Information, misinformation, real news, fake news, propaganda, and how to tell the difference
Why should I care?
Why should I care about whether my news is real or false?
- You deserve the truth. You are smart enough to make up your own mind—as long as you have the real facts in front of you. And you have every right to be insulted when you read fake news, because it means someone wants to manipulate you.
- False news destroys your credibility. If your arguments are built on bad information, it will be much more difficult for people to believe you in the future.
- Fake news can hurt you and a lot of other people. Purveyors of false and misleading medical advice like Mercola.com and NaturalNews.com help perpetuate myths like “vaccines cause autism.” These sites are heavily visited and their lies are dangerous.
- Real news can benefit you. Before buying something expensive, you want evidence of its quality. Before voting, you want authentic information on a candidate so you can choose the person who best represents your ideas and beliefs. Fake news won’t help you spend your money wisely or make the world a better place, but real news can.
[Indiana University East]
What’s the problem?
“Our desire for quick answers may overpower the desire to be certain of their validity.”
Academic news sources
If you are researching current issues at Whatcom Community College Library, these databases are a good source of current news and issues.
Opposing Viewpoints (Gale In Context): Pro/Con articles on a variety of issues; includes statistics, and supporting reference and periodical sources.
US Newsstream: Search the most recent premium U.S. news content, as well as newspaper archives, wire services, broadcast transcripts, and blogs. National and regional sources.
News Quality Chart
Arranges major news sources by:
- where they fall on the left-right ideological bias continuum, and
- “quality” (level of detail, analysis, implications vs. simplicity, sensationalism, self-promotion).
To see entire chart, click image.
Reasoning behind the chart—
“Often, verbal and written discussions about news sources are limited to descriptions of sources as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and ‘biased’ and ‘unbiased.’ This chart allows for a few more dimensions to the conversation.” [Vanessa Otero, Attorney. “All Generalizations Are False”. Dec 2016]
The new edition of the chart focuses on a rigorous definition of news as “fact reporting.” Other sources on the chart are arranged along a continuum that includes analysis, opinion, and sources to be avoided.
Note: Otero’s chart is a reflection of her own interpretation. The comments accompanying the chart make for a useful study of people’s interpretation of news quality. Otero also provides a blank chart for you to arrange your own sources.
Value of news analysis
“A news analysis is an evaluation of a news report that goes beyond the represented facts and gives an interpretation of the events based on all data. It is an effort to give context to the occurrence of the event.” [reference.org]
News commentary or analysis can help you discover the big picture or further implications—as long as it is labeled as opinion. Newspapers and other news aggregators often have a regular column for editorials and other opinion pieces.
Note: news analysis and opinion pieces are not news but a person’s or organization’s point of view. Learn the facts relevant to the topic first, then explore the commentary.
Why read news analysis?
- To balance your reading, if typically you read news from one end or the other of the political spectrum.
- To gain perspective on complex or confusing news issues.
How to evaluate news analysis
- Several, credible sources.
- Quotations from relevant government officials or other primary sources.
- Authors with a journalism background or affiliated with a journalistic institution.
- A minimum of inflammatory language.
Note: Generally, news analysis is not news itself but reflects an editorial board’s point of view.
Types of fake news
There are four broad types of false news.
- Fake, false, or regularly misleading websites that are shared on Facebook and social media. May rely on “outrage” with distorted headlines and out-of-context or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares, and profits.
- Websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information.
- Websites that sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions.
- Satire or comedy sites, which can offer important critical commentary on politics and society but have the potential to be shared as actual, literal news.
[Melissa Zimdars, Merrimack College]
Symptoms of fake news
As you read, note:
- Inflammatory words in title or text
- Un-verifiable sources, or no facts
- Authors who are neither experts nor journalists
- Extensive use of adjectives
- Poor grammar, spelling, punctuation, or sentence sense
- Copycat URLs (like “abcnews.com.co”)
- Content/ideas that can’t be found at any other news outlet.
Spotting Fake News
There are many parallels between evaluating research and evaluating the news you read. But false news can be more difficult to identify, partly because of your intent: you may not be engaging in deliberate, targeted research. Instead, often you simply encounter the items on your facebook page, news website, or news feed.
Spotting Fake News: Facebook and Web
Questions: What News to Trust
What type of content is this?
News story? Opinion piece? Comment, reaction? Ad, native advertising? Produced by a news organization, think tank, political group, corporation? Look up the organization.
Who and what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
Look for sources and check their background.
What’s the evidence and how was it vetted?
What proof do the sources offer for what they know? Look for a method of corroboration.
Is the main point proven by the evidence?
Does the main point make sense? Do the conclusions follow logically? Could the same evidence support a different interpretation?
Is a part of the story omitted that seems a logical element?
Am I learning every day what I need to know?
Is this website or newsletter covering the topics I need more information on? Am I looking elsewhere to fill in the gaps?
American Press Institute is an educational non-advocacy non-profit organization. Its mission is to help the news industry fulfill the purpose of the Constitution’s First Amendment: to sustain a free press in the public interest.
[Tom Rosenstiel, American Press Institute, Oct 2013]
When you start to read anything, develop the habit of asking, “Why did the author write this?” What is s/he trying to accomplish?–
- Inform, for general benefit?
- Build consensus?
- Ridicule, manipulate, harm?
- Generate clicks?
- Provoke outrage?
[Indiana University East and dailydot]
Non-partisan fact-check sites
Test yourself on issues like disability, body weight, Arab-Muslim, weapons, race, age, etc., and learn a bit about your own bias. Created by Project Implicit, a non-profit that educates the public about hidden biases and provides a “virtual lab” for collecting data on the internet. A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
A crowd-driven rating engine (you can vote) for authors, news media, and policy groups. Includes discussions of bias and help for engaging in non-biased dialogue. Allsides is an enterprise whose mission is to “free people from filter bubbles so they can better understand the world and each other.”
Which news organization is the most trusted? A report on political polarization in the media shows that trust and distrust in the news media varies greatly by political ideology. Which is most trusted? The answer is complicated. [Pew Research Center, Oct 2014]
Hoaxy: Visualize the spread of claims and fact checking. Beta. [Indiana University]
“Thoughts on Information Literacy” A library educator’s reflections on teaching information literacy and gauging credibility.
Presents findings about how a sample of U.S. college students gather information and engage with news in the digital age. Findings suggest young adults believe news is valuable and many see social media as an important channel for giving them a voice. The new digital environments and political reality make successful navigation through the wealth of material extremely difficult. Five takeaways for educators, journalists, and librarians, as well as six recommendations to make students effective news consumers.
[Project Information Literacy, Oct 2018. Head, A., et al.]
Assessed students’ abilities to judge the credibility of information on their electronic devices. Rubrics for middle school, high school, and college students. Stanford History Education Group is a consortium of Stanford academics that sponsors research and visiting scholars exploring historical understanding and how history is taught and learned.
[Stanford University, Nov 2016. Wineburg, S.,et al.]
A lucid, accessible article probing the heart of critical analysis. “The goal is not to memorize a list [of questions], but to develop a thoughtful approach. Becoming critical about statistics requires being prepared to ask questions about numbers.” Lists useful lines of questioning to encourage thinking about how information is produced. Highly suitable for students to read. (Requires WWU sign-in)
[Chronicle of Higher Education, May 2001. Best, Joel]
Resources from an interdisciplinary research initiative dedicated to resisting strategic misinformation, promoting an informed society and strengthening democratic discourse.
[University of Washington]
How Journalists Verify Sources
Verifying news items in the digital age: examples of how journalists determine authenticity of images and videos, especially through context clues.[Nolan Markham. Ted Ed. Nov 2012]
The Center is committed to teaching students how to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and news sources. Weekly lesson, curriculum toolbox, more resources.