Guarding against spread of fake news

“Fake news” has become such a buzz word lately that Americans have begun throwing around the term anytime they see a news story with which they disagree or that they don’t believe.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying “fake news” doesn’t exist. Certainly it does. I come across it often on the Internet or social media. My Facebook friends often post links to stories they find of interest. I open them only long enough to shake my head, knowing without a doubt, there is absolutely no truth to it or it’s purely someone’s opinion.

Now, you may think I have some inside scoop because, well, I’m a newspaper editor. It’s true I am well trained in news gathering and reporting techniques, but distinguishing “real news” from “fake news” is hardly some innate skill. As such, I’m here to offer a few tips today.

The first secret to good journalism is never believe everything you hear. That’s particularly true if you picked it up on social media.

Another tip is to look for the existence of multiple sources that add balance and verification.

At the Tribune Chronicle, we require our reporters to have at least two sources, and preferably three, for every story. These sources should offer balance and fairly present both sides of a story.

A former editor here was oft heard saying, “If your mother tells you she loves you, get another source.”

In other words, verify, verify, verify.

“Real news” stories also contain facts, statements and quotes that are attributed to reputable sources. We simply don’t state items as fact without attribution. We never ask readers to believe us just because we said so. We independently verify all information that can be independently verified, and then we include that information and verification in the story.

If you read a story that has no balance, no attribution and states information as if you should just expect it’s true, then it’s probably not.

Next, frequency does not authenticate a story. In other words, the number of times a story is posted, shared or linked does not make it more true. Unfortunately, it’s often the salacious and ridiculously false stories that go viral.

I’ve seen many web posts recently stating that Barron Trump, the youngest son of our new president, is Autistic. Fueled largely by a single tweet from celebrity Rosie O’Donnell, the information has spread quickly over social media. Is it true? I can only say that I have found no reputable news source even making mention of it, and none of the information I’ve found online about the topic has carried any attribution. That leads me to believe it’s probably not true.

“Real news” stories also don’t state opinion as fact. If someone has an opinion, again, it’s attributed. This brings me to the very distinct difference between opinion and balanced news.

We strive to never allow our opinion to enter into our news coverage. Still, readers sometimes become confused, possibly because we do earmark one page each day for sharing our opinion on important local, state and national topics of interest.

The position of the newspaper is chosen by a three-person editorial board identified on the top of the opinion page every day. I’m a member of that board.

The opinion page also carries columns by writers who often don’t share the same opinion as the editorial board. That’s OK, because we know that freedom of varied expression is what makes America great, after all. Sundays we add a second opinion page to publish letters and opinions of our readers.

Everything on the newspaper’s opinion pages is clearly labeled as opinion, and of course, often contains thoughts and ideas that are not shared by all. Sometimes we are criticized for the things we print on these pages, but readers should understand the opinion pages are not ever intended as an avenue for the spread of fake news, but rather as a starting point for debate and dialogue and as a venue to share thoughts of our readers.

Of all this information, I can tell you there is one really good way to guard against fake news — that is by putting your trust in reputable newspapers like the Tribune Chronicle.