Fake news! What it is, what it isn’t and how to avoid it

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Over the next few weeks I’ll be giving several talks on fake news. I put together a simple handout that I hope will help people sort out what’s real from what isn’t, and I thought you might enjoy having a look.

Fake news: False or wildly misleading stories created by for-profit content farms. The goal is to go viral and attract as many page views as possible in order to generate ad revenue. Examples: Right Wing News, Occupy Democrats.

Solution: Take away their ad money (as Google is trying to do) and label them as fake when your Uncle Ernie and Aunt Mildred share them (as Facebook may do).

False news: Error-laden or deceptive stories created by ideologically motivated media organizations. The goal is to persuade and to affect public discourse. Examples: Fox News Channel, The Huffington Post.

Solution: The First Amendment is the best weapon for exposing false news. Our democracy is based on the idea that truth will ultimately prevail over falsehoods in the marketplace of ideas.

Real news: Stories produced by news organizations that practice journalism as a “discipline of verification.” The goal is to inform the public as truthfully as possible. Errors are corrected. Example: The mainstream media (for the most part).

Solution: Support real news by subscribing to newspapers (either in print or online) and donating to public media.

Before you share a dubious-looking news story …

  • Ask yourself if there seems to be something fishy about it.
  • See if you can find anything about it at Snopes.com, the leading source of information on fake news and urban myths.
  • Check the source — is it a respected news organization or a website you’ve never heard of before?
  • Google some keywords from the article to see if any other news organizations are reporting the same story.

Worthy of your support

Journalism that holds powerful people and institutions to account is expensive. At newspapers, which provide most of our public-interest journalism, advertising no longer pays the bills. Some news organizations that deserve your online or print subscription dollars:

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • The Wall Street Journal
  • The Boston Globe
  • The Boston Herald
  • Your local newspaper
  • And consider donating to public media

If you can’t afford to pay for news

There are multiple sources of reliable free news. There is no need to fall victim to fake news just because you can’t afford to pay for a newspaper subscription. Examples:

  • NPR, heard locally on WBUR (90.9 FM) and WGBH (89.7 FM). You can also read national and international news for free at npr.org, and regional and local news at wbur.org and news.wgbh.org.
  • “The PBS NewsHour,” which also has a great website at pbs.org/newshour.
  • “Frontline,” also on PBS, for in-depth documentaries.
  • The evening network newscasts (CBS, NBC, and ABC).
  • The Christian Science Monitor (csmonitor.com).
  • The Guardian, which has a U.S. edition (theguardian.com). Note that The Guardian is seeking donations and offers subscription options as well. But it is still free for the moment, and it is one of the world’s great newspapers, on a par with The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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