The University Library offers online guides on myriad topics, most geared toward scholarship—such as how to prepare an annotated bibliography, properly cite government documents, and visualize data using tools like charts and graphics. But following the 2016 presidential election—when disinformation was rife on social media and beyond—library staff saw a need to advise users on navigating rockier shoals: distinguishing bona fide journalism from “fake news,” propaganda, and other types of misinformation.
The library launched a website and a series of on-campus workshops with a variety of practical tips for telling the difference. As the guide notes on its homepage, “Fake news is not news you disagree with.” Rather, it says (quoting a paper in Science), it is “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form, but not in organizational process or intent.”
The following is a condensed overview of the guide’s advice; the full resource can be found at guides.library.cornell.edu/evaluate_news. “Remember: even credible sources sometimes rely on clickbait-style headlines or occasionally make mistakes,” the site notes. “No news organization is perfect, which is why a healthy news diet consists of multiple sources of information.”
In the words of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which the guide features prominently: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
Raise your news IQ
Information condensed and edited from the University Library’s online guide, “Fake News, Propaganda, and Misinformation: Learning to Critically Evaluate Media Sources”
Follow Some Basic Rules
❏ Be curious and actively investigate news stories.
❏ Use news sources that are accountable for their content and that follow journalistic ethics and standards.
❏ Use care before sharing content with others on social media. Pause and reflect on sources that arouse strong emotions, positive or negative.
❏ Learn to recognize your own biases and compensate for them.
Spot Fake Sites that Mimic Real Ones
❏ Perform an independent search for the news source. Compare and verify URLs. (For example, the fake site abcnews.com.co is not ABC News [abcnews.go.com], but the logo and URL are almost identical.)
❏ Look for contact info with a verifiable address and affiliation.
❏ Look for an “about” page; read it closely for evidence of bias or partisanship. If there’s no “about” page and no “contact” page, be very skeptical.
❏ In staff listings, look critically at the list of executives. Are they real people or stock photos? Open a new tab and look for another profile of the individual (such as on LinkedIn).
Understand Your Potential Biases
❏ Explicit bias: attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) that we consciously or deliberately hold and express about a person or group.
❏ Implicit bias: attitudes and beliefs (positive or negative) about other people, ideas, issues, or institutions that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control, which affect our opinions and behavior.
❏ Confirmation bias: our subconscious tendency to seek and interpret information and other evidence in ways that affirm our existing beliefs, ideas, expectations, and/or hypotheses.
Be Media Literate
❏ If you have an immediate emotional reaction to a news article or source: pause, reflect, investigate. Sparking emotion is a primary goal of fake news producers. Do not be part of a viral fake news spiral.
❏ Independently verify the source (by performing a separate search) and the information (through more mainstream news sources or fact-checking sites such as FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, or Snopes.com).
❏ Select news sources known for high-quality, investigative reporting. Search them directly; don’t settle for web search results or social media news feeds. Social media algorithms are designed to present the news that reinforces your current views, not a balanced view.
❏ Look for lengthy articles—long-form reporting—that begin to capture some of the complexity of topics and events. One or two paragraphs is not sufficient.
Look for Qualified Authors
❏ Lack of a byline is a red flag indicating suspect content. Accountable sources sign their stories and take personal responsibility for the content.
❏ Click on the byline if it’s linked. Where does it lead?
❏ Google the authors’ names. Is there a LinkedIn profile or some other form of biographical information? What has the author done in the past? Does the author’s background and experience qualify her or him to write on the topic?
Info Sources: Some Definitions
Sources that entirely fabricate information, disseminate deceptive content, or grossly distort actual news reports.
Sources that use humor, irony, exaggeration, ridicule, and false information to comment on current events.
Sources in repressive states operating under government sanction; propaganda.
Sources that promote pseudoscience, naturalistic fallacies, and other scientifically dubious claims.
Sources that actively promote racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of bias and discrimination.
Sources that provide generally credible content, but use exaggerated, misleading, or questionable headlines, social media descriptions, and/or images.
Sources that provide generally verifiable information in support of certain points of view or political orientations.
Sources that circulate news and information in a manner consistent with traditional and ethical practices in journalism.