News and Trends

How to Spot Real News from Fake News Online: A Definitive Guide

Many of these fakes originate from overseas "companies," whose members cite "income" as the primary motivating factor.
How to Spot Real News from Fake News Online: A Definitive Guide
Image credit: Shutterstock

As you likely know, we Americans once relied on three TV networks and a few local newspapers or radio stations to keep up with events going on in the world around us. When I first started working for TV stations in the mid-'90s, I felt that I had a sacred trust to help build newscasts that local residents could rely on to stay informed.

Related: Facebook, Twitter Join Network to Tackle Fake News

However, as the internet has evolved, we’ve come to a crisis of sorts. News is available 24 hours a day and comes from a wide variety of sources. But now we sometimes don’t even know if the news we read is true or not.

Social media makes it easy for friends to get news from one other, and now people have begun confusing legitimate news with completely fabricated stories designed as click bait. As a result, the information landscape has grown murky, with no real end in sight.

The problem has become so widespread that both Facebook and Google have announced crackdowns on fake news. However, they can’t thoroughly control the links people share with one other through social media. They can only take measures to reduce ads and search rankings. This places the responsibility for separating legitimate news from manufactured news heavily on you.

Did you ever think, growing up, that you’d have to become a news expert? Our grandparents, more often than not, learned to depend on the judgment of others for determining what was truth. We of course now live in a “post truth” society, so it’s time to develop our own tools to determine what’s trustworthy. This guide will help you learn to detect fake news whenever you come across it.

Traditional news

In journalism school, professors emphasize the importance of ethics, with graduates expected to take those principles with them into the newsroom. Whether they work for TV stations, newspapers, magazines or websites, true professionals carefully report only the facts, revealing the source for every secondhand piece of information they convey.

In some cases, journalists are asked to rework pieces that come from news services like the Associated Press, whether that means simply rewriting them or conducting their own investigative reporting. Journalists may learn that an event has happened “over the wire,” for instance, but decide to investigate and add their own reporting to their outlets' news coverage.

Professional journalists do more than search for information online. They make phone calls, send emails and travel to the scene of the events they’re covering, tracking down the information to report it as fact.

Related: Google, Facebook Move to Restrict Ads on Fake News Sites

Branded content

According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, PR professionals outnumber journalists five to one in this country, which means that journalists are consistently being bombarded with requests to cover product launches, company activities and more. In addition, branded content is growing in popularity, filling the internet with information produced and distributed by businesses.

A personal injury law firm is likely behind that article a consumer is reading, on pedestrian accidents, which may be on that firm’s blog or in a third-party publication. As a result, consumers aren’t entirely sure whether a reporter or marketer wrote the content. In many cases, readers don’t even care, as long as the information is helpful.

Unfortunately, some of this branded content may contain erroneous information, pulled from material the writer got from a random internet search. In some cases, businesses have sponsored studies that produce statistics they can then use to promote their products or services. This underscores the need to check the source, sample size and survey methods behind any statistics you plan to use.

Manufactured news

One of the biggest problems in the most recent presidential election was manufactured news, similar to those unverified stories found in tabloid publications. Many of us still don't quite understand how extensive the problem is, or just what effect these stories had on the results, if any.

Fake news is designed to encourage sharing on social media using the most sensational headlines possible. With each click, a site has an opportunity to make more ad revenue. Although celebrities have long been targets of fake news stories, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been the most recent topics of interest.

Many of these stories originate from overseas “companies,” whose members cite “income” as the primary motivating factor. Manufactured news may not have any basis whatsoever, yet still may get shares and clicks as though it did. Sometimes, fake news is shared much more than real news is.

Spotting fake news

Often, what news consumers see on social media is a combination of truth and fabrication in varying degrees. In some cases, a site hasn’t verified the news or has used unreliable sources. The first step in determining whether a story is reliable or not is its source. Although classic media outlets like CNN, NBC and the New York Times may face criticism, they employ professional journalists trained to fact check information before going live with it or publishing it.

This is at least a good starting point. Readers should stay away from known fake news sites or pages that try to trick people into believing their content is legitimate.

You should also be aware that headlines are often written in a bombastic manner to generate clicks. It’s important to look beyond a headline to the story itself before sharing content. Perhaps, most importantly, before sharing, check the author of the piece, especially when you're looking at unfamiliar sites. The article’s author should have credentials that make him or her an appropriate authority to be reporting the information.

Remove your own bias.

Above all, watch your own opinion and how it’s influencing what you read. Are you inclined to read only news from sites that correspond with your current opinions? Are you more inclined to think a story is factual because you’re happy to hear the information in it? You should consider the possibility that you may not actually know if what you’re reading is true unless you’ve seen it multiple times from completely different sources.

I know, that sounds inconvenient and time intensive. However, it’s the price you have to pay if you want facts, not garbage, to inform your opinions.

Related: Elon Musk Trolls Fake News Writer, and 12 Other Times He Had the Best Response

While fake news can often be well disguised, now that consumers are aware of the issue, they can hopefully become more mindful of it. Over time, discriminating readers will know the importance of verifying that they’re getting their news from professional journalists working for credible sites. Perhaps only then will we all be sure we're being accurately informed.