Recently, I was scrolling through a librarians discussion group on Facebook and came across a news post about the demise of Google+. Because the news had just broke, I followed the link to the full story on the One America News Network (OANN). Despite the fact that the story was from the Reuters wire service, I was immediately suspect about the site, because its overall design and unfamiliar logo had a “fake news” feel to it. After confirming the story’s authenticity on the official Reuters site, I began thinking about the hidden peril of industry professionals unintentionally passing fake news stories/sites to their audiences.
Good Intent Meets a Bad Source
When I questioned the librarian who posted the Google+ story on her selection of OANN over other news sources, she confessed that she “saw the original article on Wall Street Journal, but that wasn’t open access so I just found the first hit that had the same information.”
Fair enough, but as a professional entrusted to find and recommend research resources for library patrons, her failure or even curiosity in finding out more about OANN cast doubt on her authority. After all, it only took me 5-10 minutes of background research using a Wikipedia article and linked footnotes to discover that OANN is a conservative news network widely criticized for promoting falsehoods and conspiracy theories. It’s also one of President Trump’s favorite news sources, and has become prominent as a result.
Said Media Matters, an organization that monitors the dissemination of misinformation by conservative media outlets:
OANN has a penchant for pushing racist commentary and debunked conspiracy theories — including about the death of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich — and has repeatedly hosted Jack Posobiec, a far-right troll who heavily pushed the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy theory.”
Posting news links is more complicated than you think. As a professional, your links carry greater weight than a friend or relative. A reader’s understandable assumption is that they can trust your selection, because you vetted both the story and the source and care about their understanding of an event or issue. It’s actually the equivalent of asking a reference librarian for a good book on a particular topic. The last thing they’ll do is pull the first one off the shelf with the right title. Rather, they’ll do some research on the best books for that subject, or ask a trusted colleague with more expertise for a good recommendation.
Granted, the story in question was just syndicated wire copy, and their wasn’t any misinformation imparted. However, what if the end-user decided to venture deeper into OANN and came across the video below detailing the alleged crimes of Imran Awan, an independent IT staffer who reached a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney after conservative conspiracy theorists forced an 18 month investigation into whether he allegedly stole data from the office computers of congressional lawmakers and shared it with foreign intelligence agencies.
“Particularly, the Government has found no evidence that your client illegally removed House data from the House network or from House Members’ offices, stole the House Democratic Caucus Server, stole or destroyed House information technology equipment, or improperly accessed or transferred government information, including classified or sensitive information.”
Unless the viewer did a Google search on Irwan, they might unknowingly accept the video’s assertions as fact. Besides that, a librarian directed them to OANN, and they’re professionals with collegiate training in research methods. Shucks, they help our kids find books and resources for their school projects, so it must be correct, right?
What happens next is bad news for you. If your reader finds out the truth after being called out by a co-worker, colleague, friend or family member, the blow-back is all on you. That person will blame you, your company or organization for misleading them and the humiliation or scorn that resulted. Trust evaporates, your professional reputation is compromised and you won’t have the opportunity to make an apology or explain that you only linked to the first story and didn’t know about the rest of the material on the site.
Pause Now, Post Later
In a previous life, I was a community news and police reporter, and have a journalism degree from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. By training, I’m always questioning facts and sources, especially in the age of questionable news sites like OANN. I am not everybody, though, and realize that even the most learned, skeptical people can fall prey to fake news. So, here are some methods I use to ensure that the news I share on my blog or social networks doesn’t inadvertently jeopardize my professional reputation or consumer perceptions of my clients.
Hard News First
Hard news fits the classic “Who? What? Where? When? Why?” journalistic model. Stories published by wire services like the The Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News report only verified/verifiable facts from government and private sources, and indicate when anonymous sources are used. Reporters do not editorialize or draw conclusions from their own reporting, and each story undergoes rigorous editorial oversight. Unfortunately, they are subscription based, and are used by a variety of news outlets like OANN to simply report the news of the day.
If you have suspicions about a site that carries syndicated news, check the wire service’s main site to verify that it is accurate, and then use the official link to the story in your blog and social media posts. If you’re a social media manager, all of the wire services have social media pages that you can easily follow for quickly sharing vetted news with your audiences.
Know Your Sources
In our polarized political and cultural environment, the term “fake news” is more often assigned to news commentary from sources that disagree with a reader’s partisan values. Left or right, the game is to influence, not to offer objective fact-based reporting or analysis.
Media Bias Chart
Before you share a news article, reference Ad Fontes Media’s Media Bias Chart. While not exhaustive and certainly debatable in spots, it captures many of the Web’s most shared news sources and places their editorial biases on a spectrum. Especially for non-news folk, it’s a great starting point to evaluate publishers and their content.
Another great tool is CivikOwl, an application developed by independent programmers from Stanford, UC Berkeley, IIT Madras and the University of Waterloo that analyzes and scores over 10,000 articles a day based upon the following criteria:
- The extent and quality of its sources
- The expertise of the journalist
- The opinionated nature of the language used
- The historical reputation of the site.
In addition to the publisher rankings on its main site, CivikOwl also offers the CivikOwl News Evaluator as an iPhone app, as well as a Google Chrome plugin that score stories using the above criteria. The organization does not indicate whether a story is true or false, which it rightly leaves to the end-user to determine.
Limit Your Social Media News Sources
If you’re managing a Facebook or Twitter account for a client or organization, you should limit the news sources in your news feed to only those that will consistently provide fact based news and objective analysis. My rule of thumb:
- Reuters for daily wire news;
- Newspaper of record in your city/state;
- 1-2 mainstream sources with “minimal partisan bias” picked from Ad Fontes Media’s Media Bias Chart.(e.g., The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Economist);
- 1-2 industry trade publications/organization sites for industry news.
Fake news is sadly here to stay, and with modern web site designs and technologies it’s incredibly easy for any site to appear as a legitimate news source. No matter your approach to selecting news stories or sources, you still need to maintain a “trust, but verify” mindset — and well before you hit the share button.