As a second-semester freshman, I took Journalism 101, also known as “News Literacy.” The class isn’t just for Journalism majors, and I wasn’t studying journalism when I took it. The class didn’t give me the inside scoop on interviewing sources, and it didn’t teach me how to write a lede. Instead, it taught me the do’s and don’ts of not only being a good reporter, but being a good news consumer.
In today’s society, being news literate has become increasingly important. Many news organizations have taken to the internet to spread their stories and grow their readership. You may have noticed that you can read the front page of your favorite newspaper without picking up a print copy.
Bonus: You can also follow your favorite newspaper on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. You’ll see their posts pop up in your feed. Unfortunately, this also means that you can see untrustworthy posts pop up in your feed, and you may not realize they’re false stories.
One study shows the impact of fake news reports on the 2016 election. The study found that 14 percent of Americans used social media as their primary source for election news. And, get this: In the three months before the election, fake news stories favoring Donald Trump were shared thirty million times on Facebook, while those favoring Hillary Clinton were shared eight million times on the same platform. Fake news gets around, kind of like the roommate who you tell your friends is always in someone else’s room at night.
So many people blame “the media” for false stories. Yes, there are organizations out there that seek to pull shit out of their asses and serve it to the public, but, at the same time, social media users SPREAD those bullshit stories, completely unaware of their inaccuracies.
How many times have you seen a post on Facebook that your friend shared, read the headline and either clicked “Like” or “Share” without actually reading the article? Yeah, that’s a huge part of the problem. In fact, this is way worse than actually reading the fake story and failing to recognize it as false news.
One fifth-grade teacher told her story of how she witnessed a student share inaccurate information that he found through Google on Vox. Since the incident, she began asking her students to examine the stories they read based on seven important elements, including copyright, verification with multiple sources, source credibility, published date, author’s expertise and background with the subject, your prior knowledge of the subject and whether or not it seems realistic.
The teacher’s transformation of her classroom into a news-literacy hub for critical analysis, excitement and debate helped her students look at online articles in a new way. Such elements are also discussed in depth in a college news-literacy class. If you don’t have the time in your class schedule to enroll in a news-literacy class, here are some brief pointers that I learned to help you be a smarter, more active news consumer.
1. Bylines Are Important, So Pay Attention
Bylines are the line of text under the headline that says who wrote the article. They don’t only boast about the author of the story, though.
They’re also there to tell readers who to hold accountable for the fantastic, investigative exposé or the straight-up bullshit they just read. No one wants to be blamed for a nonsense article, so those who create fake stories are less likely to include a byline.
2. If the Freezer Isn’t Open, Get Out of the Kitchen
My college’s school of journalism has a weird phrase, “Open the Freezer.” It’s used to describe a situation in which the reporter sees the hard evidence or facts for themselves in order to report the story as accurately as possible.
Did the journalist see the ten body bags in the coroner’s lab? Did they see the children who have become emaciated from a lack of food? Be aware that a reporter doesn’t necessarily have to be the witness to a scene or event in order to open the freezer.
Reporters who open the freezer are more trustworthy because they are able to report details more accurately. They don’t rely on word of mouth to report how many bodies were found, and they don’t give you the account of a traumatized witness who swears they saw an 8-inch knife when it was actually a pocket knife.
3. Get the Same Story from Multiple Outlets
Finding time in your busy schedule to read a story once is tedious enough, but you do yourself a disservice if you don’t go out of your way to find the same story from a different publication. This is one of the best ways to make sure you have the most accurate version of the story.
Not all publications will have the same information to a t. One might say, “Over 20 frogs went missing from the pet store,” while another might say, “22 frogs went missing from the pet store,” but you will sometimes find that one publication gives you the better account of what happened.
Furthermore, you can see how different publications tackle the same story. This may not be as invigorating as watching how different contestants screw up the same dish on “Worst Cooks in America,” but you’ll develop a sense of a publication’s reporting style, which could help you figure out which outlets are your favorites for staying updated.
4. Follow the Story Over Time
The truth is provisional; it changes with the story. The job of (good) journalists is to give readers the best AVAILABLE version of the truth. You aren’t doing your job as a news consumer if you simply read the first breaking news story that was published 20 hours ago.
Go out of your way to see if any stories on the same situation were published more recently. Recently published stories provide more developed and up-to-date information.
Don’t allow fake news stories to wrap you around their finger. Be a smart news consumer, and read your news actively rather than passively. Spread critical examination, not fake news.