I am a librarian, and facts are important to me. Reliable information is important. Knowing how to find, identify, evaluate, and verify valid and reliable information and sources of information, to classify and organize them, and to deliver them into the hands of people who have questions is the work of all librarians, built into the ethical codes of our professional organizations and the Library Bill of Rights.
Because of this, the currency of fake news and the idea that alternative facts are somehow acceptable arguments are more than disturbing to me.
Fake news is not new as a concept. There have always been dubious stories--hoaxes, rumors, urban legends, scams. As lies, alternative facts have always been with us too; it’s the blatancy and unconcern of the tellers that set alternative facts apart from earlier iterations of falsehoods. The skills you need to detect both are similar—in fact, you may already have those skills; you just need reminding of them.
Everyone should be familiar with clickbait by now. If not, these are typically advertisements disguised as articles; they are titles that trick you into opening a sales pitch. The same technique is used with many news items on the web. At first glance, they may look like news but are no more than repetitions of someone’s biases (and if you fall for clicking on them, they’re your biases too). I’m not overly proud; I’ve clicked on a few of these myself at times, but I would be disappointed enough at the empty content, that the names of the sites generating those stories got filed in my not-worth-looking-at list. Television has long suffered because of the chase for ratings which leads to devoting more of its time to fluff. Cable news has the added problem of needing to fill 24 hours daily with something, and lately, most of that is just a bunch of screaming heads. Too much cable news has become entertainment disguised as information, which overwhelms the real information that is still out there.
Moreover, news cycles are moving so quickly that the term “Fake News” has just about lost its effectiveness as a label—as least as a trustworthy one. While preparing to write this, I did a few searches on fake news, and one of the uppermost hits was a piece that listed verified news stories and insisted that these were the fake news. Defending a lie with another lie is not true reporting. Calling something you don’t like “fake news,” like any sort of name calling, is evidence that you’re lacking a good argument. The term, “Alternative facts,” being so outrageous and laughable, looks to remain useful as terminology, at least.
So what can a person do, you may ask.
Pay more attention to where you get your news.
Pay attention to multiple sources of news. A story may first appear in one source, but if it is a worthwhile piece of news, other sources will add to the investigation.
Watch television and cable news with discretion. Supplement what you hear with what you can read.
Read, support, and subscribe to credible news magazines and daily newspapers.
Do not depend on soundbites and headlines. Look inside the titles flowing through your Twitter and Facebook feeds. Back track to original stories, even to primary sources and data. Verify statements that seem dubious.
If you do not recognize the source of a news story and it is not appearing anywhere else, ask yourself who these writers are, where do they work, why are they writing? Do they have an ulterior motive for wanting you to believe what they are saying? What are they selling? What do they stand to gain in exchange for your attention or belief?
Understand that every news agency can make a mistake; the measure of the agency is how and when they retract their mistakes.
You can also rely on the skills of the people at Politifact, Factcheck, and Snopes.com. More than simply affixing a true/false label, they analyze, document, even explain where misinformed ideas originated.
If documentation, valid arguments, and evaluating sources have a familiar ring, then some of what your freshman comp teachers tried to drill into you took hold. All you have to do is brush off those old skills, or ask for help—at your nearest library. We’re there for you.
Kay Cunningham serves as the Director of the Plough Library at Christian Brothers University