Taking on fake news: Local experts warn news consumers to be more skeptical

President Barack Obama signs executive order banning the Pledge of Allegiance. Pope Francis shocks the world, endorses Donald Trump for President. FBI agent suspected in Clinton email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide.

These are a few examples of fake news headlines that filled up Facebook, Twitter and other social media feeds leading up to the November presidential election. Hardly a day goes by when readers don’t hear or see a reference to “fake news.”

So, what is fake news? How do you recognize it?

“I don’t really like the term fake news because it’s either news or it isn’t, right?” said Mark Neuzil, a Communication and Journalism professor at the University of St. Thomas. “So, in my view, fake news is—really, there is no such thing. It’s just another way for making stuff up.”

There are a few essential things to consider in evaluating a news story. The first, Neuzil said, is the reliability of the news source. Does the newspaper, magazine, TV network, website or blog have a track record? Has it been reliable and unbiased in the past?

Mark Neuzil
Mark Neuzil, a University of St. Thomas communication and journalism professor, says news consumers need to be more skeptical of the stories they see in print, online and on television. (Samantha HoangLong/ThreeSixty Journalism)

Look at what a news source has reported previously, Neuzil said. Is it objective? Does it have a point of view? Why is it saying what it’s saying? Is it a talk radio host who has said things previously that have no basis in fact? Is it a website, such as Breitbart News, that has a definite political point of view? Is it a newspaper or a network that has been accurate for a long period of time?

Neal Justin, a TV and radio critic at the Star Tribune, said it’s useful to have two or three go-to news organizations with a record of being fair and accurate. Then news consumers can measure any particular report against those trusted sources.

Justin said the goal of fake news creators is a “deliberate attempt to set an agenda and disrupt legitimate information.”

This is why readers need to be particularly skeptical of news accounts, Neuzil said. Is the accuracy of the particular information in question? Can it be verified? Can it be found in one or more other places? And do those places have a reputation for accuracy?

Some politicians have erroneously tried to dub errors in mainstream news organizations as fake news, Justin said. Others have used the term as a way of demeaning and discrediting the legitimate news media.

Neal Justin
Neal Justin, a Star Tribune TV and radio critic, says everyone should have two or three “go-to,” trustworthy news sources that can they can use to measure the fairness and accuracy of other news reports. (Samantha HoangLong/ThreeSixty Journalism)

For instance, Justin recalled a story from the inauguration of Pres. Donald Trump when a Time magazine correspondent at the White House incorrectly reported that the Martin Luther King, Jr., statue had been removed from the Oval Office. The reporter quickly apologized, but administration officials jumped on the error and called it, essentially, fake news.

“But that is not fake news, in my opinion, that’s a mistake,” Justin said. “There is a clear distinction between the two.”

Fake news isn’t pushed out by advocates for only one political party. Some Democratic-leaning news organizations have endured criticism for headlines asserting that Russia hacked the election, despite there being no clear evidence that reported hacks threw the election to Trump.

Mainstream news organizations are starting to forcefully push back against allegations of fake news.

On March 2, more than 80 journalism-related organizations—responding to Pres. Trump’s charges that the “fake media,” the “failing media” and the “dishonest media” are producing “fake news” that’s biased against him—wrote a statement supporting freedom of the press.

“The effort to delegitimize the press undermines democracy, and officials who challenge the value of an independent press or question its legitimacy betray the country’s most cherished values and undercut one of its most significant strengths,” the letter said.

That’s what’s at stake in the battle over fake news, Neuzil and Justin said.

If young people are going to be effective citizens in this environment, Justin and Neuzil said, they need to care about what’s going on in the world around them; to develop critical thinking skills; to be willing to do the work that’s necessary to stay informed; and to not rely on only social media for news.

TEEN’S TAKE: How to broaden your news sources

Hey, friends. With fake news being such a problem right now, you need to broaden your news reading habits to include reputable sources beyond your social media feeds. Based on my reporting and interviews, here are some tips:

Download a news app and turn the pop-up notifications ON. Doing this simple action can instantly feed you information. If the news sounds like something you’re interested in, you can easily click on the notification and read the article.

Read more than just the headline of an article. Sometimes, it’s easier to assume that you know everything about a subject, despite the fact that you only read the headline. Don’t assume that the headline is true because there’s always the possibility that it could be a sponsored article, click-bait or fake news.

Verify, verify and verify. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Make sure the information is from a reliable source! Be sure to double check the facts—or at least the general ideas from the article.