How do you know if that news is true or truly bogus?
One of the most important things we do as citizens is stay informed. We need to know what's going on, and why, so that we can support actions and decisions that have an effect on our lives. But when you see some information, how do you know whether or not it's reliable? It's easy to write a flashy headline, but a lot of the articles and infographics being spread around don't actually have any substance. Here's a few quick ways to fact-check, so you won't be led astray by bad information or lazy journalism!
When should I fact-check?
As often as you can! Does something sound too good to be true? Check! It probably is.
It's also important to check, even if something you read confirms something you already believe. Especially if the story is designed to pull on your heart strings (or make you really angry). Deceptive writers will try to get an emotional response from you- the same way an advertisement will. Don't let someone exploit you!
It's not just for debunking those annoying chain emails (though they're great for that too), Snopes will debunk all sorts of rumors, from the phony Christian war against Starbucks for their (also) phony war against Christmas, to the false rumor that the KKK endorsed Ben Carson. Those stories made headlines and Facebook walls, and there was absolutely no truth to them. If you see a story circulating around with no sources and no confirmation by a reliable news outlet, check Snopes. They don't have a political affiliation, and check only for facts. And unlike other websites, they share the sources they use in their research so you can check them out and judge for yourself.
Bookmark their website ---> HERE
It's not on Snopes. What can I do next?
It might be time to take the research into your own hands. Now, not all of us have access to information databases, and while the library usually has a subscription to the major ones, you won't always have time to go there and dig through them. Here's a few questions I ask myself every time I see something being presented as a fact:
1. Did someone sign their name to this?
If there's no attribution, I'm immediately wary. If you believe this information is true, why didn't you sign your name to it?
2. There's no citation.
If someone did a lot of research on the subject, why wouldn't they share their source? If someone is presenting something as true, they had better be willing to back that up with facts. Making claims about the U.S. population? Census data is readily available. If someone is sharing a fact, it doesn't take any effort to share the source. If there isn't a source listed, why should we believe a source exists at all?
3. Is there a date?
Information has an expiration date. Would you put your faith in information about Mars dated from the year 1950? Of course not. We've sent several rovers to Mars, and seven of them were able to collect data and send it back. If it's not current, check to see if we've learned anything new about the subject.
4. Is this an opinion or a fact?
Be wary of this. Often people get very passionate about issues, and will depict their opinions as facts. Whether it's a mistake, intentional, or a steadfast belief, opinions are not facts. Facts are based on concrete evidence. Opinions are the conclusions we draw, and can be informed by facts, but are often informed by emotions, personal history, and assumptions.
5. Is this an anecdote or a real thing?
This is similar to #4. People will tell personal anecdotes and present them as the norm. There's nothing wrong with sharing personal stories, or even feelings, but they are not a substitute for data. (Then again, a million personal anecdotes are no longer outliers, so be aware of the context for the story).
How can I tell if a source is legit?
This is a tough one, and probably the most important. Unfortunately, it pays to be skeptical these days. Personally, I think it's impossible to avoid bias- we're all informed by our own experiences and the way we discuss information is going to be effected by our personal biases. So the question I ask myself is: What is this writer's bias? For example, a lot of journals are sponsored by universities, or researchers who are being paid by a company. What does the university gain from this information? How might the company use the data? Once you figure out the source's bias, you'll make a much better judgement on the truth of their information.
Pay attention to the numbers!
Charts and graphs are a great way to tell a story- and they are extremely easy to manipulate. Look at my chart above. It looks like way more people like pie charts- but check again. How many people did I ask? Only ten! And where's my source? Who did I ask? What group is this supposed to represent? This is a terrible chart. It doesn't explain how the research was conducted, it makes a broad generalization based on a ridiculously small group. Numbers are easy to manipulate, and people do it all the time. Find out where those numbers are coming from, and how they were calculated.
Why would people lie???
Short version: People suck.
Long version: For a variety of reasons. Diet pills will tell you that you'll be happy if you lose weight because you'll be more likely to buy the product if you do. Political pundits lie to boost their ratings and get a bigger paycheck. Your aunt Edna will share that chain email about using egg whites on a burn (DON'T DO THAT) because she thinks it'll help you and doesn't understand what salmonella is. People are lazy- they see something that confirms what they believe and share it without question. We're all guilty of all of these things: selfishness, stupidity, and laziness. And it takes effort to curtail it.
Try not to get frustrated.
It's annoying and headache-inducing, but if you're doing the best you can to stay up to date and informed, that's all you can ask of yourself. If you feel like screaming, step away and take a walk or do something you like. The world does not begin or end based on what you know. Be gentle with yourself as you learn and grow, and try not to cringe too hard at all the bs you once believed. After all, someone worked very hard on the lie they told to get you to believe it.