by Linda L. Esterson
The old adage that you can’t believe everything you read couldn’t ring truer in 2018. It’s a time when “fake news” and “alternative facts” serve as labels for a variety of media presentations. Today, consumers face information overload coming from a plethora of sources, and not all of them provide accurate reports. “Fake news” has quite a few meanings today, making it difficult for an audience to determine between fact and fiction.
According to Liz Jones, adult services supervisor at the Westminster Branch of the Carroll County Public Library, fake news is the “buzz word” for what has actually been around for a long time. It’s news that may have just “a nugget of truth” with sensational headlines or highly editorialized information that is more opinion than fact. This information, she says, tends to “go viral,” or become very widespread through social media.
“Fake news is nothing new,” adds Jessica Barbera, information literacy coordinator at the Hoover Library at McDaniel College. “It’s probably been around as long as the printing press.”
The term “fake news” became more widely used by the current president and his administration. Instead of gathering facts to come to an informed decision, consumers face exposure to bias or untruths in reporting or story construction that is not necessarily news, notes Erin Watley, Ph.D., assistant professor of the communication and cinema department at McDaniel College.
Consumers today are barraged – by phone calls, text messages, emails and social media messages that they can view and respond to in the palm of their hands. Today, they are using those same devices to get their news. A variety of news sites – reputable or not – push alerts to consumers with sensationalized headlines aimed at grabbing their attention.
“We are swamped with information now,” notes Barbera. “There’s no guarantee the information we remember is going to be accurate information.”
Earlier this summer, Alva Moses was saddened to learn on Facebook that Demi Lovato passed away. The truth wasn’t revealed until the television news report showed that she was in the hospital and, in fact, alive.
“That confirms the need to check with another source,” Moses says, while reading at the Westminster library one August morning. “Now I know that I will do more research. But it has to be something that interests me to do more research on it.”
Moses is not alone. According to an early 2017 online study by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 48 percent of the 2,112 respondents turned to Facebook for news in the United States.
Another 20 percent responded that they get their news from YouTube, as did Kordell Glasco, a junior at Westminster High School. Glasco admits that although his teachers have spoken about fact-checking and implementing the “CRAP (Currency Reliability Authority Point of View) test,” he doesn’t necessarily take the time to check news sources unless it seems suspect.
“If it rings a bell that it doesn’t make sense, I’ll look more into it,” he says. “If it makes sense or doesn’t pertain to me, then I go about my business.”
Shaniece Preston, a 30-year-old cashier in Westminster, gets 100 percent of her news from the internet, as she subscribes to apps from the Cable News Network (CNN) and the News Journal, from her native Delaware. In addition, she glances at the notifications pushed though by another news app that includes a compilation of headlines from a variety of sites.
“Everything comes to me through my phone,” she says. “I get news all day. It’s just quicker. Most of the time it’s real-time. You can’t get real-time with a newspaper.”
Preston says she trusts most of what she reads through the apps, but “if I can’t believe it or it seems farfetched, I will check it.”
Reports in August of a father murdering his wife and two children in Colorado seemed so outlandish so she checked the News Journal site to confirm it. Another story claiming coconut oil was “pure poison” seemed farfetched.
“Who doesn’t use coconut oil for something – cooking, their skin or their hair,” she asked. “But it came from USA Today, so I’m more inclined to believe it.”
Although she does admit to sharing information online, she is skeptical of what she sees on Facebook and other social media platforms, where fake accounts can be created just to share false news.
“Any social media platform, I will not take news from,” she says. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
But outlets are counting on consumers to absorb and spread their information because they don’t read thoroughly and often don’t get their information from multiple sources.
“People are getting their information in smaller and smaller increments,” Watley notes. “It comes from the social media culture, and it’s not specific to younger demographics. People want their information quickly. They look at headlines and short snippets of news.”
Watley says they spend just three to five seconds on a story and are just perusing sites to get their news.
Because of this tendency, websites are often created to generate traffic, and each click results in money for the sponsor company, according to Robert Krzanowski, technical services librarian with Carroll Community College. The sites use “click bait” technology, with tools like fully capitalized headlines or a single capitalized word, and look legitimate but are designed strictly to sell products.
“If a headline looks too good to be true, it probably is,” he says. “All that matters is the click. Some are very obvious, but some are very convincing.”
As a result, consumers are spreading this information, whether true or not, on their news feeds on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere.
A BuzzFeed News study in November 2016 concluded that the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, and NBC News during the last three months of the campaign. The report stated that the 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8.711 million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook. During the same period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news sites generated 7.367 million Facebook shares, reactions and comments, more than 1.4 million fewer shares, reactions and comments.
A March 2018 study by Monmouth University found that 66 percent of the public admits that planted fake news stories in the mainstream media in the United States is a serious problem. An April 2018 study of nearly 2,000 Americans 18 years or older conducted by technology company Morning Consult found that only 27 percent of people trust the national media. A February 2017 study by the Economist found that 42 percent of Americans now consider the media unfriendly or an enemy of the American people.
“Fake news controversies help people distrust the media,” Krzanowski notes. “It’s quite bleak right now.”
So how can consumers be sure that what they are reading and hearing is true?
“I tell students to be critical of everything,” Barbera says. “It’s hard to do because we don’t have the mental energy to critique every bit of information in front of us.”
A good start, according to Krzanowski, is to check multiple sources for support. If only one source is reporting a story, then that’s cause for skepticism. Find sources that report a central view and not offer liberal or conservative opinions. Log on to fact checking websites to verify information and determine if information is opinion or fact (see sidebar).
“If you’re looking at a source and questioning the source, then look elsewhere,” Jones says.
Barbera suggests intentionally looking for multiple perspectives to see what others are saying.
“Challenge yourself to get a different perspective,” she says. “If you find yourself becoming emotional, impassioned about what you are reading, it can be a red flag.”
Watley adds that by spending a little time, the reader can detect bias in how the story is told or how the facts are used to set up a specific point of view. Westminster mom Rebecca Smith, 29, gets her news from the internet, including Facebook, but she reads beyond the headline to determine a story’s validity.
“I look at where it came from,” she says. “If it didn’t come from a local news station, then I don’t believe it fully.”
She also looks at the interview sources. When illegal immigrants were thrown from fences, she found more credibility hearing from a border patrol officer on CNN then a random, unnamed source from a website that pulled a stock photo and complied information gathered through Google.
“When [the author of] an article cites six other articles, it’s not telling me much,” she says. “They weren’t there.”
Krzanowski adds, “Take the time, although it’s hard to learn. There’s no substitute for developing information literacy skills.
“No one can protect you from a bad piece of information except yourself.”