Surviving as a Communicator in the Era of “Fake News”

With many people getting information about the world from their social media pages, it is essential that communicators are conscious of current skepticism surrounding facts. On national platforms, lies have been called “alternative facts” and the truth has been shut down as “fake”. Even the National Communication Association spoke out on the importance of preserving free and responsible communication. Here are some tips to stay grounded in the era of “fake news”:

  1. Always Cite, and Actively Look For Reliable Sources
    In your own writing, make sure you always correctly cite sources from which you receive information. Your readers will appreciate seeing exactly where facts and figures come from. Similarly, as you research, look for articles that cite credible, reputable sources. Just because you have not heard of a source does not mean it isn’t reliable, either.
  2. Use a Fact Checking Service 
    If you are skeptical of something that you read, put the information up against a fact checking website. Find a service that is nonpartisan that will independently evaluate a news story against documented facts. Two popular services include Politifact and Fact Check.
  3. Avoid Inflammatory Words in Your Writing
    When you feel passionate about a topic, it is easy to let your emotions out in your writing. Be careful with this; dramatic adjectives or flamboyant language can make proven facts seem fake and biased.Earlier this year, representatives disagreed on whether or not to eliminate the Office of Congressional Ethics. PBS reported on this with the headline “House Republicans reverse their plans to eviscerate the Office of Congressional Ethics”. Using a word like “eviscerate” instead of “end”, “eliminate”, or “discontinue” puts much more emotion into the topic, sensationalizing the entire issue.
  4. Research Content From the Article, Not Just the Headline
    In order to generate traffic and viewership, many websites create links to their pages with enticing language. An article with a suspenseful title that teases readers into clicking can often be misleading. This “Click Bait” is typically not from credible news sources, but since it contains sensationalized stories, they become more popular than stories containing facts. The number of views and shares on a story and the order in which it appears on a Google search does not necessarily mean it is trustworthy. In 2011, The Department of Justice was attacked by many news sources for apparently providing muffins at conferences that cost $16 each. The Atlantic reported this skewed story with the headline “$16 for a Muffin?! which got plenty of shares and attention. People were outraged after reading this headline and immediately agreed that this was an example of wasteful government spending. It turns out, the muffins weren’t really $16 each. They were part of a continental breakfast, and the $16 price tag covered a spread of breakfast items, tax, and gratuity.
  5. Subscribe to a Variety of Sources
    If you only receive news from one media outlet that has a bias, you likely will only see content the aligns with that narrative or ideology. It is important to cross reference sources rather than follow one specific source. AllSides is a media source that detects polarization in news articles, and applies a ranking from its spectrum of biases so readers are aware of subtle biased angles.

Whether you are reading the morning newspaper or doing research for a class assignment, it is important to be cautious of the information that you come across. Be aware that bias exists and some sources are not as responsible as others. By taking a few extra steps to verify data, you can become part of the solution to our nation’s problem of “fake news”.