Misinformation in today’s world is rampant, causing people from all walks of life to draw conclusions about public health, elected officials, and social movements from fabricated sources. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are perfect storms for clickbait, allowing inaccurate articles with exaggerated headlines to spread like wildfire.
While mistrust in the media is especially high right now, the relationship of trust between the media and the public has been compromised throughout American history (read this article for more on the history of mistrust in the media). As we fight the global pandemic and protest against police brutality in light of the death of George Floyd, it’s more critical now than ever that we distinguish fact from fiction.
Spreading misinformation can be avoided by fact-checking the articles you read every day, especially ones introducing you to new or breaking stories or ones with exaggerated headlines. When you come across a story about a current event in the news, look into the primary sources the story is referring to such as legal filings, interviews, direct quotes, leaked documents, or press releases to see if the story is exaggerating or misrepresenting information from these sources. These documents can be found on sites like DocumentCloud, or CourtListener if they aren’t already linked in the article itself. As a general rule of thumb, try to find well-researched sources that clearly state where they got their information.
Keep in mind that information can become outdated quickly. This is especially true with COVID-19, as doctors learn more about the virus. The constant change in recommendations from qualified professionals coupled with false claims about the virus endorsed by the President and other government officials can add to your frustration as you search for information on the virus. Thankfully, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are the most up to date sources on COVID-19 recommendations. The CDC also has a list of guidelines that you can use to help you figure out which sources to trust, which you can access here.
Make sure that you’re looking into the context of stories to make sure your source isn’t just discussing some aspects of the full story. For example, many of the recent Black Lives Matter protests were peaceful, but news coverage focused on destruction and anarchy, highlighting incidences of riots and looting. Moreover, many news sources haven’t been reporting on cases of police brutality against protestors even as protestors make video evidence of the attacks public. And when news sources actually addressed police-inflicted violence, they often still use weak wording.
Did you find a source that is passing off misinformation as news? Spread awareness about the misinformation and provide credible sources on social media. You can also report misinformation on the Black Lives Matter by filling out this form. You can read some other articles on misinformation like this comprehensive guide from The Verge or check out this list of sources for fact-checking. Here is the consumer’s handbook for breaking news.
Lastly, remember that reporters are going to get facts wrong sometimes, especially immediately following events. This doesn’t mean we should lose all trust for reporters or their industry. It does mean, however, that we should do our part to protect journalistic integrity by fact-checking when red flags appear. We all have the resources to separate fact from fiction and we should do what we can to spread the truth whenever possible.