Those who know a little about my research for Speak Right On know that I had no choice but to publish my book as fiction. Information about the details of Dred Scott's life simply is too scant for a work of nonfiction. Nevertheless, I was able to weave into my story many facts. This could be challenging, because I sometimes encountered varying accounts—I had to scrutinize the differences, seek supporting evidence, and critically evaluate the sources.
So it is with our news today: we have many varying accounts of a vast range of stories. Are they based in fact or in fiction? In "Americans' Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low," Gallup reported in September that only 32 percent of adults have "fair" or a "great deal of" confidence in what the mass media is reporting.
Many times in the pre-election year I felt confused and unable to keep track of what was credible and what wasn't. And now that the election is decided, the haze of misinformation grows ever thicker. In our latest elections, no matter how or whether they voted, many people agree that we were all poorly served by our media, pundits, and pollsters. It should be obvious that opinion is not fact, but it bears emphasizing. We heard a lot of opinions—a good measure of it unsubstantiated—and then we marched to the polls and cast our votes.
On this Thanksgiving weekend, I am grateful to share an article by Glenn Kessler from the Washington Post: "The truth behind the rhetoric," which provides recommendations and steps for individuals to vet their online news sources.
Kessler's first suggestion: don't share a headline before you actually read the article. (Duh!) This is especially key on social media, because a whopping 59% of us never click on the links to the full information. Pause a moment to think about this; it means we are embracing as truths headlines that are designed to elicit an emotion, not deliver information.
Next: check to see if the article comes from a legitimate website. This isn't as subjective as it sounds. Legitimate sites have logos, links, and an "about us" page. Most will also have a page about corrections, because legitimate reporters sometimes get things wrong—and they have an obligation to clarify and correct their stories. The Post offers this example of an actual news site and a fake one that copies it:
- "There's ABC News, the television network, with the Web address of abcnews.go.com. And there's ABC News, the fake news website, with the Web address of abcnews.com.co. The use of ".co" at the end of the URL is a strong clue you are looking at a fake news website. (It signifies the Internet country code domain assigned to the country of Colombia.)"
But don't stop there: the article lists these other litmus tests:
- Does the site have a "contact us" page? Are names of the publisher and reporters listed? Are there news departments? Do the pictures and addresses seem hokey?
- Consider the byline of the reporter: do the biographical details seem farfetched? Do a quick Google search on the reporter to validate whether she indeed won all the awards claimed.
- Okay, you're reading the article all the way through, and you come upon a quote from someone that sounds implausible—check that out too. Fact-check any statement that makes you pause, shake your head, or do a double-take.
- What sources are cited? None? Merely a re-Tweet? If there are no credible sources there is no credible information; it's just opinion or fantasy.
- What type of advertisements appear on the site? If they're cheesy, the information on the site is bound to be likewise.
Don't accept "news" in a vacuum. Google the topic, and you'll quickly see whether other, legitimate news groups are covering the story. If they aren't, they probably have come to the conclusion it isn't reliable. If you do find additional coverage, read one or two so that you know where the discrepancies lie and which seems most reliable.
We each have a civic responsibility to be informed. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. cautioned:
There is nothing more dangerous in the world than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.Martin Luther King Jr.