3 Easy Steps To Help Spot #FakeNews (And Feel Less Crazy)

The news these days, is under attack.

Our president has declared media “the enemy of the people” and 66% of the American public believe the news doesn’t do a good job separating fact from opinion. The result is Americans are now more politically divided than ever, and it’s easy to feel confused and exasperated in a world with seemingly endless subjectivity (Is Pluto a planet again?? I legitimately don’t know).

Beyond making Facebook comment sections toxic, the trouble with not trusting the news, is it actually makes you less able to spot real facts. A recent Pew poll showed that those who don’t trust the media are half as likely to distinguish facts from opinion (compared to those that trust the news a lot).

DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN FACTUAL AND OPINION STATEMENTS IN THE NEWS” Pew, 2018.

In short: if you’re dismissing all news as #FakeNews you’re more likely to be susceptible, to well, fake news. Ring the irony bell.

That’s not to say you should trust everything you read. We are after all, the public that saw institutional creditors rate junk bonds as AAA (hello mortgage crisis), every poll massively mispredict the U.S election (hello Trump), and scientists get paid to hide everything from global warming to the dangers of sugar (hello obesity epidemic and Kevin Costner’s Waterworld).

So what can you do as one small person atop a mountain of misinformation? Glad you asked, friend! Here are a few steps (and resources) to help weed through fact and fiction in our modern media jungle.

1. Check Your Bias

Oh, you’re not like those “other” people who can’t see through media bias? Don’t be so sure.

Pew has uncovered what political scientists have known for some time: people are more likely to believe something is factual if they agree with it (similarly, people remember facts most when they agree with them).

How do you combat this? Harvard and ClearThinker.org have both created implicit bias tests (these take about 15 minutes), which help you to understand your preferences for things like security over liberty. SparkNotes also has a primer on the different facets of American political culture (for instance, in a dividing issue, do you prefer majority rule, or a protection of individual/minority rights?)

In general though, it’s worth asking yourself what your immediate reaction to a headline is — before reading — and question whether you’re more inclined to naturally agree with a certain outcome. If you are, be extra careful to challenge your assumptions about what’s fact vs. opinion (do you know that minimum wage hikes hurt businesses, or do you think that? )

2. Check Your Sources

The age old question: are some news sources better than others?

While we might all have our own answers, there are some organizations that have tried to take an objective approach to answering this question.

The Media Bias Chart has a chart ranking the most frequently visited sites by their political leanings.

Similarly, Media Bias Fact Check (original names, I know) has a search bar — to search and rate media organizations by their political leanings (1-page list here). Their methodology checks for things like factual accuracy, bias by omission of certain types of stories, and whether words used in the coverage are meant to elicit positive or negative emotions. FAIR (Fairness Accuracy In Reporting) also provides more in depth studies on bias in the media landscape as a whole.

If you’re particularly skeptical of the increasingly consolidated media landscape, Columbia Journalism Review’s has a list of “Who Own’s What?”, and OpenSecrets.org follows campaign lobby money. Google, as always, is also a useful tool to determine site ownership, and if a think tank or media company’s leadership/funding skews to one side.

By checking your news sources, you can at least understand if what you’re reading is on one side of the spectrum, and try to balance that reading.

3. Check Facts

Still don’t trust what you’re reading? Get direct to the source.

Most online news sources will link you to a direct press release for a news event, and if not, always list the person or governing body that’s issuing a statement. A quick google search will usually allow you to find the most direct source of information (“.org” sites usually preferable).

If you want more context on a particular event, PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter (winner of the 2009 Pulitzer) gives an instant truth rating, as well a more in depth, heavily-cited explanation on how they reached their truth rating — which range from true, to “pants on fire”.

An example of PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter rating

If you prefer to check across a few sources, Factcheck.org and Snopes are both reputable fact-checking resources.

If you really want to get your hands dirty, The White House press release page, and GovTrack.US will get you direct quotes and legislation for bills, so you can see wording for yourself.

Between these just remember: check your bias, your sources, and your facts, and you should be able to have a stronger idea if what you’re reading is true, false, or somewhere in between. Now go out and inform yourself, you internet-empowered truth-seeker!