Tips for spotting fake news through good practice
Here we discuss fake news or false news. We look at what these terms mean for journalists and the different kinds of fake news. Then we offer guidance on how journalists can fight fake or false news through good practice and the use of what we call Trust Chains.
Fake news or false news can mean one of two things. It can be either:
- a made-up, untrue story or invented “fact” that has been written or presented to seem genuine, or
- an accusation that a genuine news story or actual fact is false, in order to undermine it.
Made-up news or facts (meaning 1 above) have been around for centuries. Although there are some rare exceptions when it is permissible to make up so-called “news” – for example in comedy or fiction – overall, false news is wrong and should not be produced by ethical journalists.
The second meaning (2) was made fashionable more recently by US President Donald Trump to describe news stories he disliked, usually because they criticised him. Although Trump started the current popularity of this meaning, many other people now use it, mainly people with power who dislike what professional journalists say about them.
For a full description of the controversy over fake news, you can read this article in TheNewsManual … Now!
Fake news has been around since mankind first started communicating and for hundreds of thousands of years it existed amongst a mixture of myths, legends and provable facts.
What we might recognise today as news only started in western societies a few centuries ago, and then in things like political pamphlets pushing a particular ideology or view of the world. Today’s tradition of objective journalism is actually quite modern.
Objective journalism produces stories based on provable facts, supported by evidence, accurately relayed and representing all aspects of any controversy without bias.
This definition of news is the one used in modern democratic, free-speech journalism, of the type supported by The News Manual. You can read more in several chapters, especially Chapter 56 ‘Facts and Opinions’ in Volume III, Ethics and the Law.
Different kinds of fake news
There are many kinds of fake or false news and many different reasons why it is produced. In a 2018 UNESCO report titled “Journalism, ‘fake news’ and disinformation”, (download the PDF of the report here, or go to the bottom of the page where it is embedded) the editors identified three specific types they called misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. In practice they break down into four types, with increasing levels of wrongdoing:
At the lower end of the spectrum there is news that is wrong because of mistakes, carelessness, genuine misunderstanding or because the person generating the news or passing it on is not really good at it. This type of “fake news” has always existed and we generally forgive those responsible as “only human”.
One level down on the scale of harm is news presented as satire – or satire presented as news. This is made-up news printed or broadcast in such a way that it is obvious to readers and viewers that it is not true, just a joke. It is a tradition in many cultures for media to publish such stories on 1 April each year, ‘April Fools Day’. Usually no harm is done and the media organisation commonly identifies the story afterwards or leaves clues within the story showing it is made up. But not everybody sees satire as harmless and people can be very offended when they think they are being fooled or made fun off.
Thirdly there is the kind of disinformation that takes real, provable facts and twists them, usually by selectively quoting some parts but not others. People usually do this to support their own belief system or a specific argument. Some of the news and opinion pieces to do with man-made global warming often fit into this category. It is not good practice, but many people regard it as part of politics.
The most harmful kind of “fake news” is made up or manufactured in order to deceive, in such a way that it calls black white, it turns the truth on its head and maybe presents concocted evidence. This seems like real news and is the most damaging kind of false news. Repeated often and long enough, this maliciously manufactured “fake news” not only damages the kind of rational discussion necessary for the functioning of democracy, but it leaves readers, listeners and viewers wondering just what they can believe, if anything at all.
It is very rare for such stories to be produced by most reputable media outlets, partly because journalists are trained to be cynical and check facts – there are usually systems of sub-editors and fact-checkers in place to assist – and because the publishers and broadcasters know that their readership and audience numbers depend on people coming back to them for news they can trust.
Social media and fake news
Social media have been blamed for spreading fake or false news. Indeed, surveys up to 2019 generally show that social media were the most mistrusted of all the modern media.
Social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and SnapChat are far less trusted than traditional print and broadcasting – what we call “legacy media”. Social media have some very useful functions in the 21st Century, sharing experiences, connecting families and friends, warning of danger so fast even the emergency services use them. They are generally beneficial and here to stay.
But social media are not so good in the production and transmission of news. In some ways they have actually caused the current plague of fake news. The very things that make social media so popular also make them so dangerous in spreading fake news. Anybody can use them, they are instant and there are few controls over content or quality standards.
Social media also play a major role in the “amplification” of false news. One person sharing something with ten people who each share it with 10 more can quickly spread fake news to thousands or millions of people. That is why information or accusations on social media are said to go “viral”, i.e. like a virus in a one’s body.
What also makes fake news so powerful is that it resembles an extreme form of what makes real news, in that it is typically very unusual. Because it is wrong, it is not what people expect so they pass it on as news. The truth – which might be much more ordinary – is not so attractive and is therefore not shared as widely or as quickly.
The journal Science has published research that shows that false news on Twitter spreads faster to more people than the truth.
As the 18th Century Anglo-Irish intellectual Jonathan Swift wrote: “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”.
One of the main weapons against fake news, for both journalists and their audiences alike, is the Trust Chain.
A Trust Chain is what connects the source of an event – including speeches, interviews etc – with the final reader, viewer or listener, ensuring that the version of facts they receive remains true to the original.
Each time a fact or comment is passed on by someone in the chain, it is a new link that must be checked to make sure it comes from a reliable source who has already checked its accuracy.
The steps to creating and maintaining Trust Chains are simple and should be followed at all times.
Be honest with yourself, about yourself
We should always try to be honest with ourselves and with other people. If we don’t know if something is true, then we should not say it is, even when the admission strikes at the very heart of our own personal worldview. Journalists are also members of society, so are able to have personal opinions of their own. But these must never be allowed to influence our professional work, however hard that might be. Remember to separate the you-at-work from the you-at-home.
Pass news forward honestly
Again, whatever you write or broadcast, you must be truthful with your reader, listener or viewer. If you do not know something is true, then either you must not pass it on or you must admit its weakness to your audience. If you cannot confirm that a story or a fact is true yourself, then you must say how accurate – or possibly inaccurate – you are being.
If you know something that is widely known but has not been confirmed, explain that. For example:
It is widely believed that the Prime Minister will announce a new trade agreement with France this afternoon, though no-one in Government will confirm this and the French Embassy has said it is “unlikely”.
Journalists should wherever possible attribute facts or opinions about which there may be dispute.
Question doubtful information
Journalists are more than people who pass on information to their audiences. Anyone can do that but journalists add value through their work by sorting through lots of information to pick out what is newsworthy, then check its truthfulness or accuracy before communicating it in a news item or current affairs story.
Journalists are a bit like food tasters, deciding what is good and what is not so good or actually bad. At first this requires a lot of effort and you will make mistakes. But after a few years your sense of taste – in our case “newsworthiness” – becomes more highly trained and we may even develop a “sixth sense” about information we find or are given.
Be alert to that sixth sense, listen to that voice that asks yourself: “Does this really sound right?”
That little voice is not the answer, but it is an alarm you should listen to. If your sense tells you something is wrong about a piece of information, check it out with greater care than normal. Often you will be right in doing so.
When someone tells us something that sounds even remotely doubtful, ask them: “Who says?” or “How do you know?” Said properly, it doesn’t need to be rude.
Track suspect information back to its source
The Truth Chain for any news story has a beginning and an end. Unless you have witnessed the start yourself, as a journalist you will usually become part of that process part-way along the chain. If so, you must always think about where the story started. Who first discovered the information? Who first passed it on? Who else has played a role in transmitting it to you?
There is a children’s game in most cultures that relies on people in a line passing on a simple message to the next person until it gets to the last person in the line.
The fun in the game is to see how very different even a simple message becomes by being repeated before it reaches the last person.
Journalists cannot afford to play such games. We must try to ensure that the message at the end is the same as it was at the beginning. That will often mean going back and asking people before you in the chain to check the accuracy and truth of it, before you yourself pass it on. As you can see, this is not done for laughs; for journalists, getting the truth right is a serious business.
Distinguish facts from opinions
Suffice it to say here that the strength of the Trust Chain relies on both (a) knowing the difference and (b) telling your readers, listeners or viewers what each element of your news story is – fact or opinion?
Some facts are so clear or so well-documented they can be relayed without attributing them to a source. But any facts that are controversial, contested or less-known and ALL opinions must be attributed.
Find trusted, tested news sources
As a journalist, you are largely reliant on other people telling you things, so try to find and follow people you know you can trust.
If you work for a professional news outlet, it will have a list of other news organisations – such as news agencies – that provide reliable information which is so vital for a strong Trust Chain.
Be aware that you cannot simply ignore your “sixth sense” if it tells you that something from one of your reliable sources seems doubtful. Check out all information that seems questionable, even if it comes from a previously trustworthy source.
Check against other professional media
Do not rely on one source for any information you receive that is even slightly doubtful or controversial. Check on multiple sources. Of course, they may all be wrong, but you lessen the chances of making a mistake if you search for good, accurate information as widely as practicable.
Most respectable professional news organisations have a “two-source rule”, meaning they must find at least two reliable and independent sources before they publish or broadcast something important.
Do not rely on the Internet
The Internet is just a means of moving information around – it is not a guarantee that information is reliable in any way. Websites are no more or less reliable that a social media feed, blog, tweet or post. What matters is the reliability of the people or the organisation behind the website.
As we have seen from the creation of “fake news”, there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world creating fake news, either for their own amusement or because they are paid to do it, usually by a corrupt government or business.
Even when a website appears to belong to a trustworthy organisation, check it out. Check the real website address. For instance, if your backtracking leads to a website purporting to be The Australian newspaper but the URL is something like www.chewbacky123.com, you have to assume it is a “fake news” site, not the real Australian newspaper.
And do not take everything that is written even on real sites as Gospel. Many media organisations push their own views or those of their owners as opinion-disguised-as-fact, maybe telling half-truths or reporting things out of context.
We all have our favourite media we think we can trust, often because their politics or philosophy match our own. But do not take that for granted. Ask yourself: “Where did they get their information from?” If it is from their own correspondent and someone you can trust, then you are far safer than if the article quotes “online opinion”.
Regularly look at other newspapers, radio stations or TV news providers to see what other news sources say. If your favourite news bulletin is out of step with everyone else, it could be that it is better than the rest; but it could also be because it is worse.
The Trust Chain needs to be strong at every link, from the source event all the way to your brain and then all the way to the eyes and ears of your readers, listeners and viewers. After that, it is up to them.
“Journalism, ‘fake news’ and disinformation”
The source of this training module is The News Manual’s Chapter Fake news & Trust Chains