Don’t believe everything you read: Phony news and how to spot it

Did you read about the world’s biggest baby, born in China, weighing 73 pounds? How about Pope Francis’s denunciation of Pokemon as the devil’s tool? Or about Donald Trump’s cousin leaving a statement for his obituary begging people not to vote for him? Or that Donald Trump says President Obama founded ISIS? Okay – the last one is unfortunately true, which shows how hard it can be to tell actual news from fiction and satire, this year more than ever.

I spend lots of time reading news, and I care passionately about sorting truth from lies. So I’m going to write a series of blog posts to share what I’ve learned over a lifetime of working at this Sisyphean task. Today: phony news sites. Next time: Satire beyond The Onion. After that: Outright lies and hoaxes. Finally: Not really science and not really health.

From politically slanted to just plain stupid

Politically slanted “news” sites abound. On the right, take a look at InfoWars and TownHall and Breitbart News and Minnesota’s own Alpha News and Power Line blog. On the left, you also have lots of choices, including PoliticusUSA, USUncut, OccupyDemocrats, LiberalSociety, and BipartisanReport.

Besides identifiably partisan news sites, others try to pass off wildly opinionated and completely undocumented “articles” as news. Yes, I’m talking about you, American Herald Tribune. Finally, some sensational and purely stupid sites also claim to be “news.” See, for example, the Daily Mail, which definitively proves that all things British are definitely NOT good quality or reliable.

Some sites try to fool readers by pretending to be mainstream news outlets. For example, looks like a legit URL for the mainstream ABC News, but in fact has no connection to ABC News, or to journalism.

Truth versus opinion

What these phony news sites have in common is that they do not care about truth. Some people say that’s irrelevant — that there is no truth, only opinions. Everyone, they say, is entitled to their own opinion. And all opinions are equally legitimate.

To counter one aphorism with another: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.  If your opinion is that you can step out of a fifth story window and fly, you are wrong. If your opinion is that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, you are wrong. Those who insist that there is no such thing as truth, that everything is opinion and there are no facts are either deluded or deliberately deceptive.

Evaluating articles and news sites for truthfulness and usefulness

Here’s my four-step formula for evaluating news articles and news sources.

Step one: READ THE DAMN ARTICLE. Do not just click “share” or “retweet.” If you can’t take the time to read the article and see whether it actually matches the headline and evaluate its worth, then don’t pass it along to anyone else. And look at the date – carefully. People frequently repost last year’s stories as if they happened last night. (Yes, I’ve been caught by this one, too.)

Step two: Look at the publisher. This is relatively easy to do. Reputable websites, whether they are selling news or toilet seats, have an “about” section. Go to the very top or the very bottom of the web page, look for this section, and click on it. When, as in the case of LiberalSociety, the site does not have an about section, just leave. They are either dishonest or incompetent, or both. When the about page makes broad and inherently unbelievable claims (“Internet Newspaper and powerful news search engine. The Internet’s Largest newspaper.”) and especially when those claims are accompanied by errors in language usage, regard everything it says with suspicion.

If the news source acknowledges a political point of view, that doesn’t automatically discredit it. Better to acknowledge a point of view, so that you-the-reader can take that into consideration, than to pretend to be objective and neutral.

Step three: Consider the reporting. Who is the reporter? Clicking on the reporter’s name should take you to a page that describes their credentials and/or compiles the articles they have written. This gives you, the reader, a basis for deciding whether you trust the reporting.

Looking at the article and at previous work, consider whether they are reporting on facts or advocating for a position. How do they know what they are writing is true? Jay Rosen suggested that the worth of journalism, professional or not, lies in this formula: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” That, he says, is the basis for claiming authority. What is the authority of this reporter, writer, advocate?

Here’s an example: you can look at my website and click on the about section. After a brief bio, I write:

In News Day and Immigration News, I write commentary and reporting on current news, with emphasis on human rights, immigration, education, food and farming, and St. Paul news. The Community Journalism blog is a collection of lessons and notes on reporting and the practice of journalism by non-traditional journalists. Fragments is a collection of poetry, prose and miscellanea.

That tells the reader that my blog is opinionated (commentary), in combination with reporting. If I report what I have not observed — such as the state of Minnesota waters — then I link to the source of my information, so that readers can evaluate the authority of that information.

Step four: Compare and evaluate. What do other news sources say? What do fact-checking sites, such as PolitiFact or Snopes, say?

For even more information on phony news stories and sites, check out these articles:


Filed under elections, media, news

8 responses to “Don’t believe everything you read: Phony news and how to spot it

  1. Tom O'Connell

    Thanks Mary. This post is so needed and very helpful. Great tips on how to minimize (and in my case probably never totally overcome) the temptation to credit stories that massage our biases.


  2. Sonja Dahl

    Thank you for this post. I would add, “get to the original source, study, or data, if possible.” If a commentator claims Obama said something outrageous, find and listen to the original speech. If a study is cited, find the study. If commentary is based on data, such as economic data, go to the data.


    • Mary Turck

      Of course, checking the original source is an excellent way to see whether or not your news sources are reliable. I’d also add that, especially in online publishing, including links to the original sources is the best practice – make it easy for people to check your work, and that should add to your credibility.


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