High Point University

‘Fake news’ in today’s media: How to tell fact from fiction

By Nina Volpe

Staff Writer


“Fake news” — we’ve all heard this infamous phrase before. For many, this phrase takes on a variety of connotations. At its core, it is defined as news stories that are in some way false or misleading, but it can also suggest that the information is skewed or lacks supporting evidence. This is used routinely in reference to political news; however, the issue now infiltrates our lives on a broader level. Everyday, we hear about false stories on social media and throughout the internet on a variety of topics — from socially relevant ones to outrageous rumors about YouTubers.  

This “fake news” universe is not limited to news stories that are completely false. There are often stories that have a kernel of truth but lack the full story, supporting facts and/or context. Some stories are simply written in a non-objective tone, purposefully inciting emotion by omitting facts to present one viewpoint as an objective news story. 

A workshop report, entitled “Fighting Fake News,” from Yale Law School denotes the danger of these tall tales.

“The most salient danger associated with ‘fake news’ is the fact that it devalues and delegitimizes voices of expertise, authoritative institutions and the concept of objective data — all of which undermines society’s ability to engage in rational discourse based upon shared facts,” the report’s participants said. 

We know these dangers exist, but what does this have to do with you?  

Even though you may not be able to shield yourself from these stories, 

especially in our digital society, there are steps that you can take to protect yourself and not bury your head in the sand.

First, you should start with yourself. When reading new information, especially something that is politically or economically motivated, it is important to recognize your own biases. Understanding your own predispositions doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of them, but being able to recognize your own viewpoint could help you to understand how you construe issues and what is important to you. 

We have to consume our information with a dose of skepticism, even things that fit squarely and neatly into our own bias. When we agree with something, it’s easy to accept it as true and accurate, but it’s a good idea to stop and consider a broader picture. We should read and listen to more than what is in front of us at any particular moment. 

There are also signs to tell if what you are consuming is inaccurate or heavily drenched in bias.  

One sign is the use of emotional language. Notice and recognize if there is a clear opinion shining through or if the words convey a positive or negative connotation. You might recognize this if you have a strong emotional reaction or if it is something you want to instantly share with the world or even spend money on. These reactions are not inherently negative, but they are indicators that we should look more closely at the information we are presented.  

Look for the sources being used by the presenter. If they are completely absent, your skepticism should rise. Ask yourself, “Where is this person getting their information?” If there are sources given, see if they are politically or economically motivated. It is always a good idea to scrutinize the piece’s author or speaker. Who is this individual? Are they trustworthy? Look for other pieces they have written and determine this for yourself.

Always check for quotes. It is a good sign if there are quotes, but be careful because words can be misconstrued and presented out of context, giving them a completely different meaning. Try and find the quote elsewhere and see if it is accurate or part of a longer speech. Also, find out when and where it was said. Context means everything. 

One context clue is the date of the story. Confirm this, especially on social media, where stories can be shared for years. Many outlets share these stories, hoping that readers will not check the timestamp. We are all guilty of this sometimes, and it usually happens when all we read is the headline. 

In mid-2019, an online threat-monitoring company called Recorded Future tried this in a project they called “Fishwrap.” It used a web of social media accounts to spread reports of fake terrorist attacks. It did this by taking accurate stories of real attacks from several years ago, posting them as if they were new and hoping that readers wouldn’t notice the timestamps. 

Many news sources are businesses. Because there are so many news outlets that want to stand out, they want you to read their story and try to hook you with sensational headlines. We all know about clickbait, but sometimes it’s more subtle than the outrageous headlines. That’s why we have to do some homework. 

Biased news can be trickier. For example, sources such as CNN and Fox News are well known for their opposite perspectives on political news. But that does not mean we should ignore them. It can be helpful to listen to both views and recognize the differences. From there, we can make our own decisions about what is happening, and sometimes it’s helpful to go to a third or a fourth outlet to read about the same issue. 

The problem for us lies in solely relying on one specific source for all our information. It’s always helpful to hear more than one side of a story, even when we find ourselves disagreeing with what is being reported. This can keep us out of the hole that is partisan bias. 

There are many reliable news sources out there for fact checking outside of social media. To name a few: The Associated Press, Reuter’s, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and PBS. As you read or listen to these sources, it’s a good idea to find their biases and keep them in mind.

Fake news is very real. No one is asking you to be the hero of all media and slay the beast that is fake news forever. But, if you employ some of these tactics and are an educated, informed citizen, you’ll be a great combatant.