With so many falsehoods, contorted facts and deliberately omitted information pushed at us every day, how is a person supposed to figure out what is true?
This has always been somewhat of a problem but with the advent of social media as a news source, the issue has been exacerbated to the point of becoming a crisis.
But fortunately, there are a few simple things you can do – call it personal due diligence – before posting information on your own channels, like Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn (which is becoming a bigger source of political misinformation every day).
Most importantly, understand whether you are looking into a news article or an opinion essay. Each requires a slightly different approach but there are also some things you should consider in both cases.
- Question the assumptions.
- Ask yourself what assumptions are built-in to the article or opinion. This is usually obvious from the very beginning of the article. If science or law justifies the assumption, then you are probably on the right track. For example: climate change is an existential threat or everyone is equal are two safe assumptions. If the assumption is NOT justified (i.e. climate change is a hoax or white people are superior) then why are you even reading it?
- If you choose to read further, feel free to do so but be aware society or the law would consider the article to be based on a faulty premise or a conclusion that is not supported by science. This is likely a conspiracy theory or an outright lie.
- Some people enjoy going down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole and this is fine. But like reading science fiction, recognize you are off in a Twilight Zone and don’t forget to ground yourself back in reality again at some point – for your own mental health at the very least!
- Check the publication.
- Look for an “about us” page or some background on the news source on their website. If there is none, that is next red flag. If there is none, you cannot trust this source. Proceed cautiously.
- If there is, read through carefully and try to understand who funds the news source, what bias they may have and look for their position on fact checking, etc. Many will admit they don’t fact check or not mention it at all, which means you can assume they don’t. It’s fine to read these but keep in mind – this puts the onus on YOU to fact check.
- Google the name of the publication, selecting the NEWS filter on the search engine. This gives you a better idea of the publication, how it is perceived in the news community (for better or for worse). Look for criticism of the publication and read through it so you can make your own judgment. In some cases, you may choose to accept the criticism but not discount the publication altogether.
- Use a tool like https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/ to search for and read about the publication’s bias. Smaller publications won’t necessarily be found on this site or others. For more established websites or sources, at least this gives you an indication of the left-right leaning tendencies and whether the publication is large or reputable enough to even be on the radar.
- Look for the author’s credentials.
- Google the author’s name (use relevant words from their work to narrow your search) to see if they have a public profile independent of the specific article or opinion column. If not, that is another red flag.
- If they do have a public biography, read through it and ask whether the person is qualified or has experience relevant to the subject matter. If the author is also offering an opinion on the subject matter, this becomes even more important.
- If the Google search results filter for NEWS turns up a lot of criticism of the author’s methodology off the top, it’s probably fair to say the person is controversial, and has a bias you should keep in mind when reading their opinion. Still, you may decide to read and consider their point of view, while remaining skeptical.
- When it comes to research and science, check the person’s academic record, including whether their work has been peer-reviewed, is cited by others and to what extent (if yes, this will come up in Google search results near the top). Type the person’s name with the word, CREDENTIALS and see what comes up.
- Note the publication date and sources of facts and data.
- Due to the rapidly evolving news environment, checking the date of the publication is essential. While there is no hard and fast rule for when information becomes outdated, ask yourself what may have changed since the publication date. Does this data or opinion still have relevance given those changes?
- The same goes for the facts and data referenced in the article or opinion piece. Determine whether there is more recent data available by also searching online. Use the TOOLS tab on your search bar in Google to filter your search for recent data.
- Some of the data may be hidden behind a paywall but often there is an abstract or executive summary available at least. Also, most scientific journals will share info with lay publications and often there are more accessible articles out there for you to Google and find the information. If not, it could be the research or data is in early phases or not widely published for other reasons. Be wary of this scenario. ANY conclusions may be premature.
- Find the original data if possible.
- If there are no sources for data provided, don’t waste your time. If the author doesn’t even feel the need to provide a source, their credibility is probably so low as to be non-existent.
- Most news articles or opinion pieces will include links to sources of related information or data online. A lack of links is another red flag.
- If there is a link, follow those links and give them the same scrutiny outlined in this fact-checking process. If you find they don’t pass the smell test in even one case, then it’s likely you don’t need to check further as this is an indicator of the trustworthiness of the content.
Miss Cranky Pants (aka Jody MacPherson) is a professional communicator, social media fan, politico, cyclist, divorcee (is it any wonder?) and coffee addict who gets a little testy without regular caffeine.