How To Separate Fact From Political Nonsense
If I never hear the term “fake news” again, it’ll be too soon. The line between fact and myth grows blurrier every day, especially in politics. We don’t have to accept it, though. If everybody actually took the time to tear truth away from downright nonsense, the world would be a better place. Here are four tips for divorcing fact from fiction in the media.
1. Read the Entire Article
Newspaper headlines and internet article headlines are two separate beasts. The former is
typically written to convey information in a straightforward way. The latter is frequently bait.
Political titles are often designed to provoke instead of impart information, and more and more readers these days react to those incendiary titles without reading the article that follows.
According to a recent Columbia University study, less than 2/3rds of the articles that get shared on Twitter are ever read by anyone.
Don't contribute to this problem. Read, then react.
2. Investigate the Author
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take health advice from my physician than my mechanic. That doesn’t stop my mechanic from having a lot of opinions about diabetes, though. If you want to separate the factual wheat from the political chaff, pay attention to who’s issuing the opinion. When you read a dubious political article online, look the writer up. Find what else he’s written and who’s publishing him. See where she earned her degree. Remember: Just because somebody has a strong belief doesn’t mean it’s a legitimate one. Feelings aren't facts.
3. Identify and Verify Sources
When my sons were in school, they absolutely loathed writing research papers. It wasn’t the act of writing so much as it was the need to incorporate reputable sources into their essays and use cold, hard facts as the basis for their reports instead of bluffing their way through eight pages about symbolism in To Kill a Mockingbird the night before the assignment was due. Authors should always back up their claims with reputable sources: well-known publications without any sociopolitical ties.
As a responsible reader, you should actually check out those sources, too — particularly when you come across something that seems suspicious. Context matters, and, in the wrong hands, words can get awfully twisted on their route from source to article.
Cross-checking sources is a valuable tool as well. For example, claims that World War II and 9/11 memorials were vandalized during protests recently started clogging up corners of my Facebook last week. People were getting all worked up. It took me roughly 90 seconds to search for that topic online and find that those claims were 100% false. That’s the thing: As easy as the internet makes it for rabble-rousers to act in bad faith, it’s just as easy to look something up, get to the truth and get on with your life.
4. Read the “About Us” Section
Authors and sources are only two-thirds of your homework as a fact finder. You should also
inspect websites themselves, and here’s why: You can name a website virtually anything.
One particularly insidious trend in the dissemination of political nonsense is people creating
websites that sound like newspapers but aren’t actually newspapers. Take this article I read on the Tallahassee Star-Tribune’s website yesterday. It said that — well, it didn’t say anything
because there is no Tallahassee Star-Tribune. Tallahassee’s newspaper is called the Democrat, but unless you live near the magnolia trees and college football fans in Florida’s state capital, you probably don’t know that. Before you take a website’s information as fact, take the initiative to learn about that site and remember that literally anybody can start a “news” website.
Listen, I’m old enough to know that the good old days weren’t always that good, but at least
people behaved semi-rationally. Facts matter. When you come across an opinion that seems
absurd, put in the work to investigate it, and don’t be afraid to call its bluff.