Are You Reading Fake News?

Stories about fake news have been capturing headlines regularly over the past few years.

Two recent reports highlighted just how extensively Russia has attempted to influence people in the United States with fake news and fake social media. They’ve had their fingers seemingly everywhere, with campaigns and stories touching on patriotism, feminism, gun rights, civil rights, Veterans issues, and even a call for California to secede.

President Trump and others decry “fake” news and offer “alternative facts.” And it seems like every day both sides of the aisle accuse the other of lying.

It’s a lot to process. And it can be difficult to know if you’re reading a story that’s real and true.

Most of us don’t have the time to research and vet everything we read. So, there are some general guidelines that can help us figure out if a particular news item can be believed or not.

Check the URL.

Many fraudulent sites mimic real news organizations to make their work appear more legitimate. In other words, a group trying to make you think you’re reading a story on NPR might use a URL like npr.com.co. It is similar enough to the real URL (npr.org) that some people might not notice that it has a Colombian domain name.

One way to check if you aren’t sure about a site’s actual URL is to Google that organization and see what comes up first. Generally speaking, the legitimate site will appear at the top. You can click on it to see if the content is the same.

Look for spelling and grammatical errors.

While real news agencies may make mistakes from time to time, they have incredibly high standards to ensure that issues like spelling and grammar errors don’t happen.

Additionally, they follow strict style guides that don’t allow the use of dramatic punctuation (?!?!) and WRITING IN ALL CAPS, for example.

Try to find the story elsewhere.

When there’s a big story, it doesn’t take long for all of the big news organizations to pick it up. Often, you can read similar versions of the same news item on FOX, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, and so on.

So, if a story seems even slightly odd, do a search for that specific story. If it’s being covered everywhere, that is a good sign. If the only places mentioning it are alternative news sites and personal blogs, take it with a grain of salt.

See if the publication corrects its errors.

Even legitimate and respected news agencies make mistakes. The difference between the legitimate and fake news outlets is the legitimate ones will consistently correct their errors and do so publicly. For example, they print retractions, detail the specific errors, and let you know when they have updated an online news item with the correct information. With so much content out there, it usually doesn’t take long to find a story or two on a legitimate site that contains these kinds of corrections. Which brings us to my newsletter.

In our most recent newsletter, we noticed a mistake that we made. The headline for one story was incorrectly written as, “Tolerating Civility Is the Price We Pay for Freedom, Says Judge”. It should have been, “Tolerating Incivility Is the Price We Pay for Freedom, Says Judge”.

We also wrote that the Parkland shooting in Broward County occurred in 2017. In fact, the shooting took place in 2018.

I am sharing these corrections because doing so is a hallmark of credibility and trust between readers and my newsletter. Accuracy, brevity, and clarity were the watchwords I learned as a journalist, and they are as meaningful today as they were in the 1980s.

Accuracy requires identifying and correcting error. If you ever notice an error, please send me an email and point it out.