In some ways, the phrase has lost all meaning in the last month or so. It entered our lexicon during the twilight of the American presidential election as partisan hacks and click-bait pushers alike shoved out endless fact-free stories to attack political opponents and make money. It undoubtedly poisons our political discourse, but the term itself is now used by anyone, from President Donald Trump to local politicians and the Twitterati, to attack any news story they don’t like and undermine the work of journalists.
Although the term “fake news” is increasingly sliding into Never Never Land, and some social media outlets like Facebook are attempting to bring fake news outlets to heel, fake news and alternative facts continue to be a vexing phenomenon in our increasingly fact-free media environment.
As a full-time journalist working at a daily newspaper, the existence of fake news is deeply troubling. Reporters at credible outlets (derisively called “the mainstream media” by those who peddle in conspiracy theories) work very hard to get their stories right. Sure, we make mistakes sometimes, but when we do, we move quickly correct the record. Most of the time, however, we get it right. It’s our job to get it right.
We check sources. Then double check them. We agonise over the language we use to ensure accuracy. We have editors review our work. We have lawyers review stories when necessary. And we respond to readers and sources who tell us we got something wrong.
It can be a gruelling process, but it is necessary, particularly in an era where newspapers are suffering wave after wave of cutbacks.
But while we toil away to get the story right, the purveyors of fake news, much like old-timey snake-oil salesmen, offer up quick and easy answers with sensational headlines designed to obscure the facts or make a quick buck. Journalists, who know people will consume their work and believe it, take their responsibility to the public seriously. Fake news creators do not.
Still, it can be difficult to filter out the fake from the real in a world where anyone can post anything online. This can be especially true when a fake news piece sounds like it could be credible and, critically, happens to conform to your political worldview.
So to help you navigate the chaos here is a short Fake News Survival Guide:
1) Ignore sensational headlines
As juvenile as they are, the insipidly sensational click-bait headlines used by fake news stories of all kinds are perhaps their greatest marketing tool. They work.
You’ve seen them everywhere. “This woman went to buy milk at 7-11, but what happen next will amaze/terrify/horrify you!”
Will it really amaze me? Really? Will it really defy all sense of reason and credulity? Five gets you 10 this is nothing more than the herald of the painfully mundane.
These sorts of headlines are typically used for banal click bait, promising a photo gallery of “never before seen” racy photos of celebrities or athletes spouses, they do often cross over into false political stories.
In December, for instance, a website calling itself ABC News, which has nothing to do with the actual ABC News, posted a story with the headline, “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge Of Allegiance In Schools Nationwide.” No such executive order existed, but the story even contained fake quotes from Obama to try and make the story seem credible.
(If you read all the way through the story, that it is fake becomes very obvious. It contains fake quotes from those debunking fake news who claim they like inaccurate information because they can make money uncovering the facts. Most people, however, didn’t read that far into the piece and it spread around the internet like a highly contagious virus.)
Credible news organizations will use headlines to draw attention to a story, but like the story itself, the headline has to be accurate. As a result, headlines on even the most dramatic stories tend to be rather conservative. Headlines tend to be short and to the point, and never carry a claim that something will amaze or horrify you.
A headline may not be the definitive tell of a fake news story, but you can safely be wary of long, sensational headlines promising an endorphin boost.
2) Check your sources
Who is posting a story? Is it a news outlet you could call or email to share your thoughts about a story? Is there an editor and reporter you can contact if a story contains an error? Does the outlet have a publication history?
Although we live in an environment where anyone can publish anything at any time (like this blog) there are ways to check the credibility of a news source.
For instance, although this my own blog, you can easily establish my credentials as a journalist. My work at the St. Catharines Standard, The Toronto Sun, The National Post, along with TV and radio appearances I have made have been public record for nearly two decades. I can be reached every week in the newsroom. Similarly, the outlets I write for can be checked with little effort.
Fake news outlets are father fly by night, popping up and vanishing. They also will use deceptive URLs to make them seem like traditional news sources. Again, using the example of the fake ABC site, it used a URL that was similar to the real ABC News, designed to make you think you are reading the real thing. A legitimate news source doesn’t want to be confused with another organization.
3) Check your sources: Part Two
Sometimes a fake news story isn’t overtly malicious in nature, but the product of non-journalists producing a story that reflects a particular political bent and are still deceptive. Never flagged as an opinion column, these stories masquerade as news but are riddled with errors.
For example, take this recent piece in Uncut that claims that Donald Trump kicked reporters out of the Oval Office for daring ask a question he didn’t like. The story claims that, after Trump signed an executive order, a pool reporter asked the president about Iran, prompting him to have all the reporters escorted out.
“His only reasoning when asked about why he booted reporters was, ‘They’re not behaving’,” the story says.
It sure sounds like something Trump might do, doesn’t it? After all, he spent his campaign and the early weeks of his presidency attempting to delegitimize journalists, such as labelling CNN as fake news and later shutting them out of interviews. A story about Trump having a fit and kicking out reporters who ask hard questions is in keeping with the image the Trump administration is building for itself. And if you don’t like Trump, the story would confirm what you already believe, making you more apt to believe it and share it on social media.
Except it didn’t happen.
Trump did, in fact, use the phrase “They’re not behaving”, but that wasn’t in reference to the news media. It was in reference to why he is imposing new sanctions on Iran following a ballistic missile test in that country. It was Iran that wasn’t behaving, not the press.
I came across the Uncut piece on my Facebook feed where it was shared by many people outraged by Trump’s behaviour and policies. Had I not taken a few minutes to check credible sources that cover the president, including CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post, I might not have known what Trump actually said.
The Uncut piece, incidentally, does not contain a correction. A responsible news outlet would not just correct record but, in a case like this, publish an apology for such a gross mistake. The writer would be suspended or fired over it.
Remember, correcting errors is a vital part of journalism. A journalist’s job is to get the story right, and that includes admitting when an error is made. Any outlet that doesn’t produce corrections isn’t one you should take seriously.
Of course, many people do not double check what they see on social media. Most often, links get shared without being read. Stories get posted if they seem to confirm the poster’s biases in many cases. This has the dual effect of spreading false information and providing fuel for the offending outlet to continue producing shoddy journalism.
It does take a little bit of energy to double check your sources, but if you want to be informed, that is what you have to do these days.
4) Read widely
They say you shouldn’t trust a man with only one book, and the same goes with news. To stay informed, you should read more than one news source.
As part of the editorial process, different outlets will choose different facts to emphasize or highlight. Some outlets, like Fox and MSNBC, tend to editorialize left or right of centre politically. But, if you follow their basic news reporting, they tend to report the same facts.
Reading multiple sources provides you with a broader perspective and help you filter out fake news.
The UnCut piece about Trump noted above is a useful example. If you read it and believed it uncritically, you’d believe something false. On the other hand, if you also read the Times, CNN, or the Associated Press, you would have discovered a different set of details. Each of these outlets emphasized different elements of the story, but they all presented the context of Trump’s quote correctly. That alone should call into question the validity of the UnCut piece.
Ultimately, we all need to stay informed in a functioning democracy, and in our current social media universe, we each need to take that responsibility upon ourselves, for no one else will.