How can you tell if you’re reading fake news?
Fake news is the problem of our generation.
America seems to be living not just in two realities, but hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of individual realities built by no longer caring about the source of information, only whether the information is something we like.
We’ve collectively lost our rudder, running aimlessly through the seas of the Web until we land on something that supports our position.
I’ve caught myself adrift a few times, scrolling through my Twitter feed, and I’ve had to find my bearings.
These are the metrics I use to gauge a news outlet’s trustworthiness:
HAVE YOU (AND OTHERS)
HEARD OF THEM?
McDonald’s is popular is because you know what you’ll get every time you visit. If you’re on a road trip in a strange town, you can always land on that familiar comfort.
So I’ve never understood “mainstream media” as a derisive term.
Many newspapers have lasted decades — some more than a century — because, like McDonald’s, if you’re on a road trip through strange corners of the internet, you can always land on the Washington Post or New York Times or Wall Street Journal or Associated Press and know what you’re going to get.
Not that new news outlets are inherently untrustworthy. The Drudge Report was a relatively obscure gossip rag in the 1990s when it broke the news of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair (though Drudge’s story was the work of an established Newsweek journalist).
But new sources need more scrutiny than established ones.
DO THEY NAME NAMES
YOU’VE HEARD OF?
Not only do I want to know the source I’m reading, I want to know their sources are reliable, too.
Now, every person who’s a “someone” today was a “nobody” at some point, and new information from new sources isn’t necessarily untrustworthy, just demanding of more scrutiny and suspicion.
DO THEY TELL YOU WHAT THE OTHER SIDE SAYS?
The “mainstream media” catches a lot of flak for so-called “both sides-ism” from critics on the left and the right who are angry journalists give any voice to the critics’ opposition. Critics call it weak, a failure to root out and report only the truth.
But real journalists, every day writing the first drafts of history, understand that all sides are part of the human story, right or wrong, and it’s important to know how people feel, even if you can prove them wrong.
Sources that only quote one side aren’t doing the people’s work. They’re doing their own.
DO THEY TELL YOU WHEN
THE STORY CHANGES?
The nation’s big papers, after years of front-page headlines about contacts between Donald Trump associates and Russian officials, gave blaring headlines to the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report finding no coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Every story is constantly changing, and legitimate news sources will tell you when the story takes a new direction.
If a news outlet only trumpets the storylines that fit their preconceived notions, or plays down the information taking things in an new direction, they ought to be considered highly suspect.
PROVEN THEM RIGHT?
During the first publications of the Washington Post’s Watergate stories, Richard Nixon’s White House responded with the 1970s equivalent of “fake news,” calling the Post a Democratic rag that couldn’t be trusted.
But then judicial and congressional investigations proved the Post’s stories, and Nixon resigned in the face of almost certain impeachment and conviction.
I said above I trust sources that name names, and I’ve written before about my distaste for newspapers’ overuse of anonymous sources.
But I give them the benefit of the doubt because — time and again — newspapers have been confirmed by their competitors’ reporting and then backed up by history. It happened with Nixon. It happened in the Iran-Contra scandal. It happened with Clinton. It happened with Barack Obama’s warrantless collection of American’s data.
And it happened with Trump-Russia. I never read a legitimate news source saying Trump coordinated with Russia, only that his campaign was under investigation — which it was — and that there were many questionable links between Trump associates and Russia, which Mueller’s investigation confirmed.
DO THEY TELL YOU WHEN
THEY SCREW UP?
Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes.
I trust news sources that tell me when they’ve screwed up by running corrections and retractions. If an outlet never corrects the record or refuses to accept new information, it’s a good bet they’re selling you a narrative instead of the news.
None of those metrics individually — except, perhaps, an outlet’s willingness to admit mistakes — is a guaranteed barometer of an outlet’s veracity.
But, taken together, they provide a compass for figuring out if someone’s sending you in the right direction.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.