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A real column about fake news

Sussing out trustworthy stories isn’t as hard as some might think
Fake news. It’s the new buzzword to delegitimize any news item with which someone may disagree.

Fake news. It’s the new buzzword to delegitimize any news item with which someone may disagree.

President Donald Trump has wielded the term like a sledgehammer for months, dropping it on any reporter, story or news outlet he doesn’t like or which is not suitably fawning in its coverage of the man-child who now leads the world’s most powerful country.

But what exactly is fake news? The definition doesn’t seem so clear. Is it a story that contains a factual error? Is it a story critical of a person or institution? Is it a story made up from whole cloth? All of these instances have resulted in accusations of fake news.

I don’t think Trump himself cares so much. His base, which seems to lump journalists with politicians as equally untrustworthy, goes wild whenever the president attacks the media. And when reporters fact-check him (which is their job) on some of the crazy things that come out of his mouth, they’re playing right into Trump’s hands, because he can then point to that news source or reporter and say to his base, “See? They really are against me.”

His whole campaign was based on him being an outsider. Attacking the media and whining about how he’s covered is exactly what Trump’s supporters want him to do.

Now, as the editor of a newspaper and website, admittedly, it affects me when someone calls my chosen profession the enemy of the people, as Trump did last week.

But in response to Trump’s jaw-dropping first solo press conference last week, in which he rambled on about himself, the evil media, being friends with Russia and bombing a Russian spy ship off the coast of Connecticut -- and his campaign’s apparent relationship with Russian agents (of which he gave us the gem of a comment that “the leaks are real, the news is fake”) – Senator John McCain came to the defence of the media, summing up quite succinctly, I thought, the necessary role reporters play in constitutional democracies.

You see, the media must be adversarial, as McCain said. Even as he admitted “hating” the media, he defended its place in free and just societies. Media must hold to account the powerful on behalf of the powerless. It must speak truth to power. It must question, nitpick and confront. It must fact-check things dominant institutions and corporations say and do.

This doesn’t win the media any friends, naturally, nor should it. But it does deserve defenders, because the media is the last, best line of defence against totalitarianism. The fourth estate is one of the first institutions attacked by dictatorial regimes.

The Nazis did it. China does it. Russia, too. Dozens of journalists disappear every year simply for doing their job.

Just as Trump cares little about what “fake news” really means, he doesn’t seem to care — or is woefully ignorant — about what discrediting the media means for democracy. When the president of the United States dismisses coverage he doesn’t like as “fake,” what’s he really saying? When he says, the media is the "enemy of the American people," what message does that send?

He's saying, the only word you can trust is his. That’s dangerous.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be skeptical of government or the media. Taking everything you hear and read at face value is a recipe for disaster.

But it’s important to remember what it means to be skeptical. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society and editor-in-chief of Skeptic Magazine, defines it in a way I particularly like. Skepticism, he likes to say, is not a position; it’s a process.

Much like science, it means objectively evaluating new pieces of information in order to make an informed decision. It isn’t cocking an eyebrow and standing firm. It isn’t dismissing information because you disagree with it.

It means maintaining a certain level of dispassion and keeping an open mind (but not so open your brain falls out).

So, if there’s no standard definition of fake news, how does one evaluate the veracity of news stories? Here are a few tips.

Don’t just read the headline

With so much news consumption taking place on social media, many people aren’t reading beyond the headline before deciding to Like or Share. Stop doing that. Read the whole article first.

Have you heard of the news outlet before?

If you haven’t, you’ve good reason to be skeptical. There are countless outfits with newsy-sounding names that make boatloads of money off online advertising by inventing stories designed to be Liked and Shared, but which have no basis in reality. See what other kinds of stories that outlet has covered and how they’ve covered it. If the coverage is conspiratorial or severely slanted, be skeptical.

The most successful news outlets are successful not because they write good headlines, but because they have a history of credibility. They employ real journalists who take their job (and their role in society) seriously.

Journalists are poorly paid and overworked. Anyone who’s been doing it a long time does it because it’s a labour of love. Anyone who’s in it to get rich and famous usually doesn’t last very long.

Read the About section

The About section is exactly that: A description of who the publisher is, who it serves and what it does. Fake news websites often are designed to look like a legitimate news source, but the About section usually clarifies whether the published material is “for entertainment purposes only.” If you see that, you know you’re looking at fake news.

Take a look at the domain name

All websites end in a suffix (like .com or .org or .ca). Usually you can tell the country of origin from that domain (.ca is for Canada, for instance, while .ru is for Russia). Often, fake news sites have a newsy sounding name with an unfamiliar domain. Google the news source to see what else comes up.

What are the sources?

Real news stories tell you where the information comes from and who said it. Fake news sources don’t always do that. Or if they do, the source might not be real. Google is your friend here again. Google the author, google the names of the people quoted and the organizations listed. 

Explosive news that no one else is covering

If you read a story that makes incredible claims but no mainstream news organization is covering, be skeptical. Don’t assume there’s a conspiracy afoot to bury the story. Let me tell you, journalists are a competitive breed. We want to beat the competition, not collude with them. If you read an explosive story that wasn’t covered by the Globe and Mail, CBC or your local news outlet like, you have good reason to be skeptical.

Don’t rely on one news source

If you’re only getting your news from one news source, broaden your scope. Read the same story from several outlets. You’ll get a much better, more reliable picture of the issue that way.

You’re smart — trust your common sense

If you read a story claiming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is secretly a Muslim or Hillary Clinton heads up a child sex ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza joint, stop and reflect. Why hasn’t anyone else covered this story? If such a story could be corroborated, mainstream news outlets would be all over it. If they aren’t, there’s probably a reason for that.

So that’s a bit of a primer. The Internet is fertile ground for conspiracy theories. It’s like the checkout line at the grocery store on a grand scale. You looked askance at the Weekly World News and the National Enquirer back in the day. Why? Because everyone knew they weren’t credible and were more interested in selling copies than informing the public.

Sure, all media outlets need to make money to survive. The difference is how they go about doing that.

Be careful out there. Read with caution. And for goodness sake, be skeptical.


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Mark Gentili

About the Author: Mark Gentili

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