What is the purpose of a free press? Our founding fathers saw it as a safeguard for democracy. President Donald Trump sees it as a purveyor of “fake news.” And in tweets such as “91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake),” he has helpfully revealed his definition: “Fake news” is any report – accurate or not – that fails to cast him in a positive light.
For the record, “fake news” must, by definition, be factually inaccurate. “A news story is not fake simply because it is impolite or inconvenient,” notes the Center for Investigative Reporting. “Nor is it fake because it calls into question a set of beliefs readers hold dear – or because it singles out for scrutiny a popular topic or figure. It is not fake just because it’s rejected by those in power.”
How, then, can you tell whether news is “fake”? Which sources can you trust to tell you the true story?
You may get your news from Facebook or Twitter or YouTube, from the Salt Lake Tribune or Deseret News, from KUTV-Channel 2 or KTVX-Channel 4, from National Public Radio or from special-interest news sites or blogs. Wherever you find it, there are three questions to ask about the news you consume:
1. Who is telling me this?
2. How do they know it?
3. What’s in it for them?
Who is telling me this?
While answering this question may require some research, it can help you understand a mainstream news outlet’s possible underlying mission or philosophy. Deseret News and the NBC-affiliated KSL-TV, for example, are both owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. KSTU-Fox 13 was recently sold to the E.W. Scripps Co. The CBS-affiliated KUTV is owned by conservative-leaning Sinclair Broadcast Group, which last year required all of its TV stations to read a scripted anti-media message on air.
No matter who owns them, though, local TV news outlets have an advantage: Their viewers trust them. In fact, “76 percent of Americans cite local TV news as a highly trusted source of news, the most of any medium,” according to the Nieman Journalism Lab. One reason may be that local TV news anchors and reporters don’t just appear on the TV screen each day; they are part of the local community. (This may be one reason KUTV employees were said to be “dismayed and embarrassed” at having to read Sinclair’s scripted message.) And with several TV news outlets operating in Salt Lake City alone, lapses in accuracy are easier to spot.
Remember, though, that these local news programs must cover their material in limited time – about 41 seconds per story, according to the Pew Research Center. For a deeper understanding of a local issue, you’ll want to read your local newspaper as well.
Sources of news on social media can be more difficult to pin down, especially when those catchy headlines link to unfamiliar websites. In this case, domainsearch.com is your friend: Just type the web address into the search bar, and click the “whois info” button that comes up to see the name of the person and/or organization behind the site, along with contact information.
To learn the leanings of an unfamiliar publication, Media Bias/Fact Check is a widely used option that rates news sources according to “left” or “right” bias. It rates the Salt Lake Tribune as having a “left-center bias,” for example, and Deseret News as having a “right-center bias.” Among the least biased newspapers in Utah, according to Media Bias/Fact Check: Ogden’s Utah Standard-Examiner and Logan’s Herald Journal.
On any social-media platform, it’s important to remember that you’re operating in a filter bubble, with algorithms and your own social contacts determining the news that is fed to you. Check out the Wall Street Journal’s “Blue Feed, Red Feed” tool for an eye-opening look at liberal and conservative Facebook feeds, side by side.
How do they know it?
The short, sweet way to answer this question: attribution. For every statement that’s not common knowledge, ask yourself: “Who says?” If the answer isn’t obvious, it’s probably the opinion of the author – who may or may not be an expert. A major red flag is the use of passive voice in phrases such as, “It has been reported … it is believed … it is known …” If the source doesn’t say who reported/believed/knew, they may have just made it up.
What’s in it for them?
As the media-literacy organization Understand Media explains, “Most media messages try to sell you one of two things: a product or service, or an ideology.” Once you know who they are (see question No. 1), you’ll be better able to figure out what they want.
What’s in it for us?
“Wherever the people are well-informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” Claims of “fake news” erode public trust not only in the news, but also in the objective facts upon which news is based. They replace our sense of responsibility with a sense of futility; that’s bad news for democracy. To be trusted with our own government, we must be able to counter the post-truth movement with informed discussion and decision-making, based on a common set of facts. We, the media-literate people, are the ones who can make that change.
Doris Schmidt spent 14 years as an editor for a large regional newspaper in Massachusetts, and 17 years as a journalism professor at Fitchburg State University. She now splits her time between Belchertown, Massachusetts, and Park City, Utah. She is a super-volunteer with Alliance for a Better Utah.