Fake News

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What Is It?

Today I would like to discuss one of the top three most obnoxious trends* currently plaguing the world: fake news. This phrase has been and continues to be splayed across the internet all too frequently, and it begs the question, what even is “fake news”? For the majority of my life, I have interpreted it as basically anything published by National Enquirer. Stories about aliens, random celebrity deaths, and the occasional Sasquatch sighting, etc. Basically, any report that is published without a few reputable sources to me is fake. However, this past election cycle has ignited heavy dialogue about what fake news really is, and has helped me refine my definition.

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It seems to me that the key issue here is that the label is being tossed around in situations where it doesn’t belong. By this I mean that just because you do not agree with a certain article does not mean that it is fake. This problem of mislabeling appears to be more prominent in conservative media, as Princeton history professor David A. Bell explains in his article for The Nation entitled “Fake News Is Not the Real Media Threat We’re Facing.” Bell discusses how conservative media personnel have been using their power to delegitimize mainstream media like The New York Times or The Washington Post. This causes a vicious cycle where accusations of fallacy are made, those accused try to defend themselves with evidence, but then that defense is used as yet another example of fallacy. The implications of this issue are extreme, and Bell suggests that the media needs to take a more aggressive stance against those “commentators” and call them out for their false accusations.

Bell’s commentary on the delegitimization of real news is essential, but it is also important to understand that not all news is credible and fake news sources do actually exist. As NPR’s Wynne Davis reports in the article “Fake Or Real? How to Self-Check The News And Get The Facts,” many stories being published today involve the use of catchy headlines and out-of-context quotes to entice readers and then fill the rest of the piece with inaccurate or even completely false claims. I have to agree with Davis when she states that it is not only the platforms who should be held accountable for this outbreak, but the individuals consuming the media as well. People tend towards laziness when it comes to their media, and it is much easier to take something at face-value instead of digging deeper to see if what they’re reading/listening to/viewing is actually credible. Either that, or they just don’t know how to tell the difference. Davis offers some tips from communications professor Melissa Zimdars that can help audiences with their literacy, and I’ve selected a few of my favorites to share with you here.

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Tips, Tricks, and Hints

  1. CHECK THE SOURCE. If you see a link on Facebook or  Twitter or wherever you’re getting your news from, actually go to the site. Most of the time it is glaringly obvious which sites are reliable and which are not. For instance, sites like beforeitsnews.com or freedomdaily.com use strange fonts, clip art, and trigger words in their headlines. Whereas sites like npr.org or ap.org are less flashy and more put-together. Plus the .org domain is usually more reliable than a .com (although some .com’s are quality).
  2. LOOK AT THE AUTHOR. If there is no author listed, that’s a bad sign. If the author is listed, their description should be brief. Any intense, dramatic descriptions should be taken with a grain of salt. Plus, you can try looking them up to see if they have any other pieces out there and what the reputation of the company in general is.
  3. CITATIONS. Plain and simple, if a piece of work is to be trusted they should reference at least a few external, credible sources. If quotes are used, make sure they are in-context. Plus, make sure that anyone who is being referenced is someone with expertise in their respected field.
  4. BIAS. While it would be ideal for journalism to be free of bias, it is not practical. That being said, it’s important to be aware of the inherent biases of certain sources. For instance, it’s been pretty well-established that Fox News leans conservative, and MSNBC leans liberal. These outlets are usually credible, but understanding bias can ensure a healthy amount of skepticism when taking in the information presented.

Closing Thoughts

As frustrating as it may be to see and hear the phrase “fake news” plastered all over the media today, it does bring to light some important ideas. For one, it brings the ever-growing problem of discrediting mainstream news to light, and two, it should prompt individuals to brush up on their media literacy skills in order to avoid being duped. Hopefully with time the media will evolve from a chaotic space laden with conspiracies and hate speech to a forum for healthy skepticism and discourse.

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* the other obnoxious trends are children dabbing on camera during sporting events, and the bottle-flipping game

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