Fake news is everywhere. It’s impossible to go a day without seeing mention of false or malicious internet stories, or hearing such stories referenced by politicians. It’s hard to know what to trust, especially online.
But staying informed of the world’s injustices is important to many of us as people of faith, and sometimes it’s just not possible to avoid news of all varieties. How can we read the news critically and with discernment? What are characteristics of credible reporting, and what, in contrast, does journalistic manipulation look like?
We often understand the word bias to mean “malicious intent,” but that’s a mischaracterization. An article’s bias is its inherent perspective — something that all authors and media sources bring to the table. Ethical reporting practices, editors, and other vetting processes improve reliability and minimize bias, but there is no such thing as a completely unbiased source or unbiased reader.
And self-examination is an important tool — especially for followers of Jesus. Paul writes: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize Jesus Christ is in you?”
Christian practice and worship involves introspection. We’re acutely aware of the spiritual baggage we bring to the table. Why not do the same when engaging with the news? As readers of faith, we have the opportunity and obligation to critically examine the events of the day and ourselves: What assumptions are we bringing to this particular article? How have our environments shaped us as readers?
As a research librarian and editorial fact-checker, we’ve assembled a guide to help you browse online journalism and avoid fake news.
Before you click
Before we even decide which articles to read, a complex digital system largely predetermines what we see online. Every time you open Facebook, the website’s closely-guarded secret algorithm scans everything posted by friends, groups, and “liked” pages in the past week. Then it determines how likely you are to find each post worthwhile.
Searching for a topic or phrase using Google or other search engines can be just as problematic. Like Facebook, search algorithms also use unknown sets of factors to determine which pages are most important and should appear higher on a list. And since algorithms “simply reflect people’s attitudes and behaviors,” they often learn and evolve to reflect human prejudice.
Articles and pages written by politically motivated sources can contain techniques and tricks designed to manipulate Google’s algorithm and present a distorted version of reality to a reader trying to learn more about a topic.
So what specific steps should we take upon encountering questionable features, or after clicking on them?
As a reader, it can be easy to focus only on a news article’s content without paying attention to its greater package of information. This is particularly easy in an online environment in which the text of an article can sometimes have a feeble or murky connection to information about its creation.
But this each-article-in-isolation habit of reading has consequences. According to a recent Pew Forum study, online news consumers following a link to a news article were only able to recall the news outlet’s name an average of 56 percent of the time. However, respondents performed better when the link came directly from a news organization. To make intentional and informed choices as a news consumer, it’s important to be aware of the platform on which your news originates; who wrote it; the context it provides; and the audience for whom it was written.
What is the editorial or vetting process for publication? Who owns and funds the news source?
The platform on which you read an article, such as a social media site, may not be the platform on which it originated. Track down the original publication to find out more about owner and editor information, as well as what other types of articles this organization publishes. As a reader, it is hard to know exactly how much influence the owner or financial backer has, or chooses to wield, over the content a news organization publishes or the perspective it presents. However, it’s helpful to be aware of this factor and its potential influence when evaluating news content.
Who wrote this article? What credentials does the author have?
Bylines indicate who is responsible for authoring the article, and let a reader look up the author’s affiliation, degrees, experience, and additional publications. Look for a profile page or an about section. Make sure the author’s credentials and experience line up with what they are writing — expertise in one area does not mean expertise in every area. For instance, if the author of a news article is not a credentialed journalist, what specific voice or unique viewpoint does she bring to her reporting of this news item? Outside voices can provide a valuable perspective, but that perspective should be intentional and clear to the reader.
What links and sources are provided? When was the article published? Are there other published articles from credible publications on this topic?
The presence of hyperlinks to credible sources — or enough provided context for the reader to find those sources — validates the author’s information-gathering process and shows she is committed to transparency. A publication date tells you the article is current. News stories are often published in more than one publication, so compare articles on the same topic to help you establish the authenticity of a piece.
Take, for example, this piece from website True Pundit criticizing Elizabeth Warren’s “racial stunt” in Congress, by citing a video of Coretta Scott King apparently thanking Jeff Sessions.
Politifact notes that by taking a snippet of video out of context, True Pundit “twists King’s words to a ridiculous degree.” King never thanked Sessions in the speech, only giving him “the verbal equivalent of a wave or handshake.” Watching the video in its context allows readers to evaluate the accuracy of True Pundit’s criticism of Warren — which could also easily be accomplished by reading other pieces that address King’s opinion of Sessions.
Who is the article's target audience? What perspective is presented?
The language used in an article is often a clue regarding its intended audience. Look at the language used to assess whether the article is trying to inform, persuade, or provoke its readers. And be cognizant of how many perspectives an author presents — multiple, binary, or just one. The number of perspectives presented is a window into the identity and scope of the author’s intended audience.
This article from Occupy Democrats about conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly, for instance, uses language meant to provoke readers, not inform them. Its inflammatory tone raises red flags regarding credibility. And the claim it makes is entirely false — the court awarding custody of O’Reilly’s children made no mention of violent confrontations or assault in its ruling.
Evaluations like this are time-consuming, but the process really does become quicker and more instinctive as you become more familiar with it. (And the length of time it takes to check into a source can also be its own signal about reliability. If it’s difficult to find all of this information listed above, the article may be less reliable than it first appeared.)
You also don’t have to work alone in the news evaluation process. Research studies and other published material can help you to be more effective and efficient, especially in identifying the reliability and political leanings of the sources you read.
And remember to always consider your own bias, and examine whether some part of you especially wants this or that story to be true, even if it isn't. Faith allows for layers of nuance and analysis. Jesus emphasized trust and grace. Can such values possibly translate online? What should our relationships be like with texts and authors amid so many unknowns?
Although neither the Bible nor mainstream media answer such questions, the questioning process is essential for news-readers of faith. Self-examination, combined with the strategies outlined above, can allow us to enter a thoughtful, critical, and reflective state so we can avoid being misled by, or urgently sharing, that next questionable article.