After Friday morning’s 2017 ACES conference general presentation on the “Online Misinformation Ecosystem” that broke down the climate of “fake news” on the internet, editors headed to “Don’t get fooled: How to spot bad information and fake news," presented by Gerri Berendzen. The session provided several practical takeaways on how to detect misleading or wrong information and prevent legitimate publications from becoming unsuspecting purveyors of “alternative facts.”
This is considered a given among journalists when dealing with sources, but we have to do this with our writers and clients as well. There is a growing culture of mistrust among readers who generally don’t remember who got something first, but will remember who got it wrong. It’s important for editors to be on their guard to ensure accuracy in the materials they read. Ask yourself: How do we know this fact? Who said it? How do they know this? What’s the source for their information? In the session, we saw examples of how simple questions on subjects ranging from homeschool enrollment to the definition of the labor force could lead to light digging that changed a narrative.
Time constraints are real, especially if you’re working on daily papers or websites. A useful tip shared was to know what information is most likely to be incorrect in general AND to take stock of problem areas—your own, the writers you work with, sources, etc. This can help you prioritize areas to focus on while editing.
This list includes:
We spent some time on checking numbers. Journalists and editors are not expected to be mathematicians, but we should know math and how to ask questions about figures in a story. For example, look at the numbers and ask, how likely is this? How could someone count or determine that? Where did the number come from? What was the original source and context? Taking some time to look at numbers instead of glossing over them or assuming the writer/client checked them can make a big difference.
It is important to evaluate resources used in stories. For example, if referring to a website in copy, go to the site yourself and look around: Who runs it? Do they have an agenda? Check out the About page. If something about the site alerts you to a lopsided agenda or it says outright that it’s a satirical site, go elsewhere! It’s important to verify sources because once an established publication shares info from a shaky source, it may compromise that publication’s credibility or lead to misleading information being spread even further.
So, in general: If something seems too good to be true, question it. If a question comes up while reading, look into it. If something seems coincidental, check it out.
Even in our personal social media habits, we can ask ourselves whether we should share or retweet information that we can’t verify or that sounds outrageous.
The session’s takeaway was one of empowerment: While there may be a lot of false information out there, we can equip ourselves to prevent being part of that pipeline.