Media Literacy 101: 5 Steps to Help You Avoid Fake News
Of course, most of us know that just because you read something on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true. The online world is full of hoaxes, propaganda, misinformation, and outright lies that are intentionally meant to sound like real news, either as a joke or for more malicious reasons. President Donald Trump’s administration offered “alternative facts” to justify their actions and redefined the term “fake news” to mean anything reported by mainstream media that they disagreed with. Even satire, a worthy and thought-provoking genre of writing, is often misunderstood as fake news or taken at face value and mistaken for news.
But what about stories that aren’t so blatantly lies or satire? Those who appear legit, but you’re not quite sure? How to sift through all the noise and determine if a post, photo, TikTok, Instagram graphic, or other piece of content is presenting factual information, supported by evidence from a reliable source?
It turns out that there is no foolproof test. But with a few simple questions, you can filter your newsfeed to make an informed decision about whether you’ve stumbled upon a web of lies that would make your creative writing teacher proud, an agenda-driven piece that won’t is not actually backed by any real evidence or legitimate journalism that is reported in an open, transparent, and truth-seeking manner. In this spirit, teen vogue tapped Rebecca Pitts, author and former librarian, to present a guide to becoming informed consumers of news. Media literacy is a skill that helps shape our collective ability to think critically, fight the spread of lies, and engage as thinking global citizens. Every time you interact with a piece of content, ask yourself:
1. How did you discover it?
Was the article or video forwarded to you? Did a friend or relative share it on social media? As journalist Andy Revkin writes in this Medium article, the source itself says, “Try to trace how information travels.” A social share doesn’t qualify an article as inherently true or false – you’ll have to dig a little deeper to find out where it was originally posted, who wrote it, the evidence presented to support an idea, and whether that evidence backs up to credible data. When was the story first published? Is it old news or even illegitimate old news that is presented as new information? Freedom of expression allows for the proliferation of all kinds of content online, but that does not mean that all sources are authoritative. Also check the URL. Is the domain trying to imitate a reputable site like ABC News? If you see .co, it’s probably not a solid source. Does the layout of the site seem dated or somewhat tinkered? It’s a clue, but not a dead giveaway, that what you’re reading isn’t believable.
2. What was your reaction when you saw it?
Fake or extremely biased, agenda-driven news is often intended to incite – the more upset, fearful, or justified you feel, the more likely you are to click or share something. Brooke Gladstone, co-host and editor of WNYC’s On the mediaadvises reading “beyond the headlines, because often they have no resemblance to the story behind them”, she says teen vogue. Quoting the Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Fake News Edition, a On the media series she co-hosts that includes a guide to navigating fake news, she adds, “Essentially, if a story makes you angry, it’s probably designed to. It’s a sign that you are being manipulated for one reason or another.”
3. Who benefits?
Who benefits from reading the article? First, find the name of the website or media company that published the article. If you are unfamiliar with the mission of the company or organization, can you find this information easily enough? Does the organization or company seem to support a very specific and narrow agenda? Also note if there are any editorial notes designating this article as separate from the rest of the website. It’s easy to end up on a legitimate news site and not realize you’re consuming sponsored content. Sponsored content isn’t automatically fake news, of course. But it is advertising in the form of content that has been purchased and paid for. Reputable media companies will clearly indicate that you are reading this type of content – also called advertising content – by labeling it as such.
The same goes for consuming and sharing posts on social media. What person or organization is behind the original message? Do they cite the sources of their information? As tempting as it might be to just smash that RT button on a shocking stat or reprogram a cute infographic, it’s worth considering if the source is more interested in just increasing their engagement or follower count. Again: Consider the source and try to verify information before amplifying any piece of content.
4. Have you checked your bias?
Sarah Murphy, head librarian at Browning School in New York, runs a media literacy program for her students as part of a training in How? ‘Or’ What think, no what to think. According to Murphy, recognizing our confirmation bias is an important first step in combating the spread of lies. “Fake news can’t just be news you don’t agree with,” she says teen vogue. “It’s easy to recognize lies when the writing opposes your point of view,” she says, but it’s much trickier to expose lies when the writing supports your own preconceived opinions.
5. Did you consult other people?
Cross-checking is crucial. Are any other publications reporting this news? How do they do ? Is there a general consensus among respected outlets? (Some solid watches include the Associated Press, Reuters, the Washington Postand the New York Times). It is crucial to consider who is interviewed and used as a source. Is it someone whose expertise is relevant to the story? Are various points of view taken into consideration? If you’re not sure you’re being cheated, check with others. Your school and public library employ real-news champions; librarians devote their careers to giving clients the skills to critically analyze records, documents, and published works. The Harvard Library has published a guide to fake news, disinformation, and propaganda that outlines steps students can take to verify claims, including asking a librarian or visiting a reliable fact-checking site such as PolitiFact.