By now, you’ve heard the news: The top 20 fake stories received more “shares, reactions, and comments” than the 20 top real news stories in the final months of the presidential campaign.
It seems fake news is more appealing and, apparently, more believable than the real news.
The irony is that “the coverage of American politics, and the capital that revolves around it, is in many ways much better now than ever before — faster, sharper, and far more sophisticated,” writes veteran newspaper reporter Susan B. Glasser. “There are great new digital news organizations for politics and policy obsessives, political science wonks, and national security geeks.”
But how can you — the news consumer — tell the difference between these real news stories and mere click bait? The answer is to become “media literate” — to learn the same techniques I teach my high school students. It’s not always easy, but if you remember some basic tenets of “media literacy,” you’ll develop a personal “B.S. detector”:
1. Be aware of your “media diet” and control it.
Just as you consume food for physical sustenance, you consume news for intellectual nourishment. The key — just as with the foods — is to remain constantly vigilant. What news sources do you usually access? Do you prefer watching videos or reading articles? Indeed, do you even read the articles, or do you scan headlines and merely “surf” over text, as author Nicholas Carr explains?
I prefer a balanced diet. Thus, I try to read — and I emphasize the word read — more than one article on a news topic of interest. Plus, I try to “balance my algorithm” with Facebook friends of varying political persuasions who post articles from sources I don’t usually access. Also, I’m constantly aware of the articles I click on to maintain that balance. In this way, I avoid a “filter bubble” that limits my exposure to like-minded news articles.
2. Understand who produces media and why.
As I say in class, “The bottom line is the bottom line.” In other words, the vast majority of media products exist to make money for somebody. News consumers must understand this truism and always keep it in mind as they access news sources. It’s fashionable nowadays to lump the traditional or “legacy” news outlets — notably newspapers and broadcast TV news — into the nebulous category of “mainstream media.” But don’t let such misguided labels mislead you. While you should not rely solely on legacy sources (see #1 above), don’t avoid them. In fact, much of the best original journalism is still conducted by reporters in the newspaper trade, so you should read and contribute to independent news sites like CT News Junkie and subscribe to at least one major daily newspaper.
As for your online habits, learn more about every source you use. Start by clicking on the “About Us” link located at the top or bottom of a website’s homepage. If you can’t find it, that’s a red flag indicating a lack of transparency. If you do find a description, beware loaded phrases such as “news from a conservative/liberal perspective,” as these indicate a built-in bias.
3. Become a “critical consumer” by reading, viewing, listening to, and interacting with media actively and skeptically.
This is the meat and potatoes of media literacy. You will never be media-literate unless you are curious about both the world around you and how the various news sources present it. What’s more, you must be honest with yourself: Are you truly interested in learning the facts, or are you merely looking to confirm what you already believe? A truly media-literate consumer will seek facts by analyzing news sources vigorously, by reading stories carefully, and by recognizing the difference between “news” and “opinions” or “editorials” — a distinction that traditional newspaper sources indicate with clear labels. It takes time and effort, but the facts are there for all news consumers interested in finding them.
It’s always a good idea to fact-check stories you find questionable. Among the most helpful resources: FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, Fact Checker, and Snopes. Don’t be distracted by people or websites — usually themselves partisan — that question the validity of such fact-check sites. You can do that yourself by looking for biased language within the fact-check site and by clicking on their supporting sources.
Finally, you can rely on the very same tool that responsible journalists have used for ages: corroboration. Find similar stories from several credible news sources that support each other (again, see #1 above). Just be wary of stories that are repeated, word-for-word, in several different sources, as this indicates deception, not corroboration, by aggregator websites that are “borrowing” select portions of original stories in order to attract clicks and make money for themselves while often pushing a political agenda.
It’s not always easy to separate the bogus from the real, but reliable news is there for the taking. The key is for you, the news consumer, to seek it aggressively and deliberately. Walter Cronkite is long gone. In today’s digital world, you must uncover the facts of the day yourself because it’s now up to you — rather than Uncle Walter — to say, “And that’s the way it is.”
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.