Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How to discern facts from 'alternative facts'

By Danielle Ray
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information

In an age where it is increasingly easier to make one's news intake an echo chamber, with sources that confirm beliefs rather than inform, it's more important than ever for news consumers to identify credible and non-credible sources.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump, famously said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer had offered "alternative facts" about President Trump's inauguration, which turned out to be false. That triggered increased attention on fact checking and source credibility.

Since then, many organizations devoted to news and information have published guides to help consumers recognize phony news. The University of Kentucky Libraries launched a website titled "Breaking News: Real, Fake or Mash-up?" The site features tips consumers can use to spot fake news:

Illustratuon via University of Kentucky Libraries
Consider the source. Check out the website, the organization producing the content, its mission and its contact information.

Read further. Headlines can be outrageous to serve as "clickbait" for traffic. Don't just take the headline at its word; read the story and look for others on the same topic.

Research the author. Who wrote the story? Search to ensure that the author is real and to see what else he or she has written.

Check sources. On what is the story based? Click any links in the story to determine if they actually support the story. Look for primary sources and direct quotations. Are the sources balanced, or do they only represent one side of the issue?

Check the date. Social media makes reposting old news stories easier than ever, so knowing whether a story is timely or simply recycled could depend on the time stamp.

Consider the tone of the information. If the content seems outlandish, it could be satire, the site notes. Entertainment "news" sites like The Onion have turned news satire into an art. Check out the author and the organization producing the content to be sure.

Keep your biases in check. That unbalanced, over-the-top political news item might validate your own beliefs, but ask yourself as you're reading if you enjoy the story because it's thoroughly researched and well-reported or simply because it tells you what you want to hear.

Ask an expert. When in doubt, go to a fact-checking site like FactCheck.org, or ask a librarian, journalist or other information disseminator who practices a discipline of verification.

The aptly named CRAAP test, published by California State University at Chico's Meriam Library, focuses on five evaluation criteria: currency, relevancy, authority, accuracy and purpose.

A two-part Pew Research Center study in early 2016 revealed a public that was cautious as it moved into a more complex news environment. The study, titled "The Modern News Consumer," found that few people have much confidence in the information they get from professional outlets or friends and family, but large majorities have at least some trust in both. About 22 percent of Americans trust local news outlets a lot, according to the study. However, 60 percent of Americans reported trusting local news only somewhat. Likewise, 18 percent said they trust national news organizations a lot; 59 percent trust them somewhat.

Social media, however, earned significantly lower trust scores. Only about 4 percent of American adults said they trust a lot the news they get from social media sites. About 30 percent said they trust it somewhat.

About 75 percent of Americans said they believe the news media performs a watchdog function for political leaders, but 74 percent said they believe that news media are biased in covering political and social issues. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the news media are biased: 87 percent of conservative Republicans, 77 percent of moderate to liberal Republicans, 73 percent of liberal Democrats and 57 percent of conservative to moderate Democrats.

For those on the other side of news consumption, The Associated Press published an e-book by Adam Clement, creative content manager at AP Content Services, focusing on transparency and trust in content marketing. Clement emphasizes four key points: be upfront, think like a journalist, listen and adapt and stand for something.

AP published a story by Barbara Ortutay in December with tips, much like those from the UK Libraries, for spotting fake news and propaganda on social media. Ortutay emphasizes checking sources, getting information from more than one source and being cognizant of emojis and unusual capitalization.

"Random use of ALL CAPS? Lots of exclamation points? Does it make sense when you read it out loud? Can you imagine a TV newscaster reading it out loud? Is there something just off about it? Does it sound very angry, inflammatory, emotional? None of these are good signs," she writes.

When it comes to social media, it's often hard for news consumers to distinguish fact from fiction. Information is rampant and relentless across social media platforms, but Ortutay warns that immediate access to unlimited content isn't always a news-lover's paradise.

"Facebook users often share articles without reading them. Don't be that person," she writes. "Instead, click on the link and read the story before hitting the 'share' button."

If you believe a story to be fake, report it to Facebook for outside fact-checking by clicking the gray arrow in the upper corner and select "report this post." Facebook and Google have recently taken steps to restrict the distribution of fake or poorly sourced news.

For more information on how to spot fake news, "truthiness" and clickbait, read Merrimack College's communication and media professor Melissa Zimdars's Washington Post story about her "fake news list" that went viral here and her original guide to analyzing news sources here.

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