7 steps to become a more discerning news reader

Tobias Naegele, Stars and Stripes' ombudsman


Visiting military bases overseas in September, I was struck by the number of young troops who told me “you can’t believe what you read on Facebook.”

Staying in touch is their primary reason to access the internet. But they consistently voiced skepticism about news seen on social media. This was months before the topic of fake news and its possible role in the presidential election took off in the mainstream media.

Some said they relied on social sites like Reddit.com to identify worthwhile news content; others said when it came to news that directly affected them, like information about military rules or benefits, they did their own online research to determine the veracity of what they’d read. That’s impressive.

The internet democratized media, making it easier for new publishers to get into the business and harder for traditional media to ply their trade. In the process, it’s also made it exceptionally easy to make stuff up and get away with it.

Fake news is not new. Tall tales and propaganda predate the printing press and have flourished in publications like the Weekly World News and the National Enquirer, which this week promises to reveal the identity of the Cuban operative it says killed JFK.

What is new is the ability to almost instantly reach millions of readers — and to earn good money from legitimate advertisers in the process.

News used to be a luxury item. Only those who could afford it, bought a paper. Over time, publishers found advertising was more lucrative than subscriptions, which held down the price per copy and made affordable news available to the masses. Then came the internet, which turned news into a commodity. Today, the value of most news content is zero and the price publishers can command for advertising continues to plunge. Automated ad services now deliver ads and advertisers, peeling off another cut from publishers, which in turn have cut staffs in half, eliminating fact checkers and most editors in the process.

Fake news sites, unburdened by the real work of dogged reporting and fact checking, prosper by employing the same techniques real journalists use daily to attract reader attention — compelling headlines, novel story lines, attention to traffic metrics and extensive use of social media to promote and share their wares. The only difference: Fakers don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.

For less than $10 and a couple of hours of screen time, anyone can set up a site and start publishing. Generate enough traffic, and digital ad networks will pound your inbox for a chance to serve up ads.

Publishing fake news is not illegal. But it does have real consequences. In the most egregious case, a gunman drew and fired his weapon in a Washington, D.C., pizzeria while “self-investigating” a fake news story involving the Clinton campaign.

But if allowing fake news is a price we must pay for free speech and an open internet, then it’s up to us to educate and inoculate ourselves against false reporting.

Here are seven tips to make sure you don’t fall for a fake scoop:

Pick your sources. If you get your news online, choose two or three news sites that you trust and get to know them. Learn who owns your chosen sites, understand how they get their money. Conventional news organizations earn revenue from a combination of advertising and subscription sales, and may have a reputation for leaning one way or another politically. Knowing and understanding that puts content — especially opinion — in context.

Know your bylines. Learn the names of the reporters who cover the topics you follow most closely. Following specific reporters and pundits, rather than the news organizations they write for, builds a private rapport and sense of trust. You’ll learn the reporters’ strengths and weaknesses, and that will help you better judge which stories you can take to the bank — and which to ignore.

Focus on original material. You can divide most news content into two categories — commodity and unique. Commodity coverage is the basic who, what, where and when that you get in Associated Press reports about news events and announcements. It’s the bulk of what we see and hear every day. Unique content is what sets news organizations apart, the features and investigative coverage that reveals the story behind the story, exposes wrongs and causes others to sit up and take note. The best news organizations invest considerable resources in original reporting about the communities they serve. If you’re going to pay for news, this is the stuff you’re looking for.

Be a skeptic. Links on Facebook shared by friends and relations are where you’re most likely to run into fake news. To spot it, hone your personal B.S. meter. Don’t believe everything you read. Look for tell-tale signals, such as a lack of attribution or wild assertions, and check them out on www.Snopes.com, a 20-year-old specialist in tracking down internet rumors, or www.factcheck.org, a nonprofit arm of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Don’t judge the book by its cover. Just because a news item looks real and the site it’s on seems legitimate doesn’t mean it’s so. It’s easy to mimic the look, feel, sound and names of real sites. Reading the About section is no assurance either — it’s just as easy to lie there as anyplace else. Check the spelling in the logo and the web address. One now-defunct site named itself USAToday.com.co, a subtle change that’s easy to overlook.

Watch the agenda. In addition to fake news, watch out for news that’s twisted to make a point or advance a policy agenda. Some of this agenda-driven reporting can be good stuff, but much of it is opinion masquerading as fact. Knowing the agenda gives you context and perspective to soundly judge what you’re reading.

Hold your favorites to account. If you think your news sources are letting you down, tell them — but don’t waste your time with online comments or Facebook. If you want to make a point, email the editors and reporters. They are real people. They will enjoy a civil exchange with engaged readers. Sadly, such exchanges are rare. They shouldn’t be.

Does Stars and Stripes do a fair and accurate job keeping you informed? Share your view. Write to me at naegele.tobias@stripes.com or post a comment with this column online.

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