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How to spot fake news and understand real reporting

By Kurt Hanson daily Herald - | Jan 20, 2017

This is the second part in a two-part series discussing the prevalence of fake news. The first article in the series ran Jan. 19, discussing how the prevalence of fake news is disrupting civic engagement and media trust.

Identifying fake and misleading news, and recognizing the difference between opinion and fact, has become difficult in the modern age of likes, tweets and winking emojis.

Fake news has permeated social media and the American press in ways hardly seen before. Though fake news ramped up largely before the presidential election, it still floats throughout the internet, distributing misinformation and encouraging confusion.

To better understand how fake news is made, first consumers must understand how legitimate news stories are created and the work journalists pour into them.

Why it’s difficult to discern

A large source of frustration with fake news lies in social media, the world where information overload is practically its mantra.

“I think what you’ve seen happen, a lot of this has to do with the internet being a main force of people getting their news, specifically social media such as Twitter, Snapchat and those media,” said Lynn Walsh, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“Whenever news is shared on social media platforms, it’s not very clear where that’s coming from,” she said. “It’s not clear if it’s an opinion piece, a column or an actual news article. I think that’s part of how we got here.”

But social media isn’t the only one to blame. Walsh said reporters themselves have claim to the blame of the spread of misinformation.

“We weren’t prepared for this to happen, for people to get their news on social media,” Walsh said. “I think we’re doing a better job, but I think we can do better.

“Even as journalists, we haven’t made it clear what’s opinion and what’s not.”

Jim Fisher, professor of communications at Utah Valley University and a Utah Society of Professional Journalists board member, said the public doesn’t understand the news gathering process as well because journalists don’t explain it.

“We don’t communicate to readers enough what the rules are,” he said.

Quint Randle, professor of communications at Brigham Young University, said there’s a lot of gray area between fact and opinion as 24-hour news programs seek to fill their programming with commentary and guest voices.

“Opinion shows dominate the actual news landscape. News is just a small part of that,” he said. “You watch things and you just assume everything’s news; it’s all been spread out into one category.”

Additionally, a lack of investigation or verification from journalists has added fuel to the fire.

“It’s more than just fake news. We’ve had instances where articles were completely false (from credible organizations),” Walsh said. “There’s been this distrust that has formed. It has added to the issue.”

How internet leaders are attempting to reverse misinformation

Many internet powerhouses have done some self-analyzation to reverse the effects of the fake news epidemic.

According to a December New York Times article, Facebook has piloted a program to limit misinformation on the social site. Facebook has partnered with several third-party news accuracy sites to help users delineate fact from fiction.

When a user tries to post content from a less-than-reputable website, they may see a pop-up that reads “disputed by 3rd parties.” They then have the option to post the disputed article or not.

Additionally, according to a November press release, Google is working on policy changes that will prevent websites that “misrepresent content” from using the search engine’s advertising network. Facebook has taken similar measures to essentially ban fake news sites from advertising on the site.

This shift in direction and acknowledgement of the problem is encouraging, Walsh said. But should those measures sweep too wide, Walsh is concerned it could impede on First Amendment rights.

“It’s a great step in the right direction. But it’s still too soon to tell,” she said. “You have the other consequence where someone isn’t allowed to share their opinion because it’s blocked. … We don’t want to see that go away either.”

With the measures being taken to reduce the spread of fake news, it doesn’t mean media consumers can’t also take their own measures to become media literate.

Fake news red flags

There are essentially three kinds of fake news sites, according to Randle and Fisher:

  1. Completely fake sites with made-up or clickbait headlines.
  2. Sites that mix fiction and fact to blur the truth.
  3. Extreme liberal or conservative sites that aren’t necessarily false, but can be misleading.

Many of these sites exhibit blatant red flags that Walsh said can be very easy to identify if one knows what to look for:

  • Misleading URLS, such as cnn.com.co, foxnews.com.ixo or another URL that’s frankly unrecognizable.
  • There isn’t an author or the author has unverified credentials.
  • There are limited sources or inline links.
  • The headline and the body copy don’t match.
  • It’s too good or too outlandish to be true.

“When you look at the fake news sites, it’s worse than the missing comma or missing apostrophe,” Walsh said. “It’s a word all in caps followed by a word not in caps.”

Not all fake news starts as fake news. It’s like a game of telephone. One story is read and then re-written with biases, and then again with more implicit or other biases, and before too long, Hillary Clinton is an arms dealer with links to ISIS.

Biases are unavoidable, whether for good or bad, and news consumers should read both sides of an issue to exercise better media literacy.

“Don’t consume from just one news organization. I know it takes time,” Walsh said.

“I think you need to look at a variety of different types of media. We’re all in our own echo chamber,” Randle said. “It’s just like music. You have to listen to all types of music to appreciate it.”

News-gathering process

Every newsroom is different, but as a whole, most follow the same procedures when it comes to news production, including the Daily Herald.

Reporters and editors take news tips seriously, whether they’re received over the phone, through email, over social media or any other form.

The reporter whose beat the news tip falls under, whether that is crime, health, politics or one of Utah County’s cities, will then investigate the lead by conducting independent research through public records, contacting sources who are familiar with the subject matter and discovering possible trends that could verify the lead.

If the lead proves to be false or there isn’t enough verifiable information, the reporter typically follows up with the tipster and either informs them of the lack of information or asks for more.

If the lead is good, the reporter then continues the investigative process by repeating many of the same steps, contacting more sources and looking through more public documents, developing a well-sourced trove of information.

“Everything we do is going out and verifying information from court documents, public information documents (and more),” Walsh said. “We are then sharing that information with the public.”

The process obviously varies depending on the kind of story. For example, in a breaking news situation, such as the November stabbing at Mountain View High School, the Daily Herald first became aware because of information received over a newsroom police radio scanner. The public information officer at the Orem Police Department was then contacted, who verified the information after verifying it with dispatch. Daily Herald reporters and editors were on the scene minutes later.

And in longform or feature stories, such as those that focus on community members, the process focuses more on individuals as sources than data. The subject is typically interviewed, as are a few friends, family or colleagues.

Once a story is written, it is then sent to editors, one of whom will give it a first read. Another editor will often read the same story before it goes online, and a third editor will commonly read it before it goes to print. There are few articles that run in the Daily Herald that haven’t seen at least three sets of editors’ eyes.

Errors can still slip through the cracks. When noticed in published online content, they are fixed immediately and the staff may even issue a retraction. When a reader notifies the news team about an error, a similar process is followed. Readers are encouraged to have an open dialogue with reporters and editors to always improve the product.

Public engagement

“If you have a question or you don’t understand, instead of harassing and getting upset about it, just reach out and ask,” Walsh said. “I’ve never met a journalist who isn’t willing to have that kind of conversation.”

But at the same time, Walsh and Fisher emphasized the idea for readers and news consumers to exercise media literacy — to be skeptical of news, especially news that doesn’t add up.

“Society hasn’t made it a point to keep media literacy and those kind of things as part of an education process that needs to be there,” Walsh said. “We’re not making things up. We’re just trying to give the facts.”

The Daily Herald encourages its readers to reach out and be a part of the story process. Readers can do so by emailing writers, messaging the staff on Facebook, commenting on stories and engaging in civil conversation through any means.

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