In the media and communications industry, critical thinking is one of the most important skills to navigating unreliable news sources. From usually harmless sites like BuzzFeed that rake in advertisement revenue, to deliberately misinforming articles that slander or spread conspiracies, this article will teach you three ways that you can verify questionable content.

Investigate Their Agenda

Search for the author, and find out if the article is listed under one person or as a product of the website itself. If the author is listed, search for other news stories they have written. Are the articles recent, or dated? Is there a recurring theme throughout your findings? Are the articles educational or entertaining? If there is no listed author, or the article aims to be humorous rather than informative, then it’s safe to be suspicious of the content.

Every author comes with their inherent bias, but it’s also important to consider the company they write for as well. Question why a source would be promoting this information. Would informing people of the topic help the corporation, even indirectly? Does the author or company have a stake in how people will react? If it is clear they have an agenda, further research into the business itself would be required. Navigate away from the article, and browse the website to find their mission statement. If you happened to find yourself believing an article from The Onion, you would immediately realise from their About section that it was satirical. This is also the case for many pulp media sources as well, the more you know about the company, their interests, and their business model, the easier it is to find out if they might have an agenda in their media.  

Read Thoroughly

Many articles are written on commission or paid by ad revenue that increases with viewing count. This means that every outrageous headline that ends on a cliffhanger is almost certainly just to get more clicks. Facebook has been notorious for this recently, with an ad every few scrolls that promises ‘You Won’t Believe Picture 8!’. The first step to identifying if it’s a non-story or fake news is to read the article. It’s as simple as that. All too often things are accepted at face value, but a fake news story will present an article riddled with holes in reasoning and evidence.

Check the length of the article. Is it long enough to cover the topic thoroughly? Have the most interesting parts been cherry-picked from other news sources? Are all sides of the story represented? If a brief article does not consider multiple angles for a story, then it is enough to question their credibility. How is tone of voice used in the article? If highly emotive and charged language is used when referring to an event or person, then it is clear the author is manipulating an audience to see things a certain way. A good way to test this is around the use of quotes. See how an author describes a person before citing them- are they adding a subjective adverb before a quote, or letting the information speak for itself?

Check Supporting Evidence

It is important to see where an author gets their information from when reading a dubious article. Fact check for them throughout their article, making note of a few things. Firstly, where are they placing their sources? Are they at informative junctures and places that need to be backed up? Secondly, how often are they referencing? Are there enough references to cover a story from multiple angles, or are one or two sources supporting all conclusions drawn in the article? Thirdly, check the sources themselves. Are they reputable, recent, comprehensive, and trustworthy? If a website uses sources few and far between, and you can’t trust the sources themselves, it is a huge red flag that the information in the primary article is subjective and untrustworthy.

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One of the largest fake news stories of 2016 was that the director of the FBI was bribed from the Clinton foundation, and that his brother’s law firm does Hillary Clinton’s taxes. This scandal would obviously have massive repercussions during the 2016 elections if true. The story went viral, with over half a million Facebook impressions made alone. It turns out it is better to ask forgiveness than permission because when the story was debunked for having no supporting evidence for the allegations, the damage had been done to the reputation of Clinton and people were already seeking legal action. This exemplifies the importance of critical thinking in media, especially in the political sphere.

When outrageous claims are made without evidence, from clear biased viewpoints, accepting them at face value is dangerous. Remembering to check the agenda and evidence in an article are quick ways to spotting fake news, and to remaining well-informed.  

By Sam Wood

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