In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the public debate surrounding so-called fake news has become ubiquitous.
Mainstream news organizations continue to highlight propaganda-masquerading-as-news in headlines. Websites have surfaced to flag it, and politicians continue to use it to camouflage controversy or damaging information.
But how does one separate the genuine facts from the fake ones during an era in which anyone can publish content online, social media spreads information (and misinformation) like wildfire and mobile phones enable consumption without regard to the original source?
Ohio State Associate Professor of Communication Gerald Kosicki suggests readers try to understand the context of news and read beyond the headlines.
“The new information is almost never enough to really understand a story,” he said. “All stories have histories and context that is often under-reported.”
Kosicki and Ohio State doctoral student George Pearson published an article in Journalism Studies in 2017 about how readers have veered away from relying on trusted media institutions, or “gatekeepers” for news products curated by journalists. Instead, they’re “way-finding” or selecting individual stories via search engines, aggregators such as Google News and social media.
Way-finding allows readers to choose information based on interests, but it also can have negative repercussions, Pearson said. He examines these ramifications more extensively in another paper, “Way-Finding and Source Blindness: How the Loss of Gatekeepers Spread Fake News in the 2016 Presidential Election,” which was presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in August 2017, but is yet to be published.
According to Pearson’s study, consuming news via aggregators, search engines and social media made readers care less about news source credibility, which increased their acceptance of misinformation.
Pearson and Kosicki gave five more tips on how to avoid being misled by fake news.
Recognize fake news.
Fake news is not a precise scientific concept, Kosicki admitted. “But the idea has penetrated public consciousness since the summer of the 2016 presidential campaign to denote totally made-up ‘news stories,’” he said.
Fake news is not unpopular news or journalistic errors but misinformation that clearly aims to deceive readers, Pearson said. This type of deception is damaging not only because it can mislead voters but because it has the potential to degrade information entirely, he said. “Something fake news purveyors would love to happen is for us not to trust anything,” he said.
Check the URL.
Even if you can easily spot fake news, you may be fooled by fraudulent websites posing as the digital pages of mainstream media. So it may be difficult to rely on a site’s design and web address, or its URL, to measure credibility.
For example, Eric Trump tweeted a fake news story during the 2016 presidential race alleging Hillary Clinton’s camp paid people to protest Donald Trump’s rallies.
“It came from this website that purported to be ABC News, but if you checked the URL, it was abcnews.com.co instead of abcnews.go.com,” Pearson said. “If there is something off about the website, just check the URL.”
Pay attention to origin.
Pearson recommended readers choose news from longstanding and reputable organizations that produce original content and are not simply aggregators. Reputable mainstream media organizations have the journalistic knowledge and resources to devote to investigative news.
The industry is also bound by a code of ethics based on accuracy and verification, Pearson said. Credibility and reputation are recognized as important for the long-term survival of mainstream media outlets.
Kosicki added that readers should research the origin of the news and verify statements if needed. “Triangulate by comparing the facts of stories about similar topics from different organizations,” he said.
Watch for bias.
Readers are more likely to believe information that conforms to their ideological perspective, Pearson said. “Be aware of things that fit your narrative very well and treat them with a hint more skepticism.”
Verify key facts.
Pulitzer Prize-winning websites such as PolitiFact.com exist to help readers debunk fake news online, Pearson said. Google key words or phrases from an article and the words “Snopes” or “PolitiFact” to check accuracy.
“News consumers online these days have a responsibility as gatekeepers themselves,” Pearson said. “If you choose to believe a piece of information you read online without further verification, don’t share it until you’ve definitely gone through this verification process.”