Verify Your News
‘Fake news’ is, thanks to the new president of the United States of America, a buzzword. Of course, it’s nothing new. For as long as humans have existed, news has been shared from one person to the next and it wasn’t always 100 percent fact. In South Africa during Madiba’s last year of life, when he was in and out of hospital, we experienced our own false reports of the former statesman’s passing. As early as April 2013, an independent broadcaster flighted a memorium segment for Mr Mandela.
The rush to be first to break a story has impacted the (much faster) news cycle. Some ‘reporters’ are no longer waiting to fact check or verifying their sources for the morning edition, but sending quick tweets or cobbling together vague reports for their web or mobile sites.
Are you an avid news follower? Here’s an easy, five-step verification process that will help you identify whether news is real or fake.
Who is talking?
The source is always important. Check the website, TV channel, radio station or the publication. Is it reputable? Tabloids, for instance, are in the business of selling salacious news about public figures. They will allude to ‘sources close to the story, but are rarely able to verify them, and the ‘news’ often is based on hearsay.
Readers of tabloids, one would guess, have committed themselves to taking their news with a pinch of salt and view it more as entertainment. Usually, the celebrities, who are the subjects of these reports, come forward to disprove the claims, and it’s rare that the tabloids get irrefutable proof.
Once you’ve established the credentials of the news platform, look at the person telling the story – are they bound by journalistic ethics and do you think they are objective? It’s not always obvious when someone has an axe to grind or is making up a story for accolades. In the 1980, American journalist Janet Cooke published a profile about an eight-year-old crack addict in the Washington Post. In 1981, the story won a Pulitzer Prize. Until it was proven to be fabrication.
What are they saying?
With the advent of social media has come the rush to go viral. Was a story even worthwhile if it wasn’t a trending topic online? In a bid to attain a little of that viral glow, many have resorted to clickbait. This means a tantalising headline designed to either shock, enrage or excite the reader is used instead of a more truthful one. The job of clickbait headlines is to get you to click the link and increase the website page views.
The headline, and sometimes even the intro, are unlikely to be the whole story. Reading the complete article, or checking other news sources you trust for confirmation, is how you, the news reader, can properly discern the facts beyond the headlines. While clickbait is wrong, there’s no way of stopping publications doing it.
When reading content, especially when it’s a news story, it’s important to check what sources are mentioned. Did the reporters interview people close to the case or did they draw their own conclusions? If it’s an opinion piece, facts still need to be included. This is where you check their references — the information or articles they used to form their opinion should be from reputable sources.
Check the dates
Sometimes, it happens that news is not untrue, it’s just old. The truthfulness of a story must not be removed from its original context. Attempting to do so in order to fit a new narrative is misleading. Old stories can be referenced while reporting on current events, but removing them from their original time and place could be dangerous. For example, reporting on a violent incident that concerns the public as if it’s currently happening could lead to panic and tragedy.
Check more sources
As a rule, and whenever you’re in doubt, check more than one publication, platform or broadcaster to get a full, 360-degree perspective on the news story as it’s being reported. While most won’t have the same angle, the key facts must be congruent.
Is the news source serious?
Comedians and satirists are experts at taking news and lampooning it. However they are not intentionally misleading their audiences. Satirical reports identify themselves to their audience and the jokes tend to be unmissable. The likes of Late Night News with Loyiso on eNCA (no longer being aired) and the online ZANEWS are based on lampooning current affairs. Even Skhumba will sometimes discuss news headlines.
Africacheck.org is a website that fact-checks studies, reports and claims made by public officials and is a great resource in this age of fake news.