How to Read the News to Reduce Fake News Consumption
Here is an ongoing list of methods to employ when reading the news in order to keep alert and wary of fake news. This is an ongoing list. Suggestions welcome.
The skill of intelligently reading the news is one that is not taught in our schools. But with some easy tricks, and a change in awareness, you can help protect yourself against fake news, hoaxes, and even poor reporting. It takes time to develop these skills, but it is not difficult or labor intensive.
Bylines not publications
Perhaps the most important trick in learning to parse the news is to pay attention to the byline of a story — that is, the journalist who wrote it. The New York Times is not a monolithic entity. It is comprised of hundreds of journalists, each living, breathing humans with their own hopes, dreams, agendas and areas of expertise. In reading the news, always make a point to look at the name of the journalist who wrote it. The longer you do this, the better you will come to understand the unique characteristics of each journalist.
Sources, by and large, belong to journalists, not news publications. There is a difference between one journalist and another when they say “a source at the pentagon says….” The longer a journalist’s been on a specific beat, the better their sourcing becomes. Journalists who have worked in specific sectors prior to becoming journalists tend to have better sources. And the longer you pay attention to this, the more obvious it will become. If a specific journalist keeps publishing stories that turn out, in the long run, to be true, you can trust them more. This will stay true for that journalist even when they move from one publication to the next.
And, it should go without saying, stories that are published without a byline are far more suspect.
Owners matter, editors matter more.
Who owns a paper matters, absolutely. Owners are people (or companies) and people (and companies) have agendas. However, not all owners have the same agenda, and some people, believe it or not, want a paper to print the truth even if they have a personal agenda in business. One way owners reassure readers that they won’t interfere with a paper’s pursuit of the truth is by hiring an independent managing editor. For example, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, bought the Washington Post in 2013. However, in order to reassure the public that he didn’t intent to make the Post a mouthpiece of Amazon is by hiring a renowned editor with impeccable credentials — Martin Baron (famously portrayed in the movie Spotlight by Liev Schrieber). An owner may be willing to sacrifice their reputation in the news industry for a story benefitting their primary career, but it is less likely that an editor, who owes his or her livelihood to their reputation in the news industry, will do the same. Pay attention to changes in ownership of news publications, but be even more wary when a respected editor decides to leave a publication or, worse, resigns or is fired. And be especially wary of publications owned and edited by the same individual.
Opinion stories vs news stories
Thanks to the vagarities of how news stories are shared across the web and the various social platforms, it is not always obvious whether a story published in, say, the Wall Street Journal, was published in the editorial (opinion) section, or as a news story. Always make a point to check. A quality publication will make a distinction between an op-ed (an opinion piece in the editorial section) and a news story. Op-eds may be written by the paper itself without a byline (which often indicates it is the opinion of the owner), by someone else at the publication, or by someone in society who has a stake in the matter at hand. An op-ed about, say, Facebook, written by someone who works there is not news, even if it appears in the New York Times, and the Times does not present it as such. It is one person’s opinion. It is quite common to see op-eds shared across the web as news stories. Don’t fall for this.
Also just because a publication has the word “news” in the name does not mean that it doesn’t publish opinion pieces. Fox News, for example, has more editorial shows than news shows, but once you know the difference, you will see a difference in the coverage between the news shows and the editorial ones. The same is true for MSNBC.
Codes of Ethics
One way quality publications endeavor to mitigate the bias of their reporters, and to make sure the stories are more reliable is by publicly publishing a code of ethics, by which all journalists at the publication must abide. These codes of ethics generally cover such ground as whether or not journalists can accept gifts, break laws, pay sources, rely on single sourcing, and more. All quality pubs publish a code of ethics. Here is the New York Times’. Here’s The Wall Street Journal’s. The Society for Professional Journalists publishes a code of ethics, which is roughly what all journalists are taught in journalism school, and on which many publications’ code of ethics are based.
If you’re curious about a publication’s code of ethics, Google it. If you can’t find it, be wary.
Another method by which reputable news sources reassure the public is by use of a public ombudsmen. An ombudsmen (or “public editor”) is a representative of the public, who cannot be fired for their views, with investigative authority at a publication, who reports on the publications performance to the public. All publications make mistakes, and it is the role of the ombudsman to keep a publication honest, and provide a detailed account of what went wrong at a publication. Here is the report from the Public Ombudsman of the New York Times on the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal. Here is a report in the Washington Post about a spat between the public ombudsman of the Times and the editor. These sorts of stories allow you to see multiple sides of an issue. If an editor and an ombudsmen frequently clash, it is a cause for concern. If an ombudsmen is fired, it is an even bigger cause for concern.
If you’re curious about a publication’s public ombudsman, Google it. If you can’t find it, be wary.
Sourcing of stories
Here we come to the big one: stories with sources. Every story is the basis of reporting, and that reporting, more often than not, is based on a journalist having a conversation with human beings. Human beings are, of course, fickle beasts, with agendas of their own, and not always prone to truthfulness. To that end, journalism has developed a set of procedures to help the public decide for itself whether a source and a story can be trusted. Different publications have different policies in this regard — one publication might publish a story based on a single anonymous source, another may only publish a story if the information provided by a source can be independently confirmed. A good paper will usually tell you within the story whether it believes the account it is publishing, or there is cause for concern. They will tell you if they have independently confirmed the account. If not, it is often useful to refer to the publication’s code of ethics to determine what sorts of stories it will allow. But here are the basics:
On the record vs off the record
If a person is willing to let the publication publish their name, they are going “on the record.” This means you should be able to read the story and see that Jane Doe said such-and-such. This allows you to investigate Jane Doe and draw your own conclusion. It also allows other journalists to investigate Jane Doe and learn more about her. On the record sourcing is preferable to off the record sourcing for this reason.
If a source gives a journalist a bit of information off the record, it means the journalist may publish it, but that they must anonymize the source, often with phrasing such as “an official inside the White House.” Off the record reporting is less trustworthy than on the record reporting for this reason.
Single source vs multiple source
When a source provides information off the record, it is essentially the word of one person, not willing to stake their reputation on its veracity. Thus the cause for concern regarding its truthfulness is very high. Journalists mitigate this by confirming the information with a second source. If the second source is unrelated to the first, i.e., doesn’t know them or work in the same department or company) even better. This is where you will see phrasing like “multiple sources confirm” and “multiple independent sources confirm.” These two phrases — easily glossed over when reading an article — are both very important, but the second is more trustworthy than the first.
Republishing and re-reporting
When a journalist breaks a big story, relying on anonymous sources — either a single one or many — other publications will regard the original news story as news in itself. They will spread the report far and wide. However, not all of the spreading is equal.
Some publications will simply “republish” the original story — that is, they may have a deal with the original publication and they’ll simply also run the original story.
Some publications will re-report the story. That is, they will write a new article about the first article “Newsweek today published an explosive story…” They may add a little extra context or reporting, but they will not be adding any new sourcing to the original story.
Some publications will take the original story and write a new op-ed about it: “Newsweek reported this today and if that’s true well then there’s been a crime committed and so-and-so should get fired.”
In today’s media environment, all three of these types of stories are rampant. This is hugely concerning, especially when it’s done to a story that was originally reported with a single anonymous source. A single anonymous source can pick a publication with a code of ethics that allows for stories to be published with a single anonymous source. It can then leak its information, true or not, and be confident that hundreds of stories will pop up all over the web reinforcing that view. It is a hugely tempting opportunity for sources, and you can believe people take advantage of it.
If a story is blowing up, track down the original news stories, ones that report with actual sources, and investigate whether or not there is one or more sources at work, and whether or not they are on or off the record.
Even reputable publications re-report. However, reputable publications will say “Newsweek reported today” and link to the original story. Get to the original story. Read that. Draw your own conclusions. Read opinion pieces, op-eds and editorials afterwards.
The best publications, when reporting on the news of another publication, will not just report the original story, but do their own digging. They will consult their own network of sources, and they will endeavor to confirm or refute the original story, and report the results. Now, with a story that was originally reported with a single, off-the-record source, the second publication could, in theory, stumble upon that same source and get “confirmation” from the same single individual. This is a risk. Re-reporting that explicitly states they have confirmed or denied the story with multiple independent sources is better than re-reporting that relies on a single off-the-record source (since it might be the same person). If re-reporting includes an on-the-record statement confirming the original reporting, even better.
Read between the lines
If re-reporting includes nothing but a single on-the-record statement denying the original reporting, well, who knows. Sometimes organizations lie. A PR flack, speaking on the record, may deny something that is true but they don’t want to admit, or admit yet. However, even then, few people want to get up there in front of a reporter and lie outright since it’s their reputation on the line (though, as we’ve seen recently, this does happen, often). For that reason, they will often say something that is a bit vague. “We have no plans at this time to do that.” No, they don’t plan to do it now, but they might plan to do it next week. The words coming out of an on-the-record source matter. They speak like lawyers. Often, an off-the-record-reported story can be true, and the on-the-record denial of a spokesperson can also be true. Read between the lines.
Even better than sourcing is documentation. Does the paper claim to have documents confirming the story? Have they republished them? Have I read them? Do they explicitly state what the story is saying, or do they merely support that contention? Is the evidence concrete or circumstantial? Not all documents are created equal, but documents help. The New York Times published information about Trump’s taxes. They had documentation, and it told a story, but the documentation (old tax returns) they had wasn’t Trump’s actual current or recent tax returns. It supports the story, but it is not the whole story. Damning, but not conclusive.
Conversely, Edward Snowden didn’t just go on the record with claims about the NSA’s wiretapping abilities — other people in-the-know had done so before. He provided conclusive, extensive documentation supporting his contentions.
Bylines matter more, but brands matter, yes. A news publication that has been around a long time is more trustworthy than one that’s just started. They have a reputation to uphold. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean they’re not biased — and if they don’t have a code of ethics, a public ombudsmen, and a clearly-marked editorial page, there is serious cause for concern even if they’ve been around a long time. Papers that started out as partisan rags can, over time, become more trustworthy. Buzzfeed started out as a meme site, but is slowly becoming a serious news source — though it is still young, and therefore should be treated with caution.
Sometimes we just won’t know
Journalists are not omniscient, they’re not magicians. Sometimes a single source will say something explosive, too big to be not-reported, but the secret is so well kept that no one else will come forward to confirm. Personally, I would prefer it if a publication lets me know about this, tells me “hey this one person — we can’t tell you who but they are well-placed and would know — is claiming this thing. It would be huge if true. We couldn’t confirm it with anyone else but thought you should know. It’s up to you to decide.” I appreciate a publication that does that. But that doesn’t make it true or not true — yet. I have now become aware of an issue, and I will keep an eye on it. Journalists often do this so that they can encourage other sources to come forward, or they feel they’ve taken it as far as they can, and another publication might be able to crack it further. This is all fine, so long as I know the drill. And I can see this is what’s happening and not get suckered by the following re-reporting and op-eds that add nothing new, or try and twist the story for political gain.
Journalists: damned if they do and damned if they don’t
In the aforementioned scenario, journalists are between a rock and a hard place. If a single source says that, for example, the FBI is investigating someone, and that would be huge news, but they can’t get a second source to confirm, or get someone to go on the record, the publication is basically screwed either way. If they sit on the story and don’t report it until they get independent confirmation, they may lose the scoop to someone else, yes, but, worse, they could later on get massive flack for “burying” a story once the truth comes out. If they report it, they will get flack for reporting a thinly-sourced story, at best. If the story turns out to be false, they’ll get even more flack.
Personally, I’d prefer the publication to publish the story, with the right context around it. I can make my own decisions, and other publications may pick up the hunt. But I recognize that in this day and age, with our massive fake news problem, re-reporting, blurred op-eds and viral velocity, there are risks here. The public has been burned when these stories have turned out to not be true. The public has been burned when a news org had a major story but held it back because it couldn’t get independent confirmation. No publication is going to get it right all the time. It’s on us to keep all of this in mind.
It’s on us
The best news sources put their faith in the public. They say “this is what we know and this is what we don’t know, this we heard from one person but we can’t confirm it. Make up your own mind.” This is what I prefer. When they mess up, the public editor does a post mortem. When the source turns out to be bogus, they print a retraction as well.
When you see link to a news story on Facebook or Twitter, then, you can take all of this into account. Click on the link. Does it have a byline? Do you know this journalist’s work? Do you trust them? Do they have a track record? Is the publication reputable? Do you know their code of ethics? Do you agree with them? Have they admitted their mistakes in the past? Is this an opinion piece or news? Is it original reporting or re-reporting? Does the re-reporting add any new information? If not, lets click through and find the original story. Is it sourced? On the record? Off? One source or multiple sources? Are the multiple sources independent or does it not say so? Is there documentation? Is it conclusive?
If I’m still not sure, sit and wait. Other reporters around the world are, right now, trying to confirm or refute this story. Did they succeed? Is there cause for doubt?
It can be maddening. You can just feel that a certain story, single-sourced and anonymous is probably true. And hey! Maybe it is. But until it’s proven, it’s on you to keep an open mind. This can be maddening. Journalism is not perfect. You may never learn the truth. It might be twenty years. Follow the story. Keep an eye on it. Learn more. Over time, more often than not, the truth will come out.
And if none of these things are true — a single publication that you’ve never heard of publishes an explosive story with no byline, relying on a single anonymous source, and no other publication confirms it, then you have grave cause for concern regarding its truthfulness. The paradox is that sometimes these stories turn out to be true. But more often than not, they are incorrect or fake. You owe it to the truth to reserve judgement until more is learned.