News Literacy Week, which runs from Jan. 24-28, has a goal of encouraging news consumers to “practice news literacy and to strengthen trust in news media by reinforcing the role of credible journalism.” The week is presented by the News Literacy Project and The E.W. Scripps Company.
This issue, of course, is at the heart of the mission of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State. Since our founding in 2018, we have worked to promote news literacy, offer strategies for identifying false news content and look for ways to bridge the trust gap between news consumer and media outlets. We also have developed a highly acclaimed program to train local students of color to become journalists in the Fresno area. We believe newsrooms should look like the communities that they cover.
We support the national News Literacy Project, and encourage news consumers to use the upcoming week to improve their skills so they are smart users of media. That includes resisting the urge to share questionable content on social media platforms, even if your favorite uncle says he got it from a reliable source.
When people share false content on social media, knowingly or unknowingly, it distorts our common conversation on important public issues. An informed citizenry is crucial to our democracy. We can’t make good collective decisions when part of our society is using false information to form their opinions. Take any political opinion you want, but base it on facts and not a social media rumor.
This quote from the News Literacy Project makes that point: “With imperfect information, we make imperfect decisions.”
News editors involved in the News Literacy Project have signed a letter asking news consumers to join them “in securing a fact-based future where we can all make the best decisions for our communities and our country.” The editors also pledged to “double down on efforts to be fair, accurate, representative and
transparent in our journalism — and crystal clear on what is opinion and analysis and what is straightforward news reporting.”
We support greater transparency in how media outlets report their news stories. By explaining the behind-the-scenes reporting process, the public can better understand the care that goes into researching and producing news stories. That will help build trust. Being secretive about how news stories come invites public skepticism.
We remain particularly concerned about the ongoing trend of many media outlets that use click-bait headlines to promote their stories. When you actually read the stories, they are nowhere as bizarre as the headlines suggested. We also oppose news outlets’ penchant for posting social media items that mislead the public into thinking a big story happened locally when it actually occurred several states away. Put the location in the headline.
Such unethical actions by news editors only serve to increase the mistrust that the public already has against the news media.
But the public also must play a bigger role in fighting misinformation. At our Media Institute, we have compiled eight tips for identifying false content you may encounter on the Internet. Check them out here:
- Look past your personal political biases. This is crucial in sorting out news content. We often believe the worst about people or politicians we despise. Those biases can blind us to what we are sharing on social media, even if there are red flags that suggest the stories may not be factual.
- Do you recognize the source of the news item? Be wary 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 or information. If it is as big a story as being promoted in the headline or share text on a social media site, surely other news outlets will have a version of the story at some point. Don’t believe those who tell you that the “mainstream media won’t report this information” because of some conspiracy among media elites. News sites are competitive and they aren’t going to ignore stories that are factual, compelling and will drive readership.
- Check the 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.
- Look at other stories on the website. Does the content pass the “smell test?” Check out the writing style. Do the stories on the site have excessive capital letters, exclamation points, obvious grammatical errors, or other oddities that suggest the content may not be reliable? Is there a range of stories, or just a handful of stories pushing a particular point of view?
- Read the “Contact Us” and “About Us” links. Are they working, and do they give information that is helpful? Can you email the story’s author, and get a response?
- Go to fact-checking sites. Use them to see what they say about the news story before you post it on social media. Try factcheck.org, politifact.com, snopes.com, or any of the many other fact-checking sites. There are hundreds. And if you have questions about the quality of a particular fact-checking site, use multiple fact-checking sites to verify the information.
- Be skeptical. It will help make you a smart news consumer. But be sure you use your skepticism to check out the facts in a thoughtful way. You have the technological tools to be a wise news consumer. Use them, and you won’t be fooled by those spreading disinformation.
We also encourage you to use the tools on the Media Literacy Week site. Don’t miss this chance to be a smarter news consumer.