In this “fake news” era of ours, fact verification should be any media department´s reason for being. Sadly, not all news sites and fact-checking departments are created equal. There lies the doubt that all of us should have about the so-called “truth” in any article we read or political speech we hear these days.
Is it a fact or an opinion? Is it a legitimate news site or a politically-backed one in disguise? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves.
As a professor at the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism in New York, the Emmy award-winning journalist and documentarian Nina Alvarez can distinguish between this profession’s ethical and unethical players.
To make well-founded judgments, she follows all kinds of media outlets, even Fox News occasionally (though she believes what they do isn´t journalism) to assure she gets a balanced perspective on all sides of one story.
She recommends we all do the same, or else we will continue seeing a newsfeed siloed for us by our algorithms. A native New Yorker and daughter of Salvadorans, Alvarez began her journalism career at ABC News. For over twenty-five years, she has reported breaking news and featured stories internationally.
Having been around the block, Alvarez knows that most journalism newbies enter school not knowing how to cut through the noise of what is real or not in the media just yet. Her job is to teach them how important verifying all the facts in their stories is and be aware that every organization today, whether it´s the New York Post or a non-profit, is mission-driven.
“Too many people are willing to take things at face value,” says Alvarez. “I ask my students to ask themselves when analyzing the news, ‘What does this organization have to gain by putting out a certain message to the world?’ Many students don’t realize that every company has an agenda and puts its own spin on things.”
The problem is widespread, and it seems to be connected to deficient reading skills.
According to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), 13.5 % of American 15-year-olds could not tell facts from opinions. When reading a sentence like, “Drinking milk is the best way to lose weight,” most couldn’t tell that this sentence is an opinion, even if they were told that it came from the International Dairy Foods Association.
For those who teach journalism, it is a matter of helping others think critically and be less gullible about the messages they receive from supposedly trusted information channels. It doesn’t matter whether someone is consuming the news or a brand of milk; there’s a huge lesson for having a good dose of healthy skepticism about what you’re reading, hearing, or seeing. This is a lesson our society needs to learn from journalists and fact-checkers, especially in these dark political times.
Fact-checking then and now
Long-standing national and local newspapers that our families have grown up with, like The New York Times and the Washington Post, have earned solid reputations for rigorous fact-checking standards and remain credible news sources today. Fact-checkers at publications like these have been known to call soldiers on their cell phones on battlefields and hunt down Republican presidents (though unlikely to call them back) to verify their facts and opinions before publishing.
Reputable media companies such as these attract truth-seeking and ethically conscious journalists trained to ask the right questions regarding their facts and sources before publishing. Then, following the newsroom protocol, when a journalist turns in their story to their editor, additional hours, days, or months of fact-checking can occur.
The problem is that what is considered “news” has changed in the age of the internet and social media where anyone can open a Twitter, Facebook, or blog account and type whatever fantasies they´d like, even heads of State, and have many believe them.
Even more troublesome are sites that claim to be new local news organizations that are actually funded by political interest groups and aim to reach potential voters under a false banner of “news.”
One example is a site called En-volve.com, which was launched to back Trump’s campaign and that published an article in 2019 with a headline that read: “Kamala Harris’s Birth Certificate Makes Her INELIGIBLE For President.” The facts were evidently not right about California’s junior senator and the Democratic vice presidential nominee for 2020. Still, this false information circulating around the internet may have served to damage her reputation in certain circles for some time.
The dangers in today’s media’s murky digital waters and the proper steps fact-checkers and their editorial departments take to verify sources, and the perils of not doing so, are affecting the electorate. It is making us either too distrustful or too gullible when it comes to believing anything, compared to the days when television networks like ABC, NBC, or CBS verified facts before stories went live and slowly lost hold of mainstream Americans’ attention.
The term “post-truth” was Oxford’s dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, and it describes our news era to a tee, where objective facts “have become less influential in shaping public opinion” in comparison to what appeals to emotion and personal belief” according to its meaning. That´s why well-fact-checked journalism is more necessary than ever, especially with a president who is trying to discredit news organizations at every press conference and the essential work they do in trying to report unbiased truths and maintain our democracy.
Be Skeptical About Their Motives
How do you teach journalism students and the public, in general, to be skeptical and question everything? One of Professor Alvarez´s assignments at Columbia Journalism School is for students to write about a particular nonprofit organization’s work. She does this because Alvarez found that most people tend to look at nonprofits as doing honest work since they are not moneymakers.
“A lot of my students would ask why they would question an organization that does something so amazing,” she tells me. When she later suggests that they follow the nonprofit’s 990 tax form to see if they were legitimate in their claims, their lesson was usually learned. Having to file a 990 makes sure that nonprofits consistently conduct their business with their public responsibilities.
While Alvarez notes that hundreds of legitimate non-profit organizations raise money for good causes, there are unfortunately plenty that collects money for other purposes. She teaches her students to be aware of phrases like “one hundred percent of our proceeds go directly to (fill in the cause here).” One student, who focused her work on a nonprofit that helped raise money for schools in Africa, discovered that the “volunteer” with whom the student thought she was talking to was receiving a generous yearly salary.
In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, the New Yorker magazine´s Peter Canby said that their fact-checkers, regarded as legends in the industry, are expected to think for themselves and make complicated editorial judgments.
“People who have never been involved in journalism, in fact-checking, think the world is divided into facts and opinions, and the checkers just deal with facts,” Canby told the CJR. “For us, the bigger complexity is what we think of as fact-based opinions….The way you construct an argument, if there are egregious missing ingredients to it, then it’s something we bring up.”
For each story that goes to print, Canby’s staff will endeavor to speak to every person mentioned, even if they’re not quoted.
If you feel that you don’t have the time to check a news site´s reputation, there’s an app that does it for you.
Tools like News Guard that use journalistic ethics to evaluate and rate news sites from the fakest to most real can come in handy. They investigate things like whether a site repeatedly published false content, regularly corrects or clarifies errors, differentiates between news and opinion, avoids misleading headlines, discloses ownership and financing, and discloses possible conflicts of interest, for example.
It’s time to start thinking like a fact-checker and question everything and everyone´s motives. Especially during the upcoming presidential debates, start taking note of the networks that provide a ticker on the bottom with real-time commentary and corrections about what you are hearing.
Be thankful for the fact-checker behind the scenes working hard to assure that what you are hearing or reading is as close to the truth as one can get these days.