This urgent-sounding headline popped up in my Facebook feed recently, posted by a second-hand acquaintance: “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead.”
Underneath it, the comments began to form.
“And the bodies keep piling up.”
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After several more reactions that were the Facebook equivalent of rubberneckers responding to a roadside pileup, a journalist friend of mine and a former executive director of the Alabama Press Association made an important point.
“This newspaper does not exist.”
He was referring to the “Denver Guardian,” which was the source of the information. The fire story was one of many fake news posts proliferating before the election. “Pope endorses Trump” and other fakery was seen by – and maybe influenced the votes of – millions of people.
After the election, Facebook and Google said they would work to minimize fake news posts like this one on their platforms, according to news reports. Still, fake news is out there and with every click generating revenue off of gullible or distracted readers. How can we avoid being the next ones taken in?
We discussed strategies in one of my journalism classes at N.C. State.
First, I only click on stories I know come from actual news sources. But what is an actual news source? Here’s a simple definition: One that has a staff that goes out and reports news.
But questions persisted. Several had heard from friends, relatives, politicians and others that The New York Times was a biased, untrustworthy news source. How were New York Times stories any more believable than the fake news purveyors?
In response, I showed them a Times piece from Nov. 15 headlined “Steve ‘Turn on the Hate’ Bannon in the White House.” I had first seen it in my Facebook feed, and one of the top comments railed about the story’s liberal bias and, in turn, the Times’ lack of credibility as a news source.
Then I asked the students to notice what was written above and below the headline.
“The Opinion Pages” was most prominent label, along with “Editorial” and “By the Editorial Board.”
Understanding the difference between news and opinion is key to understanding what we’re reading.
So, yes, the commenter was right. The piece about Bannon was biased – and clearly labeled as such. But there was something else about that list of news sources that needed to be considered.
Which of these news organizations blur the lines between opinion and news? The students answered without hesitation. Fox News and MSNBC.
And there’s nothing wrong with that if you know what you’re getting. There is a problem, though, if a viewer can’t discern the difference between fact and manipulation of facts which is even harder than separating fact from opinion.
As an example, I showed students a Fox News story headlined, “New York Times publisher vows to ‘rededicate’ paper to reporting honestly.” I had seen this in my Facebook feed followed by comments like, “I’ll believe it when I read it” and, “Busted.” I asked them to consider it critically. What might they question about it?
They began to wonder if Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger really said something so damning about his own paper. Of course he hadn’t.
The lesson was, if a news source promotes a specific agenda, a reader would be well-served go to the source before drawing conclusions. A quick check of Sulzberger’s actual letter revealed Fox misrepresented what the letter said. Sulzberger clearly promised the paper would continue to report fairly – which he says the paper did throughout the presidential campaign. He wasn’t admitting some past dishonesty as Fox implied.
But what reader will go to the trouble to fact check misleading stories that on the surface might appear to be factual? It’s asking a lot of news consumers to stop and question the subtle distortions of Fox, especially considering we sometimes swallow news that’s not just distorted but fake.
It’s the convoluted irony of our time that Fox, a news organization that blurs and twists facts, has convinced Americans that legitimate news sources are the ones that can’t be trusted.
Paul Isom teaches journalism at N.C. State University.