Want to know how to tell if a report is true or false? Some things are complicated, but others are really easy to check. Here are three simple tips for do-it-yourself fact checking, and three good fact checking sites for back-up.
1) Start with Google.
Fact-checking begins here. Choose a couple of key words or phrases and search for them. Remember to enclose phrases in quotes.
Example: This “flyer” for an inauguration day protest concert was posted and reposted on Facebook in December.
Is it true? Is there really a Freedom Concert with all those big-name stars?
Starting with Google, the search terms of “Freedom Concert” and “inauguration day” seem pretty obvious. They are enclosed in quotation marks so that Google will search for the two phrases, rather than searching for four individual words.
Besides the regular Google search, try searching Google’s news feed.
You can also search for articles in specific sites, by adding those sites as a search term. Here, I’ve searched for any mentions in the New York Times:
Searching for information about the Freedom Concert raises a serious question: all of the articles date back to December – why isn’t there anything out there now?
2) Apply tincture of time.
In plain language – wait. Many dubious news stories evaporate by the second day. Dramatic stories from the first day of a disaster often prove inaccurate, and truth catches up by the second or third day. Journalists, both reporters and editors, can get caught up in wanting to be first with the news.
The Freedom Concert example shows how waiting can work: after the initial three or four days of articles, the Freedom Concert disappeared. If all of those stars were actually going to collaborate on a concert, we’d still be hearing about it in January. We’re not – and the concert is not happening.
3) Triangulate to find truth.
Triangulation means comparing news stories from different sources to see where areas of agreement indicate reliability.
Example: The story about Trump firing the Washington DC National Guard commander, Errol Schwartz, effective at noon on inauguration day.
On January 13, the Washington Post reported that Major General Errol Schwartz would leave in the middle of the inauguration, while of thousands of National Guard troops under his command provide security for the event. The Post quoted Schwartz, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and continued to serve during President Barack Obama’s two terms:
“‘My troops will be on the street,’ said Schwartz, who turned 65 in October. ‘I’ll see them off, but I won’t be able to welcome them back to the armory.’ He said he would ‘never plan to leave a mission in the middle of a battle.’”
A day later, on January 14, Fox News put an entirely different spin on the story:
“And a senior Defense Department official tells Fox News that the Trump presidential transition team, after learning about the situation, offered Schwartz, a Bush appointee, a few additional days on the job but that he refused.
“A person close to the team reportedly said members indeed wanted to keep Schwartz but that the Army pushed for a replacement.”
Also in the same Fox news article:
“A senior Defense official also told Fox that the Army was neither consulted nor notified about the Schwartz decision.
“The Army leadership had nothing to do with the decision,” the official said.
And according to the Washington Post:
“Military officials and Trump transition officials provided contradictory versions of the decision to replace Schwartz. As is customary for presidential appointees, the general submitted a letter of resignation to give the new administration a clean start.
“Two military officials with knowledge of the situation said the Trump team decided to accept the resignation. A person close to the transition said transition officials wanted to keep Schwartz in the job for continuity, but the Army pushed to replace him.”
So that’s four versions of what happened in two news stories:
Version 1 – Washington Post: Trump team firing Schwartz, as told by Schwartz.
Version 2 – Fox News: Trump team wanting to keep Schwartz and Schwartz refusing to stay on, as told by an anonymous “senior Defense Department official.”
Version 3 – Fox News (in the same story): Trump team wanting to keep Schwartz, but the Army saying no, as told by anonymous Trump team sources.
Version 4 – Both Fox News and Washington Post: the Army had nothing to do with it – according to more anonymous official sources.
Triangulation looks for the elements that both of these news organizations – from their very different political perspectives – agree on. They agree that the commander will be leaving his post at noon on Inauguration Day. They agree that he has served in this post since appointed by President George W. Bush. They agree that he submitted his resignation as a matter of routine at the beginning of a new administration. They agree that the Trump team accepted his resignation.
As for the rest of it: They do not agree on who wanted him out: the Trump transition team or the Army or the Defense Department. They do not agree on whether the commander was told to leave exactly at noon, or was asked to stay for a few days past the inauguration.
All of the facts in dispute come from anonymous sources, speaking after the initial story was published. Hmm: anonymous Trump transition team source vs. National Guard commander who has served under two presidents. I think I’ll go with Commander Schwartz’s version of the story
Three good fact-checkers: Snopes.com, Politifact.com and FactCheck.org
Politifact.com is a fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics, funded by the Tampa Bay Times, which created it, and by ad revenues and grants.
FactCheck.org, a “nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics,” is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Snopes.com goes beyond Politifact and FactCheck, dealing with news stories and urban legends as well as politics. Want to know more about the Freedom Concert or the National Guard firing? Snopes has researched both – and also the Coca Cola/Dr. Pepper rumors (false), the giant alligator in a Florida nature preserve (true), the Facebook policy changes and your privacy notices (false), and answers to persistent questions about whether Wheaties Cereal has so much iron that it sticks to magnets, whether designs on Oreo cookies are messages from the Knights Templar or Freemasons, and how to tell the gender of a bell pepper.
Bonus fact check: Another Inauguration Day concert
The Concert for America: Stand Up, Sing Out!: (unlike the Freedom Concert) is for real! will happen on Inauguration Day! The stars might not be quite as big, but at least this one is real. Even Fox News agrees. The Concert for America will benefit Planned Parenthood, Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, National Immigration Law Center and the Sierra Club Foundation.
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