We face a flood of fake news and information today. Trying to figure out what’s fact and what’s fiction gets harder and harder.
Years ago, we could turn to credible news anchors, such as Walter Cronkite. Or we went to our favorite newsstand for a reputable national newspaper. At the very least, we subscribed to the local newspaper and had confidence in it. The media determined the veracity of our news. After all, being trusted mattered to journalists.
But that was then.
Now, technology has democratized the process of making, or making up, news. The gatekeeping role of our news media now falls to all of us.
Journalists no longer decide what goes public. Information flows unchecked, filling websites, blogs, and tweets.
It’s not that fake news is new. Thomas Jefferson complained in 1807, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper.”
Our old gatekeepers weren’t infallible. Yet in today’s technological world, we’re caught in an informational perfect storm. We can unwittingly contribute to the unpredictability. It can happen when people who use social media fail to check what they repost, or re-tweet without reading for accuracy.
That plays into what those who produce fake news hope to accomplish. While some believe those engaged in disseminating fake news hope to deceive people, press critic Tom Rosenstiel sees it differently. “The goal of fake news,” he asserts, “is not to make people believe the lie. It is to make them doubt all news.”
So what are news consumers to do? How do we decide if we’re reading fake news or true news? How can we act as our own news gatekeepers? When we know what we inhale with regard to “news,” we will know what to exhale. This serves as a litmus test in our search for truth and facts. Here’s a short checklist that emphasizes credibility.
- Check out the source. Pay attention to who wrote it. Know the “who,” or the “what,” of the source. Read the “About” section of the writer/website. It may offer insight into the writer.
- Check out the information. Do other sources corroborate what you’re reading, viewing, or hearing? Have you used such verification sites as Snopes.com, PolitiFact.com, and FactCheck.org?
- Be aware of your biases. Remember that we tend to read, listen, and watch news with our own built-in prejudices. Be open to reading, listening, or watching news sources with other views.
There’s no need to close the gate. Just be sure you know what’s flowing in. It matters.
(A longer version of this article first appeared on Conversation.com)
Aly Colón is the Knight Professor of Media Ethics in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA. Prior to joining Washington and Lee, Colón spent more than 30 years in journalism, including as assistant metro editor and diversity reporter and coach at The Seattle Times.