Knowing my history as a reporter and news director, several people have recently asked me about social media stories that creatively pass as fact when they are fiction. How can you tell the difference? Read like a reporter.
- Approach all stories with a healthy dose of curiosity. Keep in mind, curiosity is not the same as cynicism. But ask yourself the five basic "W" questions: Who wrote this? What publication ran it? Where did it first appear -- in the "News" section or the "Opinion" section? When did it run? (I have seen stories presented as current that were published years ago.) Why is this in my social media feed? (Is it from a trusted news source? Is it from Uncle Jerry? Is it a post someone has paid to distribute?)
- Consider the source. Andy Borowitz is satire, dear hearts. This particular Borowitz column brings up another red flag that we see in non-satirical fiction online these days: Inaccurate information. Unfortunately, the cutbacks in news rooms across the country have led to fewer editors and fact checkers. But facts that are this blatantly wrong would be captured before publication at a valid news outlet. Think as you read. (Example: If you're thinking, you realize I just stated as fact the info re: the news room layoffs, and I didn't give you any supporting data to back it up.)
- Consider the source again. Along these same lines, remember that anyone can put "News," "Report" or "Daily" in the name of their post and make it sound legitimate. This could be the Kansan Daily News, rather than the Creative Instigation blog. How long has the news source been around? Have you ever heard of it before?
- Get information from multiple legitimate sources. If you think The New York Times leans left and The Wall Street Journal leans right, then go for the center. I've started following the Associated Press and Reuters. I relied on the Associated Press as a reporter, and still find their information factual and non-biased.
- Look for attribution when you see an adjective. If the story says: Jan and Tom Harness have two daughters, the "two" is an easily provable fact and does not need attribution. If the story says: Jan and Tom Harness have two brilliant daughters, the "brilliant" needs attribution. (Even though it is a fact and we all know it.) The correct approach for that would be: According to Jan Harness, both daughters are brilliant. An attribution would typically be from one person or source -- people don't say exactly the same things, even when they are married. And, when tackling this topic, the question I ask myself is: "Can you prove it?"
- Read critically. Reporters know that the concept of "two sides to every story" is wrong -- there are typically far more than that. But, in a news report, look for both sides, look for multiple and differing opinions. Reading critically also means separating fact from opinion -- per tip #5.
- Remember that photos and videos can be edited. Case in point: A video "showing" Anderson Cooper laughing uncontrollably at Kellyanne Conway got a gazillion hits. It was an edited clip. If you have questions about the nature of a photo or video -- or story -- Snopes is a great resource.
- Question hyperbole. If you see a story with a number like "a gazillion" in it, ask yourself if that's a fact or if the writer (in this case, me), is stretching the facts to make a point. And because she (the writer, in this case, me) is too lazy to look up the accurate number of hits. If I did look it up, I would need to qualify it: A video "showing" Anderson Cooper laughing uncontrollably at Kellyanne Conway had received 1,333, 291 hits at the time this story was written. Or: A video "showing" Anderson Cooper laughing uncontrollably at Kellyanne Conway received more than 1.3 million hits.
- Check the spelling and the grammar. If the story includes misspelled words and poor grammar -- especially in the first paragraph -- chances are it is not from a reliable news source. Do reliable sources make mistakes? Absolutely. But most mistakes will be caught by an editor.
- Back away from vulgarity. Respected news media do not use obscenities in the headline unless they are quoting someone. Consider the publication's style preference, but all caps can be another giveaway that you're seeing a creative take on a story, rather than a news report. With the headline below, using all caps with the vulgarity only provides two immediate clues that you don't need to read this story.
One of the biggest journalistic dangers today is the same danger I dealt with years ago -- in our rush to be first on the air with a story, there was always the risk that we would move too fast, not check every fact, and make a mistake. There are times now when I see breaking news, and go to check it at the Associated Press or The Washington Post -- and they don't have it. Later, they will. They may not be the first to report the news, but I'm comforted by the idea that they are checking to make sure it's accurate before publication.
If you want to separate the wheat from the chaff, read like a reporter, my friends. Reporters, by nature, question. Now, more than ever, you need to do the same.
*If you're too young to know what a chain letter is, think of a Facebook message that warns you will lose a valued appendage if you don't forward it immediately to seven other people.