Media Literacy 101: 5 Steps to Avoid Fake News
Sure, most of us know that just because you read something on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. The online world is full of hoaxes, propaganda, misinformation and outright lies that are purposely meant to look like real news, either as a joke or for malicious reasons. President Donald Trump’s administration offered “alternative facts” to justify its actions and redefined “fake news” to mean anything reported by mainstream media that it disagrees with. Even satire, a rewarding and thought-provoking genre of writing, is often mistakenly lumped together with fake news or taken at face value and mistaken for news.
But what about the news that isn’t so obviously lies or satire? The ones that seem legitimate but not entirely sure? How do you sift through all the noise and find out if an article, photo, TikTok graphic, Instagram graphic, or other content contains factual information backed by evidence from a trusted source?
It turns out that there is no such thing as a surefire test. But with a few simple questions you can check your newsfeed to make an informed decision about whether you’ve encountered a web of falsehoods that your creative writing teacher would be proud of, an agenda-driven piece that isn’t really it supports real evidence or legitimate journalistic work that is reported openly, transparently and in search of the truth. With that in mind, Teen Vogue hired Rebecca Pitts, a writer and former librarian, to come up with a guide for the informed news consumer. Media literacy is a skill that helps shape our collective capacity for critical thinking, combating the spread of falsehoods, and engaging ourselves as thinking global citizens. Every time you deal with a piece of content, ask yourself:
1. How did you come across it?
Has the article or video been forwarded to you? Has a friend or relative shared it on social media? As journalist Andy Revkin writes in this post on Medium, the source itself says, “Try to keep track of how information moves.” A social share doesn’t qualify an article as inherently true or false – you have to dig a little deeper to find out where it was originally published, who wrote it, what evidence is presented to support an idea, and whether that evidence links to credible data. When was the story first published? Is it old messages or even old illegal messages that are presented as new information? Freedom of expression allows all types of content to be distributed on the internet, but that does not mean that all sources are authoritative. Also check the url. Is the domain trying to mimic a legitimate site like ABC News? If you’re seeing .co, this is probably not a solid source. Is the layout of the website looking out of date or something cobbled together? It’s an indication, if not a dead giveaway, that what you’re reading isn’t believable.
2. What was your reaction when you saw it?
Fake, or extremely biased, agenda-driven news is often intended to incite people – the more angry, fearful, or validated you feel, the more likely you are to click through or share something. Brooke Gladstone, co-host and editor-in-chief of WNYC’s On the Media, advises “reading past the headlines because they often don’t look like the story below,” she tells Teen Vogue. Citing the Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Fake News Edition, an on the media series she co-hosted, which includes a guide to navigating fake news, she adds, “If a story makes you mad, it’s probably designed to do it . It’s a sign that you are being manipulated for one reason or another. “
3. Who will benefit from it?
Who will benefit from reading the article? First, find the name of the website or media company that published the piece. If you are unfamiliar with the mission of the company or organization, is this information relatively easy to find? Does the organization or company seem to support a very specific and tight agenda? Also, note if there are any editorial comments that distinguish this piece from the rest of the site. It is easy to find yourself on a legitimate news site, but not realize that you are consuming sponsored content. Sponsored content is of course not automatically fake news. But it’s advertising in the form of content that is bought and paid for. Well-known media companies make it clear that you are reading this type of content – also known as advertorial content – by labeling it as such.
The same applies to consuming and sharing posts on social media. Who is the person or organization behind the original contribution? Do you give the sources for your information? As tempting as it may be to simply smash the RT button in a shocking statistic or rewrite a cute infographic, it is worth considering whether the source is more interested in just increasing their engagement or number of followers. Again, look at the source and try to verify the information before adding any content.
4. Have you checked your bias?
Sarah Murphy, senior librarian at Browning School in New York City, runs a media literacy program for her students to teach how to think, not what to think. According to Murphy, acknowledging our confirmation bias is a great first step in the fight against the spread of lies. “Fake news can’t just be news that you disagree with,” she told Teen Vogue Writing supports your own preconceived notions.
5. Did you check with others?
Cross-referencing is critical. Are other publications reporting on this news? How do you do that? Is there a general consensus among reputable outlets? (Some solid readings include the Associated Press, Reuters, the Washington Post, and the New York Times). It is important to consider who is being interviewed and who is being used as a source. Is he or she someone whose expertise is relevant to the story? Are different points of view taken into account? If you are unsure whether you are being scammed, reach out to others. Your school and public library employ real news champions; Librarians dedicate their careers to equipping their users with the skills necessary for critical analysis of records, documents and published works. Harvard Library has published a Guide to Fake News, Misinformation, and Propaganda that outlines steps students can take to verify allegations, including interviewing a librarian or visiting a trusted fact-checking website such as PolitiFact.
Gladstone encourages us to step outside our comfort zone and occasionally take the trouble to look specifically for information that we are likely to disagree with and that potentially threaten our worldview. “It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to really break out of our bladders,” she says. “But we can maybe try to widen our bubbles a little. That’s the hardest part – bringing things up in conversation that you might find challenging, that might baffle you. “
And if you come across something that isn’t obviously true, don’t share it again. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of Americans report sharing fake news online, sometimes unknowingly. Stop the virality of unverifiable messages by keeping yourself in check.
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