“Fake news” is a misnomer. Either it is “news,” published by a newspaper or media outlet, or a report issued by a government, research university or a nonprofit, or it is “fake” — a propaganda piece intentionally crafted to deceive those who read it for either political, financial or personal reasons.
While many people seem to think the issue of “fake news” is an insurmountable obstacle, it’s actually quite easy to determine truth from fiction.
Consider the source. Is it from a trustworthy publication? National news outlets, newspapers, television news networks and your local newspaper are trustworthy — a fly-by-night website is not. If the website or publication explicitly cites a political spectrum word in its title — conservative, liberal, progressive, alternative — just keep in mind that the piece you’re reading has been crafted to appeal to that base audience. Feel free to read it, just know you’re reading an intentional slant.
If the piece references a “groundbreaking new report,” does the piece give you the name of the report, who wrote it or a direct link to it from the agency or source? If not, assume the report doesn’t actually exist.
Does the piece have an author’s name? We journalists place great stock in our reputations for honesty, integrity and good reporting. We sign our names in ink, so there is no question as to who wrote the piece. No byline means the author does not have that courage, which should raise red flags.
Does the piece raise an outlandish claim that is hard to believe? There’s a reason for your gut reaction of “That can’t be true” — because it isn’t true.
If a piece makes a wild claim about a public agency or a government, call and ask. Look at that agency’s public records. Governments are required by state and federal law to make public almost all records of its operations as their funding comes from taxpayers.
If you’re still not sure, call a journalist and ask. After all, our job is to keep public officials honest and we can likely answer your questions, direct you where to find it or — if it is indeed a valid claim — we’re more than happy to write a story about it.
Is the “news” covered by more than one source? MSNBC and Fox News pundits may have vastly different opinions on a news story, but it doesn’t change the root of the story, just the lens. If you can only find the piece on a few websites with similar sounding names and no legitimate news outlets have covered it, it’s likely not news, it’s someone’s propaganda.
That raises a second component: Public servants are — by and large — honest. Public servants can be terminated for lying to the public because they are not just employees but holders of the public trust and tax dollars, and the penalty for misuse of funds or withholding public records is steep. Like the Luristan newt, corrupt officials are rare, not the norm.
“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead,” Benjamin Franklin famously wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1735. Conspiracies are complicated affairs and all it takes are a handful of whistle-blowers or leakers to destroy the entire conspiracy.
“Chemtrails” are perfect example of — well, first, a misunderstanding of basic science — but also a nonsensical conspiracy. If there were thousands of pilots “spraying chemicals” in the air, there would be investigative news stories from major outlets and government hearings and pilots and ground technicians would be coming forward by the truckload to tell their stories, especially disgruntled former employees.
Additionally, lack of evidence is not de facto truth, aka “I have no evidence, but prove me wrong”; that is a logical fallacy. The burden of proof is on the claimant to prove the claim true.
Can you verify the piece’s claims elsewhere? Plug the basic details into Google, Bing or Yahoo and find public documents, news stories or reports verify comments you hear or read online. If you can’t find any other verification, it isn’t news.