About News

Not Falling for Phony News Takes a Lot of Darn Work

UMM, this didn’t happen. it went viral on social media, but it’s fake, like many other photos and news reports. some of those news reports, of course, carry far more dire consequences than this did.

In light of the rampant spread of false information these days, the recent National News Literacy Week seems humorously futile. What’s next? Courteous Driving Week? Brussels Sprouts Appreciation Week?

News literacy, sometimes called media literacy, means that audiences, not just news organizations and platforms, carry responsibility for stopping distribution of misinformation and disinformation that arise from social media and substandard professional news outlets. (Misinformation means unintentional wrong information; disinformation means wrong information created or shared intentionally to cause mischief, advance a political agenda or make money.) This audience obligation entails evaluating the credibility of statements before choosing to believe them and share them.

Considering the avalanche of information that news consumers receive these days, along with some people’s desire to believe anything that reinforces preconceived notions while rejecting everything else, this expectation of literacy among readers and viewers seems unrealistic. A 2019 Stanford University study found young people especially unprepared to evaluate online content.

Lack of literacy can lead to people looking foolish. No, a raccoon did not go for a ride on the back of an alligator. More consequentially, though, it can reinforce political division. No, Democrats aren’t fronting a pedophile ring. And sometimes it leads to people endangering themselves and others. No, COVID vaccines don’t have microchips in them.

Even the non-gullible among us — and sometimes we’re all gullible — need to keep constant vigilance. Here’s some advice on how to make yourself more news literate.

  • Use multiple, credible news sources. Credibility, or believability, develops over time as a news source establishes a track record of accuracy. But a familiar brand is not necessarily a credible brand. Bias affects many well-known outlets. Fox News’ prime time talk shows, which are opinion shows masquerading as news shows, are especially bad. But there are others.
  • When getting news from social media, try to identify the originating source of the information. Remember that social popularity does not equate to truth. It’s often the opposite, in fact.
  • If you’re on an unfamiliar website, or an unfamiliar website is the origin of a social media post, look for clues to the reliability of the site. Click the “About” tab. A political or business affiliation or funding source could mean the site has an agenda and can’t be trusted. Be suspicious of sites that don’t list staff names or contact information. Same goes if you see misspellings and poor grammar. Remember also that on some sites, everything is spoof or satire, presented to look as if it isn’t.
  • You don’t have to be a detective if you don’t wish. Several online services created to combat disinformation rate news sites on degree of adherence to principles of good journalism. Check out com, or mediabiasfactcheck.com, or verificationhandbook.com.
  • If you want to check the truth of a particular report on a website or social media platform, do an online search with keywords and see what other news outlets, if any, are reporting the same thing. You also can use sites whose sole purpose is to confirm or debunk particular stories. Check what you’re reading with org, or politifact.com, or snopes.com, among others.
  • Run an online search on the bylined reporter if the name is unfamiliar. What’s their bio? What else have they written?
  • Many news stories rely on polls, surveys and other research. Identify who compiled the data and run an online background search.
  • Technology allows for hard-to-detect manipulation of photos and videos, and often images are presented as representing something they don’t. Check video and photo authenticity by doing a “reverse search” online. Use Google’s Reverse Image Search or com.
  • Stop giving automatic credence to the reported statements of authority figures such as politicians. These days, many of them will say anything if they think it will win them votes.

Looking at all this great advice, I think it’s obvious: This is more than any of us wants or has time to do. And that’s a big part of the problem. The purveyors of disinformation count on us not to do it.


Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.