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How to protect yourself against fake news and poor journalism

by on 2017/02/10

When we started Research the Headlines all the way back in 2013, we aimed to explore the relationship between academic research and the media, to help the general public know when the media was doing a good (or bad) job of portraying the latest discoveries about the world around us.

In 2017, we now face a new challenge – the so-called “fake news” phenomenon.  We’ve seen the fragmentation of news media allow for extreme bias in media outlets.  The speed at which the news cycle now operates allows websites to break a story based on false accounts, photoshopped images or bad data, and never be corrected.  Worst of all, the way we consume news means that it can be very hard for us to see unbiased journalism, as we have carved social media bubbles for ourselves.

The Research the Headlines team can only address so many news stories, as our time and resources are limited.  That doesn’t mean there is no hope – a piece of fake news is doomed to fail if the reader is vigilant.

We wrote a how-to series to help readers decide whether a news story did a good job depicting the research it was reporting.  If you need to decide if a story is fake news, you can use the same techniques here:

1: Don’t Stop at The Headline.  It is common to see headlines that have little bearing on the actual news story.  A study indicated that as much as 59% of shared news stories on social media had not been read by the person doing the sharing.  Make a point not to share a story unless you’ve read the entire article.

2: What Was Actually Said? At RtH, we’re usually interested in what researchers say.  More generally, if a story is about a person or organisation, we should be sure that they actually said what is being claimed in the article.  Remember quotes can be taken badly out of context.  If they don’t reproduce the original statement in full, can you find it somewhere else?

3: Are Independent Experts Featured? A piece of fake news is very likely to avoid asking “the other side” for comment.  On the other hand, some outlets pay slavish attention to “balance”, by asking for comment from both sides.  The word “independent” becomes crucial here.

Take for example a climate change story, where climate scientists and climate change deniers share a platform.  Experts who deny climate change can have a conflict of interest which prevents them from being independent.  Contrary to some opinions, climate scientists are not espousing climate change as a means to gather grant funding.  Climate scientists would still have a job even if humans were not causing climate change, and their independence is guaranteed by how they are funded.

4: Do they link to the original material? It is very easy to distort the narrative (or tell plain lies) if the original material is hidden from the reader.  If you see a story that strongly provokes an emotional response in you, your first response should be to go to the source of the story.  A news outlet that hides the material (or worse, corrupts it), is an outlet to avoid.

5: Do they make unsupported causal links? Every researcher knows that “correlation does not equal causation”.  Correlation, an association between two things, is only the first step in identifying a cause.  On subjects that are highly emotive (like the supposed “link” between immigration and terrorism), ask yourself – is the relationship real? Is the conclusion they draw from the correlation supported by the evidence? Is there another possible reason for the correlation? How would we test their conclusions?

6: Are they using statistics appropriately? The old adage “lies, damned lies and statistics” still holds today.  If used properly and dispassionately, statistics is a powerful tool for revealing the truth of our circumstances, and a crucial component of the scientific method.

Used improperly (or malignantly), statistics is a powerful weapon of propaganda.  Whether statistics are being used badly is difficult to diagnose, and often requires formal training.  Our how-to gives some examples of how risk is often distorted in the media.  If your mathematical skills aren’t up to it, the only other defence against bad statistics is to see if they are repeated in other articles (see 9).  You can also ask a scientist, even if they aren’t experts in the specific field, whether the statistics is valid.  There are lots of scientists on Twitter (try the #ActualLivingScientists hashtag), and most are happy to answer genuine questions.

7: Is the article or outlet biased? As far as the UK print media is concerned, the answer to the latter question sadly is almost always “yes”.  The lack of British-made fake news outlets is apparently due to the deep polarisation of our long standing institutions.  Our How-to tells us about some of the different indicators of bias.  It’s also worth remembering that all humans suffer from cognitive bias – when we make judgements about the news (and other people), we are making these judgements subject to various forms of illogical thinking.

When you read a story, think: “How much is this simply confirming my own biases on the topic? How would I have responded if the article had said the opposite?”

8: How does the story compare with previous stories on this topic? When it comes to research, each new study needs to be taken in the context of the field it comes from.  One study, with a result that shatters the consensus of the past, must initially be treated with skepticism until its conclusions can be confirmed by further work.

The same is true for news stories.  Do the facts in the story fit with the facts given previously? A ringing example is Donald Trump’s statement that he was present in Scotland before the Brexit vote, when in fact he arrived the following day.  In our post-truth world, even the President of the United States is happy to attempt to revise history.  Thankfully, we have the internet to stop him (and anyone else) from doing so.

9: Is this article consistent with other articles? A really great litmus test of an article is to see its story told from a different viewpoint.  In the UK, it can be as simple as reading the Express followed by the Mirror.  Try reading the same story in an outlet you would normally avoid.  How does the story change? What words does each side use? Who do they ask for comment? Who do they ignore?

10: How much of the article is opinion, or exaggeration? With the increasing blurred boundaries between news stories and writer’s columns, an article can have the sheen of news, but the raw opinion of the writer.  When reading the story, ask yourself: “How many of these statements can be verified by the facts in the article (or links in the article)? What sort of language is being used? Does it seem like the author is advancing an argument rather than reporting the facts?”

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