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Fact or Fiction in the World of Online News: Jackman-Atkinson

April 14, 2018 8:19 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, Neepawa Banner & Press

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NEEPAWA, Man. — In the past few months, I’ve had a couple of people send me news articles they’ve found online and ask me if I thought they were true. In each case, some investigation revealed that they were in fact completely fabricated. The whole phenomenon of “fake news” is recent and while slants and biases have probably existed since the first newspapers, today we find ourselves in uncharted waters. On the internet today, you don’t have to look hard to find “news” that is completely made up, but packaged to make readers believe that it is real.

We didn’t learn how to tell the fake from real news in school and many people are sensitive about the topic, they don’t want to admit that they’ve been had. But knowing how to tell fact from fiction is extremely important, especially as the threat of outside interference in elections and the shaping of public policy jumps from the pages of spy novels and into reality. This week, there will be no opinions from me, only tips to help readers tell if a story they are reading is true.

When people get their news online, it’s easy for fiction to dress up as fact, by looking like a legitimate news source. I don’t mean just in style, I have seen fabricated stories on pages that look exactly like those of legitimate news websites, right down to the logo. These pages are designed to make readers think that they are reading a CBC or CNN story, but they aren’t. With this in mind, my first tip is to look at the page’s URL. If the name in the URL doesn’t match the name and logo on the page, it’s probably fake. If you want to take it a step further, you can go to the news outlet’s home page and try to search the story from there, just remember not to click on the “home page” from the questionable article.

My next tip is to look at the story’s headline. All headlines are designed to grab readers’ attention, but fake news sites make money based on page views and their headlines are a call to action for readers to click on them. They includes phrases like, “You’ll never believe,” “I was going to give up, but then” or “shocking.”

Perhaps the biggest barometer of whether or not a story is well grounded in fact is how it makes you feel. Fake news is a form a propaganda and increasingly, we are hearing about the use of such stories as part of campaigns to influence voters. If the story makes you feel strongly and would influence how you perceive a party or candidate, take pause. While reputable news organizations aim for unbiased reporting, fake news aims to get people rilled up. When writing about contentious issues, legitimate news sources will try to present both sides of a story. Questions like, “Who are the story’s sources?” and “How reputable are they?” can help readers judge the truthfulness of a story. A reader can also search the sources to see if they exist, as well as searching the quote, to see if it’s been reported elsewhere.

Always look for an “about” page, a legitimate news source will tell you about themselves: where they are located, how to get a hold of someone, when they were founded, their vision, their mission, their staff. All of these are associated with a legitimate news outlet reporting fact-based content.

If in doubt, Google the gist of the story. If no other outlet, or none that you’ve heard of, is also reporting the story, chances are it’s not true. If it’s big enough for the average Canadian to be interested in, it’s big enough to get picked up by other media.

The internet has brought the world into our hands, but the price we pay for this treasure trove of knowledge is that we must now become the editors and fact checkers. It’s no longer just enough to read, you have to always question too.