Opinion: How to spot fake news, from a fact-checker

By Ella Watylyk, Copy Editor

Lucas Martinez

When I tell people I am a copy editor, most people assume I just address errors in spelling and grammar. Although those are important parts of my job, most of the time I spend editing is used for fact-checking.

Fact-checking has become increasingly important over the past four years as accusations of “fake news” have run rampant. Fake news itself is nothing new; false stories have been circulated since the invention of the printing press around 1440. However, the rise of digital media has taken the plague of fake news to a much more drastic level.

While some news stories are false in nature and often made with ill intent, many completely factual news stories have been incorrectly labeled as fake news in attempts to discredit them.

Sadly, these accusations of fake news, along with factually incorrect stories, have become so common that only 40% of Americans have trust in mass media as of 2020, according to a survey by Gallup. This is an 8% increase from 2016, when trust in the media hit an all-time low during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The public disdain for the media has largely been fueled by President Donald Trump, who frequently uses the term “fake news” in his Tweets and public appearances, often in response to “negative” news written about him. This is an issue as the majority of these stories about him are true, yet many believe Trump when he states that the news is false.

In a 2020 interview with Leslie Stahl for “60 Minutes,” Stahl recalls when Trump said to her in the past that he often claims news is fake because he wants to “discredit journalists.” This way, Trump said reporters will not be taken seriously when they write negative things about him.

The plight of fake news has essentially gaslighted the public—causing people to feel as though they cannot distinguish the truth from lies in media.

Part of the issue of online media is that algorithms determine what is shown to users. The goal of an algorithm is to display content that is most likely to be clicked on, whether it is factual or sensationalized. When a user clicks on an article from a fake news story on social media, the algorithm is more likely to show the user similar information in the future, said Margrethe Vestager, a Danish politician and the European commissioner for competition, in a 2018 Science X article, a web-based science and technology news service.

As consumers of media, we are now tasked with deciding for ourselves if the media we digest is credible or not. As a fact-checker, this is a responsibility I practice every time I edit an article and look at the sources reporters provide for fact-checking.

Here are some steps I take when fact-checking an article to determine its validity:

Consider the source. Is this an established media outlet you have heard of before? I recommend browsing through its articles and asking yourself if the bulk of its reporting seems to favor a certain perspective or bias.

Cross-reference the information. Check to see if the information in question is published by more than one news outlet. If the information cannot be found anywhere else, there is a higher chance that it has been fabricated or is dishonest.

Ask yourself if the story is rooted in fact or opinion. Is it constructed from credible sources, quotes and factual information? Or is it driven by opinionated commentary that can be debated and argued against?

Consider the purpose of the story. Was it written to inform readers, discredit someone’s reputation or promote a particular person or ideal? If the story’s mission is anything other than relaying information, you may be looking at propaganda instead of news.

Discern news from entertainment. Keep in mind that some forms of journalism, such as satire and opinion pieces, are written with the intent of sharing humor or opinions. They are not meant to be news updates.

In times when you are unsure if an article is trustworthy, turn to these tips to help you trust your judgment in determining honest journalism from fraudulent fabrications.

Websites such as Factcheck and Politifact offer additional resources for determining facts from fiction.