Four Kinds of News Sites
1-Quality news brands(like the New York Times and the BBC) have earned their reputations over time as consistently reliable news sources. Savvy news readers don’t expect as much from 2-inconsistent outletsthat sometimes show bias but are not “fake” (such as Huffington Post, Fox News). Then there are 3-satirical news sources(The Onion and Clickhole). The articles and videos are intentionally fake but intended to be funny or make a point. They aren’t intended to fool anyone. 4-Fake news sites deliberately fabricate stories. These articles are packaged as legitimate journalism and may mix some truth with outright lies in order to deceivereaders or gain clicks.
Google Searches for “Fake News”
Google Searches for “Fake News” by Region
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics encourages journalists to “seek truth and report” and “be accountable and transparent” while doing it. Looking for these qualities is an effective way to separate the fake and the real.
What Fake News is Not
Some people will mislabel rumors, hoaxes, and real news stories they don’t like as “fake news.” Another area of confusion are stories that result from mistaken or bad journalism.
Sometimes CNN, FOX, and Associated Press (AP) all get it wrong. Sometimes new information changes the basic understanding of what is known publicly. You wouldn’t call this fake news since the motivation of posting the original but mistaken information wasn’t to deceive. Cutbacks that leave newsrooms with fewer reporters and editors make it more likely news sites will get it wrong even when they are trying their best to get it right. The shift from legacy media like newspapers to digital has left the news industry scrambling to figure out how to financially support quality journalism.
Between the pressure to meet quotas and competition with other publications, writers often don’t get the necessary time to craft thoughtful and nuanced stories—or possess the power to reject an assignment over concerns about amplification.
Inaccurate details, such as reporting that four people are dead in a plane crash instead of six, can be the result of an honest mistake. The wrong number might be heard or written down.
During times of breaking news, information will quickly shift as it trickles into news organizations. It takes time to get a clear picture of what’s happening. Sometimes law enforcement officials or public relations professionals get the story wrong themselves and send out inaccurate information. At those times, news organizations are simply repeating mistakes. This is most likely to happen when there is only one source of information available when a story breaks.
It’s worth noting that the approach of legacy news organizations (Washington Post, CNN) differs from new media outlets (BuzzFeed News, Politico). Traditional outlets aim at objectivity or neutral-voice reporting, where the focus is on being balanced, keeping the journalist’s opinions out of reports. Many recently launched news sites are more likely to focus on immediacy and transparency over neutrality, as well as updating readers whenever more information is known. Each approach presents different weaknesses for reporters to overcome.
The bottom line: be skeptical and bring a critical mind with you to everything you read.
Here are some tips for determining if a story is probably reliable. An organization does not need to tick off all these qualifiers in order to be authentic and accurate, but the more red flags suggest a heathy skepticism is in order.
CLUES FROM THE WRITING
1. ORIGINAL REPORTING. Is this source likely to know this information? Does the news organization have reporters attending news conferences in person, working in cities where the news is happening and talking to key sources directly? Or does the organization have to rely on second-hand information from other sites?
2. LONE-WOLF REPORTING. Compare the information with other sites you trust. Are these sites reporting the same information? It’s possible the site might have a scoop, but a lack of multiple independent accounts means it is more likely that the story is false. Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of writer and producer bias within a company or the result of the particular focus of the outlet (which may include not offending certain sponsors or other companies owned by the same parent company). Typically, you should expect more than one source reporting on an important topic or event. Plus, it’s always best to read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints and media frames.
3. AP STYLE. Most legitimate news organizations will use the AP Stylebook as a writing guide (no Oxford comma, full name on first reference and only last name thereafter, etc.). Some organizations have developed their own style guides (New York Times, Wall Street Journal,etc.) and most news organizations use an in-house style guide (to deal with writing issues that are unique to the publication’s area of reporting).
4. POOR GRAMMAR. When a writer makes obvious grammatical mistakes they also may not have taken the time to make sure the facts in the article are accurate.
5. ADJECTIVES & ADVERBS. Objective journalism avoids adjectives and adverbs. The more of them used in an article, the more you should question whether the goal of the writer is to inform you or to convince you of something.
6. BALANCE. Does the article quote, not only more than one side in a dispute, but experts as well? A he-said-she-said story without the opinions of experts in the field is weak reporting. And when there’s only a single source, be hesitant to accept the information outright.
7. OBJECTIVE. Like the scientist aiming to discover the truth, having some bias does not mean a journalist cannot arrive at the truth through a tested and effective approach (as does the scientific method, despite the bias of the researcher). The complaint that “no one can really be objective” misses the point that it’s not the journalists themselves but the articles that need to be objective. Someone with biases can still put together a “neutral” article.
8. OPINION. Is the article part of an opinion section? Does the video feature a commentator? Commentary has a long history of having a part inside the pages of newspapers, but many readers confuse an editorial article with news reporting. The same can happen online or on TV news. There’s no need for an opinion piece to be neutral in its presentation. Just don’t confuse it with a unbiased news piece.
9. DOXING. Doxing is making private information public in order to hurt a person or organization. If writer suggests anything like doxing, run the other way.
10. EMBEDDED LINKS. Quality journalism values clarity over style. Links in the article to original source material shows a commitment to transparency and allows readers can make up their own minds about how it was used.
11. SPONSORED CONTENT. Some news organizations will publish articles similar to what they normally publish—only in this case the material is sponsored by an advertiser. The intention could be to provide legitimate information about a subject while at the same time promoting the advertiser's product. Sometimes referred to as native advertising, reputable publishers will identify the article as “sponsored content” in a prominent location.
12. LOCAL REPORTING. If the story involved a particular locale, was local expertise included? Was the reporting conducted on the scene?
13. YOUR REACTION. Be sensitive to occasions when you become angry as you read an article. If you are outraged after reading something, the story may be written to manipulate your emotions.
CLUES AROUND THE ARTICLE
14. OUTRAGE HEADLINES. Fake news outlets have found stories that make the reader angry can generate more shares. The use of ALL CAPS is a red flag.
15. HYPERBOLIC HEADLINES. Hyperbolic headlines, claiming you’ll “never believe” the article’s epic content, suggest you shouldn’t click.
16. AUTHOR ATTRIBUTION. Lack of author attribution can mean the news story is suspect. Some respected sites, such as The Economist, doesn’t typically identify its writers, but that’s an exception to the rule. Nearly all quality news outlets identify the writer of each article.
17. AUTHOR CREDENTIALS. Look for other articles by the same author by Googling the person’s name. Have they produced legitimate writing for legitimate news outlets? Their credentials and backgrounds are a guide to the quality of work they are likely to produce as well as the quality of the news outlet you are considering. If the story is about a specialized area, such as health or science, it’s a bonus if the author regularly writes about the subject because the person is also likely to possesses basic knowledge of that particular area.
18. SUPPORTING PHOTOS. Do accompanying photos visually back up the story’s claims? Do the images even relate to the headline and content?
19. FUNNY PHOTOS. Are photos cropped oddly or taken from some strange angle? Does it appear the photographer was deliberately trying to avoid showing something in the shot? Legit news organizations avoid picking unflattering photos that might bias the reader unless that’s part of the story. This goes for distorted images as well, taken very close to a subject to emphasize someone’s age or physical characteristics. When a site shows a politician or celebrity’s face contorted or just plain goofy in a photo, it’s a subtle attempt to affirm your negative impression of that person and cue you that the article will fit your bias.
20. MISLEADING GRAPHS. Look closely at any graphs related to an article. Using plot points that misinterpret data can skew the results displayed in the image. Axes should always have labels.
21. BAIT & SWITCH. Reliable websites respect readers by avoiding discrepancies between the headline and the story. Teases designed to trick readers into clicking is a sure sign of a disreputable organization. Reputable sites deliver on the headline’s promise and do not frustrate readers by holding back information in the headline.
CLUES FROM THE ADDRESS
22. DOT-GOV. Does the site have a dot-gov address? Generally, data provided by government organizations is trustworthy.
23. DOT-EDU. Does the site have a dot-edu address? Generally, data provided by university research laboratories is reliable.
24. LO & DOT-CO. Websites ending with odd letters like “lo” (such as “Newslo”) or “.co” could be a red flag for fake news sites.
25. COM.COM. Another way to try to trick readers is to add a “com” so the web address almost looks right. For instance “USATodaycom.com.”
26. COUNRY-CODE TOP-LEVEL DOMAINS. The end of some website addresses is a clue to the site’s originating country. For instance, “dot-au” means the site is based in Australia and “dot-ng” means the site is based in Nigeria. If you find a supposed article about your community on a website coming from a country far away, it probably means the writer isn’t likely to have access to the necessary sources to write a competent story.
27. ODD NAMES. Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.
CLUES FROM THE SITE
28. ABOUT. Check the site’s “about”page for information about who is behind the operation. If you aren’t familiar with the name, look for information about who owns it. For instance, the Russian government owns the RT network. What bias you can expect from its news coverage.
29. DATES. Look for a date on the page to make sure the story is not outdated. Reliable sources want readers to know when the information is posted and will usually have the date clearly displayed near the headline.
30. WEB DESIGN. Poor web design is a red flag. Is the design out of date when compared to other reputable sites? Is the display navigable and professional?
31. CORRECTIONS .Does the site make corrections as it receives new information and does it make those corrections obvious? Typically, a note will be added to the top or bottom of a news article when even a factual change is made to a story. In a print or broadcast story, the original error should be clearly state along with the correct information.
32. OTHER ARTICLES. Look for information you know to be false in other articles on the site. Does the site offer quality information on other topics besides the one you are investigating.
33. LINKS. More clues can be found by conducting a Goaccess to the original source material so readers can make up their own minds about how it was used. ogle search, using the query “link: website name.” This will indicate what kind of other sites link to the one you are inspecting. If reliable websites refer its readers to the site, that’s a good sign.
34. COMMUNITY POSTS. Some sites allow bloggers to post pieces under the banner of the news brand (ex: BuzzFeed Community Posts, Kinja blogs, Forbes blogs). The site editors typically do not vet these posts, making the material suspect.
35. PREVIOUS FAKE NEWS. Do Snopes, Wikipedia, or other such sites show the website in question as having a connection to spreading false information in the past? While Wikipedia is generally pointed in the right direction but can contain some questionable information, the links to other sites it provides can be invaluable in the hunt for truth.
CLUES FROM THE PUBLISHER
36. REPUTATION. Is the writer’s reputation at stake if they are wrong? Does the organization risk loss of reputation or loss of finances if it becomes known for having promoted false news?
37. RELIABILITY.Has the organization been reliable in the past? Have you read other information from the organization was confirmed to be accurate?
38. AMATEURISH. Data collected by an amateur is more error-prone than data collected by a professional scientist. Does a quick web search confirm whether the people who collected and organized the data have a good track record of collecting and distributing data.
39. RESPONSE TO CRITICS. Does the publisher respond publicly to its critics when there are reasonable questions? Does it acknowledge when the critics have a point?
40. DATA SOURCES. Look closely at the sources of data the publisher uses: is this material provided by for-profit companies, partisan organizations, or advocacy groups? While it is possible the material is accurate, data from groups with agendas require greater scrutiny than data from nonpartisan organizations.
41. PAYING THE WRITERS. Content Farms (or Content Mills, if you like) pay very little in return for lots of writing. When news writers are focused on cracking out material to feed the beast, the quality of the work suffers. If you discover a site is considered a Content Farm by professionals or pays writers very little for their work, that’s a big red flag.
42. DIVERSE VOICES. Does the news organization offer diverse perspectives in its articles? A professional outlet will make a concerted effort to give voice to various ethnicities and political persuasions. The more a newsroom focuses on a single viewpoint the greater the likelihood it will leave out significant perspectives from its news converge.
43. FEEDBACK. Reputable news publishers want readers’ feedback on stories for accuracy and look for help in determining coverage priorities.
44. AGREEMENT. Do you find yourself agreeing with everything your preferred news outlet says? If so, something is wrong. Find a commentator whose politics don’t match with your own—vary your media consumption to get a balance of perspectives.
45. EASY STORIES. If news outlet overlooks stories worth telling in favor of the stories that can be easily told, it may not have the resources to dive into investigative reporting or may not have the goal of getting beyond low-hanging fruit.
CLUES FROM OUTSIDE THE SITE
46. YOUR COMMUNITY. There’s no substitute for knowing people who are well-informed and will let you know when you’ve posted something questionable. These are people you can ask when you have your doubts. Don’t know any experts researchers, or information junkies from various fields who are critical and helpful? Make some new friends! Developing such a support system is critical for navigating effectively through life. Read some books written by experts.
47. FACT-CHECKING SITES. Does a fact-checking site identify the assertion of the article as a hoax? Check one of the sites listed at the end of this article or type the topic of the article into a search engine and add “hoax” or “fake.”
KNOW YOUR OWN WEAKNESSES
These biases are broad tendencies, rather than fixed traits or universal behavioral laws. They are not uniformly shared by everyone. Plus, there are multiple influences resulting in a given behavior.
1. FALSE MEMORIES. Studies have shown we are susceptible to false memories. We selectively remember our own experiences, much less historical and cultural events. Planting fake memories has become easier these days with AI-enhanced photo and video forgeries on the internet.
2. CONFIRMATION BIAS. We tend to seek information that confirms what we already believe to be true. Ask yourself: Do I want to believe this report, not because it is well sourced and reported, but because it fits with what I already believe?
3. CORRELATION VS CAUSATION. Just because events or statistics have a connection doesn’t mean you can assume one causes the other.
4. WE OVERVALUE NARRATIVE. Adding a story to a fact increases the likelihood that people will believe it—even when the story narrows the likelihood of it being true. We like tidy stories, not ambiguity.
5. FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS. As the title of Nassim Taleb’s best seller suggests, we are fooled by randomness. Human tend to read meaning into the unexpected and the improbable, even where there is none.
6. OVERSIMPLIFICATION. To avoid conflict and uncomfortable thinking, we oversimplify to reduce tension. Soon, one side looks good and the other is dismissed as evil.
7. SUNK COST FALLACY. We hang on to a course of action or idea when we have invested in it, even when circumstances and reasoning show we should abandon it.
8. GOOGLE-SEARCH RELIANCE. Google is not neutral. When you Google something, the algorithms isn’t weighing facts but other factors, such as your search history. Google tailors your results to what you want—or what the search engine “thinks” you want. Because of this personalization, you are probably getting different results than the person sitting next to you. Be critical of search engines as you are critical of the media. Don’t assume the first link or the first page that comes up when you Google something is the best answer to your question.
Know Your Fake/Satirical Sites
Empire News The Reporterz React365
Stuppid News Examiner Associated Media
Naha Daily The Stately Harold National Report
NC Scooper Huzlers Empire News
NewsBuzzDaily Now8News Satira Tribune
Empire Herald The Daily Currant CAP News
NewsBiscuit Call the Cops World News Daily Report
Protip: If you see a fake or very bias story in your Facebook feed, block the source from showing up again.
Know Your Fact-Checking Sites
Tools for Spotting Fake News:
Facterbot - This Facebook Messenger chatbot aimed at delivering fact checks.
Botcheck -A Chrome extension that suggests whether a Twitter account is likely to be a bot.
NewsBot -This Facebook Messenger app identifies the political leaning of an article.
TrustedNews - A Google Chrome plugin that attempts to identify whether a website is generally trustworthy.
6 Tips for Identifying Fake News, Sabrina Stierwalt, Quick & Dirty Tips
As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth, Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times
Critics of Dan Rather’s tips about fake news brought up his past. But the points are still solid, Alex Horton, Washington Post
False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources, Melissa Zimdars
How I Detect Fake News, Tim O'Reilly, O’Reilly Media
Infographics Lie. Here's How To Spot The B.S., Randy Olson, Fast Company
Photographs cause false memories for the news, Deryn Strange, Maryanne Garry, Daniel M Bernstein, & D. Stephen Lindsay, Semantic Scholar
Searching for Alternative Facts: Analyzing Scriptural Inference in Conservative News Practices,Francesca Triopodi, Data Society
Snopes' Field Guide to Fake News Sites and Hoax Purveyors, Kim LaCapria, Snopes
Want to resist the post-truth age? Learn to analyze photos like an expert would, Nicole Dahmen & Don Heider, Quartz