Skip to main content

Beacon Senior News

How to decipher journalism from hoax in the internet age

Mar 25, 2020 01:50PM ● By Adam Cochran

Over the years, I have survived threats of nuclear war, several end-of-the-world predictions, and at least five plagues. Somehow, everyone I know even survived the Y2K meltdown. But my first survival story began in second grade.

A student reported to the class that the head of Procter and Gamble told the audience on the Phil Donahue Show that he worshiped Satan. If you bought any products with the company’s logo, you were supporting satanism.

Even worse, my friend expounded on how the products were cursed and the owner would soon be the victim of early violent death. The student had two reliable sources: his mom and a typed mimeograph of the story.

I went home that night and checked the house.

Sure enough, our house contained satanism. My parents found me distressed and in tears.

After I explained our eternal predicament, my parents counseled that I shouldn’t believe everything people say. Even if it’s on the news.

After that unholy incident, I was disoriented by the fact that I couldn’t believe everything in the news. However, I also felt empowered with the knowledge that the panic was the result of a hoax.

Fact vs. bias

Hoaxes, exaggerated legends and political propaganda are likely as old as the written word.

Each advance in distributing information has only increased the proliferation of fallacies.

The good news is that these same means of distribution (printing press, radio, TV, the internet, etc.) have also made it easier to debunk false information. But when the ability to distribute information becomes easier, the process of fact-checking falls more on the consumer.

While there are countless fact-checking websites, many of these sites are also slanted politically or are swayed by third parties (advertisers, corporate owners and political organizations). For example, Snopes.com is one of the more popular debunking websites. While Snopes typically does an acceptable job at researching the origins of questionable news stories, the site has a minor left-leaning slant. This has been measured by the number of partially accurate right-leaning stories being labeled as “mostly false” while left-leaning stories are more likely labeled “partly true.”

I would love to provide a list of trustworthy and objective fact-checking sites, but none of them are perfect. Instead, I would like to persuade readers to use technology to become savvier about fact-checking on their own.

If you aren’t willing to be wrong, then you’ll likely experience the Uses and Gratification Theory. This theory argues that people often only consume media that tells them what they already believe, or what gratifies them.

The best way to fact-check is to confront the fact that much of what you hear, see or read in the media is incomplete.

Determine if a story is even journalism with the following tips.

Tips for fact-checking the news:

fact-checking the news

1. Understand the purpose of genuine journalism. Journalism, news and media are not synonyms. Fundamentally, journalism is the objective pursuit of truth that is valuable to the public and ethically reporting the confirmed facts.

2. All reporting is biased. Believe it or not, this is often a good thing. See next point.

3. Journalism should be objective. A good journalist must explore the insights of all parties involved. Bias allows the journalist to omit irrelevant details, but those decisions should not be influenced by a political or personal motive.

4. Journalists follow a code of ethics. True journalism considers the rights of all parties involved. Although covering a story may be perfectly legal, there are certain guidelines that the industry follows concerning reports on minors, private lives of individuals, protected classes and more.

5. Count the stories. This is a technique I learned while on my high school newspaper staff. If you track the number of right- and left-leaning stories reported by a given outlet for a week, you can almost always spot the organization’s political slant.

6. Your gut is not a reliable indicator of objective journalism. The Uses and Gratification theory argues that people prefer to consume information they agree with. This also means they are more likely to believe information that they agree with. Therefore, if you read something that stirs you in a positive or negative way, at best, it’s written with an agenda in mind. Worst case scenario, it’s hoax propaganda designed to get you to act based on irrational emotional reflexes rather than objective thought.