Updated Sept. 29, 2018
Have you ever forwarded a news item to friends on Facebook only to later learn from them that the item was phony or “fake news?” It’s embarrassing, but you can avoid sharing phony stories by taking a few simple precautions when assessing news content.
These tips are very basic tools and can help you in most situations. I use them in my advanced reporting classes at Fresno State and have shared them during speeches that I have given recently on media trends. In the past 18 months, I have participated a half-dozen times on panel discussions on fake news. In almost every public appearance, the question period starts with someone asking how to spot fake news. That led to this list.
Tips in this post are being updated as new situations arise, or when colleagues offer suggestions through their experiences and research of fake news. I welcome your ideas to improve this list. We have added context, in some cases, when commenters have raised issues. When we update a post, we specify the date of the update at the top of entry.
It’s clear that the fake news phenomenon is not going away. These tips deal with what is clearly phony news, and not news that politicians don’t like and call fake news to deflect criticism. We will deal with the latter issue at another time. But let’s get to the tips on dealing with fake news and other misinformation that is passed around the Internet.
First, look past your own personal biases. This is crucial. We often believe the worst about people or politicians we despise. Those biases can temporarily blind us to what we are sharing, even if there are red flags suggesting the stories may not be factual.
Be a smart news consumer and use critical thinking when you are considering posting stories on your social media sites. As I learned in my early days of reporting, don’t assume something is true. Check it out.
Here are some other tips that I have gathered from a variety of sources and personal experiences on how to identify fake news:
— Do you recognize the source of the news item? Be skeptical if it comes from a source that you’ve never heard of. That doesn’t mean it’s false, and it could come from an obscure but legitimate news outlet. But take extra time to confirm the facts on sites you may not recognize.
— Use search engines to see if anyone else is reporting this particular story. If it is as big a story as being promoted in the headline or share text on a social media site, surely some other news outlet will have a version of the story.
— Check the actual link in your browser. Many fake news sites try to mimic actual news sites. The link might have a slight variation from the legitimate news site. If the link looks odd, that’s another red flag.
— Are there other stories on that particular website, and what is their tone? Does the content pass the “smell test?” Check out the writing style. Do the stories on the site have excessive capital letters, exclamation points, grammatical errors, or other oddities that suggest the content may not be reliable?
— Use a search engine to check out the author to see if the byline is from an actual person. Check the “Contact Us” or “About Us” links to see if they are working. Try emailing the writer to ask questions about the content.
— There are many reliable fact-checking sites. Use them to see what they say about the story before you post it on social media. Try factcheck.org, snopes.com, politifact.com, or other non-partisan fact-checking sites. Propublica.org was recently recommended to us. And if you have questions about the quality of a particular fact-checking site, use multiple sites to verify the information.
— Finally, always be skeptical. It will help make you a smart news consumer.
One of the reactions I received from these tips is that it takes work to determine if a news story is legitimate. It does take a few extra steps, but the payback is worth the effort. You can be confident knowing you are passing on news items that are real.
Jim Boren, a longtime California journalist, is the Executive Director of the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust.