm to people, to their health, and also to their physical safety”, according to the UNESCO Director-General. “They amplify and legitimize misconceptions and reinforce stereotypes which can fuel violence and violent extremist ideologies”. In 2020, we saw a rise in conspiracy theories related to the Covid-19 pandemic, and vaccine efficacy as well. Considering the social distancing restrictions during this time, one could deduce that these conspiracy theories and misinformation about the pandemic were not spread by word of mouth. This wouldn’t be a good article on verifying information if we just took that assumption as fact. According to a study by the PEW research center, 64% of US adults say social media has a mostly negative effect on this country today. Roughly three-in-ten (28%) of those respondents cite misinformation and made-up news as the reason. Just because the internet and social media offers a convenient method for research and information sharing, doesn’t mean it is all bad. Here are some ways to fact check online information for yourself and become an ethical news source for your network.
1. Is all content created equal?
According to Social Media Today, videos get more views, engagement and response than any other social posting option (text, links, photo or audio). If you are guilty of enjoying videos more than reading articles, you’re not alone. YouTube ranked highest (59%) as a preferred learning tool among Gen Z participants in a 2018 Pearson Global Research & Insights study. This is not surprising considering that YouTube is perceived as the fastest learning method available today. The important word in that last sentence is perceived. Keep in mind that anyone with a free Google account can create and upload videos. Similarly, podcasts can be added to iTunes and Spotify for free. Just because a video takes a long time and some skill to produce, does not mean the author or host adheres to ethical journalistic standards. You should fact check and scrutinize information from multimedia content the same way you do for print.
2. Question the author’s authority on the subject matter
When consuming content that you find online, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is the author of this article?
- Have they created other content?
- What are their credentials and how do those credentials make this person an expert on the subject matter?
Even the most well-researched article or documentary from the expert authority on that subject matter is not completely free from bias. Whereas the author should not be presenting information that is their opinion as fact without labeling it as such, they are still conducting the interview and writing the final piece. So there is danger that the author’s biases and opinions could skew the article itself. For instance, in a video interview, try to decipher if it was heavily edited. You can do this by looking for multiple camera angles, which gives the opportunity to cut out or piece together soundbytes. If the full unedited version of the interview is available, watch it. Short teaser clips are commonly used to promote content on social media, but it also makes it easy to take people’s words out of context.
3. Question the content sources
If an article is written with not one outside source, quote or data set, that’s a pretty good clue that it’s just an opinion piece. Opinions are not fact. Look for hyperlinks in articles and click on those hyperlinks to ensure that a research study or other data source is legitimate. A common sleight of hand with fake news is to use lots of quotes rather than actual studies or data. A quote-heavy article with just one interview is a red flag, but you can apply the same verification methods as you did with the author, to the person that author is quoting in the article. Just copy and paste the name of a quoted source and look them up on LinkedIn or as a general web query. Does this person have expertise in the subject matter they are speaking on?
4. Any facts or figures should be specific and cited to a source
You should always double-check any specific information in an article before sharing it. This may seem time-consuming and may limit the amount of content you consume. However as you get familiar with the journalistic standards of a certain news organization or author, you'll start to know who you can trust. Bonus points if you can click on the name of a study or a website directly from the article, the way I do in the first two paragraphs of this article. When an author hyperlinks a part of their article to another website, they are essentially providing you with the citations for where they found that information. Unfortunately, this means that Instagram is not an ideal source for news. Instagram only allows a link in the profile bio for everyday users. Any image you see with text or information on it, that does not specifically cite the source either in the picture or in that picture’s description, is likely just opinion. It is not easily verifiable information and you should fact check that post before sharing.
5. Content should be fair and balanced
Always beware of an author who takes a definitive stance without providing two sides to the story. Journalistic content should present point and counter point, with equal research so that you can make up your own mind. While headlines may benefit from being shocking (clickbait), the article, video or podcast itself should have more substance.
6. Question yourself
The Guardian defines unconscious bias as “situations where our background, personal experiences, societal stereotypes and cultural context can impact our decisions and actions without us realising.” We can all benefit from questioning why we believe certain things to be true. For instance, I used to think that articles from newspapers were more legitimate than multimedia content such as videos or podcasts. When I started creating videos and podcasts though, I realized that this is not the case. In fact, it takes me just a few hours to write an article whereas creating a video or podcast can take days. The additional time that goes into creating video doesn’t let multimedia content off the ethical hook. Production time & effort does not correlate with legitimacy of information. My own bias, when questioned, proved to be nonsensical.How many of your own biases can be debunked if you just take a few minutes to question them? Enjoy the crossword puzzle below based on this article.