Letter from the Editor: On How to Combat Fake News

Fun fact: The Whitetopper accounts for five percent of the overall budget for student life at Emory & Henry. The cost over four years totals nearly $1 million, enough money to give much-needed updates to a handful of buildings on campus.

However, most of this money is wasted on ridiculous printing costs for newspapers that people don’t read. Emory & Henry is hemorrhaging money on a school organization instead of making buildings accessible for handicapped students or bringing better technology to classrooms.

Do you believe me? No? Good, because I made all of that up. Right off the top of my head. Just like that.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the Internet has become completely overrun with this terrifying (and vague) atrocity known as “fake news”. This term pops up in headlines on nearly every major news site at some point and echos around D.C. like a thick smog that chokes journalists and sticks to the lips of President Trump.

So, what exactly is fake news and why are we just now hearing about it? Well…it’s complicated.

There is a big difference between “fake news” and crappy journalism. Fake news is content that is fully based in lies. These stories tend to be on websites that look like they could be real news sources, but something just isn’t quite right. Many of the articles have clickbait-y headlines such as “HILLARY CLINTON ACTUALLY A SWAMP MONSTER: PHOTOS”.

These are the articles that your great aunt shares on Facebook without actually clicking the link. Most younger people these days are informed enough to understand that http://www.freedomeagle4lyfe.com.co is not a legitimate news source. If you are reading this, I hope you are one of these intelligent people who can discern the difference. This is fake news. Fake news is not the problem. The problem is crappy journalism.

I will be the first person to tell you that journalism is not corrupt. Most professional journalists are good at their jobs and are just as frustrated with crappy news as you are. But in the 24-hour news cycle, we are constantly bombarded with three dozen articles about the same thing all day. At any given moment, my phone will have the same headline from three different news outlets.

As the need to be informed becomes an even greater concern, it has been a struggle to find reliable, accurate and thorough reporting. With so much information filling our field of vision, it’s surprisingly easy for crappy journalism to slip in and become the truth. Untrained and uninformed content producers become mistaken for professional journalists, and outlets find themselves in over their heads trying to cover real news (ahem, Buzzfeed).

So, what are we supposed to do about it? Well, above all else, we must become media literate. This means understanding how news is created and what separates the truth from half-truths and accurate coverage from blog posts and aggregated information. I have a few steps I go through before trusting an article or news source.

Check for sources. If an article gives information without noting where the author got it, that’s an indication that the they didn’t research the topic thoroughly. To me, a story with no sources is no better than an anecdote. That’s not news.

Vet the sources. If a story does list sources, make sure those sources are reliable experts on the topic at hand. If you see a source, ask yourself if it makes sense for that source to be making comments on that issue. Bill Nye talking about space exploration? Sure. Bill Nye talking about the future of print journalism? Probably not.

If in doubt, as Google. The vast majority of outlets have an online presence beyond a website. Most have Facebook or at least a Wikipedia page. If it doesn’t, that’s a sign someone may be looking to troll you. Run.

If things don’t add up, look somewhere else. Unless an outlet is the first to break a story, that information will be on another news site somewhere. I always recommend reading more than one story on the same issue. However, I realize that’s time consuming and that I’m a news nerd. Instead, if you feel uncomfortable trusting a source or still have questions, go find it somewhere else. And finally, my most important rule:

And finally, my most important rule:

5. If an outlet mentions another news outlet, go read that one. Some news outlets are notorious for aggregating information from other sources instead of doing the dirty work. If you see a news source that names another paper or reporter, stop reading and go find that source. Chances are they will have better, more accurate information and you’ll be supporting the journalists who get off the computer and go out into the world to do their damn jobs.

So next time your friend from high school shares that article on Facebook, take the time to really understand it, not just read it. Today is the best time to take charge and demand better reporting. Ultimately, news a business. As the consumer, you don’t have to settle for fake news. Crappy journalism dies when people stop believing it and start asking the hard questions.

As the consumer, you don’t have to settle for fake news. Crappy journalism dies when people stop believing it and start asking the hard questions.

– Catherine Wiedman

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