How to Spot Unreliable News

With the fourth quarter about to begin, 2020 has been a tough year for everybody—from the COVID-19 pandemic to social justice issues, peaceful and violent protests, economic difficulties and extreme—some would even say dangerous—partisanship at the national level.

The news media has had its hands full with an abundance of content to share with their audiences over the past nine months, and while the relationship between Americans and the news media continues to be complex, the public has given the media high marks on their coverage of COVID-19 and the protests following the killing of George Floyd.

So, what’s next 2020?
As if producing a show, conducting an interview or submitting an article by deadline during normal circumstances wasn’t hard enough, the coming three months should pose more tests for media members, who have already been through the trying experience of adapting their jobs to social distancing, while still providing us the news of the day.

With hurricane season, wildfires in the west, the dramatic final leg of the race for the White House, and its political aftermath, an open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, a long-rumored “second spike” in COVID-19 cases, continued protests and calls for social justice reform, the fate of students and teachers in school and on college campuses, the NFL and college football kicking off during a pandemic and–of course–the return of pumpkin spice, there’s going to be a lot going on, with many still at home to watch it all play out.

Stay informed, be smart
Staying informed is important, and there are many platforms to help you do so. However, in an era where breaking news is widely distributed as quickly as possible, bots and trolls roam wild on social media and biases are regularly injected into coverage, it’s critical to know how to identify reliable news sources. Here are some tips on how to do so:

Consider the Source: Seek information from a news source with a long and reputable track record. These days the internet is littered with conspiracy websites, social media pages and personal blogs that will try to frame their content and opinion as fact.

When reviewing content from an unfamiliar source, try to detect if there is a motive or bias behind their reporting. If you’re online, take a look at the writing or layout of the website. If there are odd misspellings, poor grammar or the layout is difficult to read, that should raise your suspicion. Most reputable media outlets ensure their online content is edited and well-attended to.

Identify the Author: A reputable reporter stands behind their work and is accountable for what they publish. If you come across an outlet or platform that does not list its authors or reporters, you should consider that content questionable.

Vet the Source or Author: There are easy ways to figure out if a questionable source is reputable. Do they have a verification badge on social media? Do they have a small or odd following on social media? What does a Google search on the source provide? Are they labeling news as “important” or “breaking” when no other outlets are? Be cautious— just like you would with a spoof website or suspicious email. You wouldn’t trust your personal information to someone suspicious, so why trust a suspicious source with shaping how you’re informed?

Understand Fact vs. Opinion: It’s important to know the difference between opinion and reporting. With reporting, you’re supposed to get the “who, what, where, when and why.” Real news should contain facts and insights. Columns, editorials and op-ed pieces are made for opinion. If a purported news story strays from the facts and renders opinion, start asking yourself who would present this information and why.

Follow the Money: There are two types of media companies—nonprofit and commercial. Nonprofits rely on funding from contributions, sponsorships and grants—which they regularly acknowledge. Commercial media raises revenue through advertising or subscription. If you’re unable to see where a news source gets its money, then consider the outlet’s purpose and who or what it may be serving.

Don’t Believe EVERYTHING You See: A picture is worth a thousand words, but that doesn’t mean those words are true—at least on the internet. Very often, especially on conspiracy sites and social media, photographs and videos are recycled or altered in an attempt to deceive. Beware of videos that are heavily edited and/or showing remarkable things that you’ve never seen or heard about elsewhere. If a photo seems suspicious, perform a reverse image search through Google Image. That will help you see where else the photo has been used on the internet.

If the first half of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to prepare for a potentially rocky second half. These tips should help you to identify legitimate news that will keep you informed and—hopefully—a little safer. If you ever want to investigate peculiar news or statements you’ve come across, check out factcheck.org, a nonprofit consumer advocate that monitors the factual accuracy in the U.S.

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