As a working journalist and a master’s candidate at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, it’s infuriating to see my friends and family share stories from untrustworthy, tilted “news” sources. Unfortunately, since a new president has just taken office, the odds of articles with dubious claims and misinformation circulating through social media are even higher than usual.
More Americans get their news from social media rather than trusted news outlets, according to Pew Research. Although Americans can access news from more sources than ever before, they tend to consume their news in echo chambers that only reaffirm their own beliefs instead of providing multiple viewpoints in their reporting.
As such, it’s not surprising that the one-in-five Americans who get their news primarily through social media are often less informed and less engaged than their counterparts. And while two-thirds of Americans have reportedly seen their news sources favor one side over the other, that hasn’t changed the pattern of Americans still relying on questionable news sources they find on social media.
To be fair, social media outlets have done a much better job of stopping misinformation lately. Twitter, Facebook and other popular platforms even took the unprecedented step ofbanning or limiting Donald Trump’s accessto their platforms.
Nonetheless, algorithms can’t halt the spread of all biased, unsubstantiated news sources. Even if they could, smaller news conglomerates that most commonly spread fake or biased news often re-emerge under new names after they’re shut down.
How to spot fake news
If you’re increasingly worried about whether the media you’re consuming is biased or fake, there are some easy questions you can ask yourself before hitting “like,” “retweet” or “share.”
1. Do you recognize the site?
This is the most basic question you can ask yourself to eliminate some rather obvious sources of biased news. Is it published by CNN, NBC, The Washington Post, The New York Times or another well-known organization? If it is, the chances are high that the article will be pretty well-balanced, although there are instances where even highly praised organizations mess up.
However, determining what organization is really behind an article may be more difficult than you think. Some fake news organizations willrecreate or steal popular news organizations’ logos or branding so they appear more legitimate, such as abcnews.com.co. Others may simply advertise themselves aslocal news organizations by stealing legitimate articles from actual local news and sprinkling in their own fake stories.
If you don’t recognize the site, do some initial research. If it isn’t a cloned site, does its name suggest it’s slanted? Online news outlets often have names containing words like liberal, conservative, right, left or other political leanings. This isn’t to be confused with news sources that target specific, niche audiences, such as women, BIPOC or LGBT+ communities.
In the case of outlets with a niche audience, that fact alone doesn’t mean the article itself won’t provide a balanced perspective. Nonetheless, a publication’s name can say a lot about what types of views and content you may expect to see.
If you’re still unsure about a news source, check with a media bias chart online to see if the outlet has a particular slant, such as democratic or republican. Allsidesand Ad Fonte produce the most popularly used charts.
2. Is the headline clickbait?
Does the title call out a well-known person? Does it hint at a seemingly shocking or scandalous situation without saying what it is? Does it seem to pass judgment on a person or event? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then the chances are that the article will be biased and uninformative, even if it is entertaining clickbait.
“You won’t believe what Trump got caught doing!” and “AOC pushes socialist agenda again” are meant to tantalize and spark a would-be reader’s curiosity. But these scandalous titles often accompany entertainment or tabloid pieces, not hard news.
3. Is there an author?
Not having a clear author should always raise red flags. Often, this is a sign that what you’re about to read isn’t original reporting but rather an editorialized take on the news. Instead of breaking news, some outlets simply summarize what’s already been said and instead focus on their own spin on the event.
Note that some news articles may not have an author if they’re briefs or breaking news stories. If you’re unsure, wait and see if the publication either updates the article or publishes a follow-up as the newsroom learns more information about the situation.
4. Are there quotes?
As previously noted, a plethora of online outlets don’t do original reporting. These outlets will either just summarize events that already happened or assume in the article that the reader has already heard the news.
Not doing one’s journalistic due diligence by reaching out to relevant and expert sources is often a sign of fake news. Outlets commonly forgo quotes if they fear reaching out to experts may undermine their editorialization. As such, instead of reaching out to sources as credible outlets do, the article may instead use unclear attributions, such as “sources say,” or none at all.
5. Who’s quoted or referenced?
If the article you’re reading does include quotes, take a look at who’s quoted. Does the article only have quotes that seem to match the author’s take on the situation? Is there a diversity of voices, such as different genders, ethnicities and races? Are they expert sources or just random people the author interviewed off the street?
If an article quotes only people with the same viewpoint, you won’t get the full perspective of the issue at hand. Look for articles that provide diverse sources instead of just repeating and reaffirming the same view over and over again.
6. Does the article discuss counter-views?
Just as the sources giving quotes should be diverse, so too should what those sources are actually saying. Does the author interview people who have different takes on the issue at hand? Are officials from all sides of the topic given a voice in the story?
There is a caveat to this rule, though. When something has been scientifically proven as true, the author should not give a prominent platform to those who disagree with facts. Common examples of this are articles about COVID-19, flat Earthers, climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists.
To be clear, it is important for the author to acknowledge these dissenting groups; however, they should be clearly stated as fringe beliefs as opposed to factually based arguments. Giving these points of view more attention than a passing aside can lead to false equivalency, which is a major cause of misinformation.
Nonetheless, there is a way to call out these fringe beliefs without resorting to name-calling or being argumentative. Unbiased authors acknowledge these groups responsibly by also citing experts and statistics that refute any baseless information these voices introduce to the story.
7. Is it editorialized?
How many adjectives and adverbs does the author use? Are they employing words like “very” and “excellent” outside of quoting sources directly? After reading the article, do you have an overwhelmingly clear view of what the author thinks about the issue or person discussed?
Loaded language is one of the clearest indicators of a biased news source. Calling something great, splendid and wonderful is a clear sign of bias in favor of something. Being overtly negative, such as using words like “terrible” and “dumb,” also are a sign that the author could be biased against the article’s subject.
When using this question to evaluate an article, double-check that what you’re reading is indeed an article and not an editorial or opinion piece. I often see major publications share work from their columnists and have commenters decry the piece as fake news.
In reality, opinions are a key feature of most news outlets, and most of them are written by experts or others who have a unique and beneficial take on an issue. Nonetheless, these pieces are just that: opinions, not fact-checked hard news articles.
Most reputable outlets will keep their editorial and opinion departments separate. As such, the article or opinion should be clearly labeled as such and shouldn’t affect how the organization approaches its hard news stories. Be wary of websites that don’t clearly differentiate opinions from hard news.
8. What are commenters saying?
When all else fails, you can always check the website or social media comments under the post to determine if a piece is biased. Often, people will call out fake or biased news in the comments.
If you see many comments indicating an article is biased, the odds are that the source is indeed biased. That’s especially true if you find a lot of commenters who link to official sources or more well-known news organizations that provide opposing or contrary reports to the one represented in the article you’re questioning.
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