Media Literacy 101: How To Identify Fake News & Media Bias
What is “Fake News”?
Over the course of the last half-decade the use of the term “fake news” has gone from a trickle to a torrent. We hear it every day.
When someone says “fake news” do they mean that a story is not real? Do they mean that the story is biased? Do they mean that it is not based on fact? Do they mean that its importance is being presented out of proportion to what it really is?
It is possible they mean any one of those things, but when you call something “fake” the implication is that it is made-up, false, not true. This terminology used to be reserved for stories about the Loch Ness Monster or stories in tabloids about aliens coming down and having sex with celebrities. But the way the term is thrown around today, we cannot be sure. While President Trump has called fact-based stories he doesn’t agree with “fake news” or “hoaxes,” the reality is much different.
The release of the 966-page report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence raises new fears about the spread of misinformation and election interference. The report further confirms former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s findings that Russia engaged in a campaign to sabotage the 2016 American election and help Trump win the presidency. The report also adds new evidence indicating some of Trump’s closest advisors welcomed offers of assistance from Russia and, in Paul Manafort’s case, collaborated with a Russian Intelligence officer.
With an upcoming election, in-country conspiracy theories being touted by Congressional candidates such as Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia and Lauren Bobert in Colorado and attacks coming from foreign players it is more important than ever to #ThinkBeforeSharing and make sure we utilize tools such as the global campaign launched by UNESCO and described by Rantt’s Nancy Levine.
A Brief History Of Hoaxes
To hoax someone is to trick them into believing something is true when it is not, especially if it is preposterous. With so much information coming at us every day, it is easy to view a headline and not question it. If we take the time to check the source, see if the same news is being reported elsewhere and think about the perspective being written from, we can spot the actual fake news.
Hoaxes amplify and distort reality, the more preposterous the better. The headlines used by various outlets to describe a fairly tame event during the recent protests in Portland are one example. In an effort to stoke a fire, protestors did use one or two Bibles as kindling but because the scene was captured on camera and the video quickly made its way around the world, people took advantage of the moment. Donald Trump Jr. stated “Now we move to the book burning phase,” The Federalist proclaimed: “As They Turn To Burning Bibles, Portland Rioters Show Their True Colors,” LifeNews.com ramped it up from one or two actual Bibles to “Portland Anarchists Burn Boxes Full of Bibles, But the Liberal Media is Silent.”
Turns out, the hoax originated in a Russian news agency, as reported by The New York Times, “the Portland Bible burnings appear to be one of the first viral Russian disinformation hits of the 2020 presidential campaign.” The more preposterous a thing becomes, the more heads it will turn.
In between Tweets about COVID and College Football the last few weeks, you might have noticed the recent COVID-19 death of an outspoken professor from Arizona State University. Since 2016, @Sciencing_Bi Twitter account actively engaged in serious discussions about sexual harassment and social justice. Turns out she was not real. The account was created by BethAnn McLaughlin, a former assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University.
The @Sciencing_Bi account played a role in the online petition to help McLaughlin secure tenure at Vanderbilt University. In 2017 she was denied tenure, but kept up the hoax of the supportive fellow academic. According to The New York Times, Ms. McLaughlin has apologized to the wide-range of marginalized populations she exploited while claiming to be an advocate.
If you are familiar with a little bit of American media history you know that hoaxes are not a new phenomenon. You may have heard about the popular folklore of the Jersey Devil from the 1700s which was revitalized by publicist Norman Jeffries in the early 1900’s. Or, you might be familiar with one of the most famous “Hoaxes” that was not meant to be a hoax, the airing of War of the Worlds.
On October 30, 1938, the audience listening to CBS Radio were expecting to hear the music of Ramon Raquello, but their evening was interrupted with special news broadcasts. Reports about a meteor falling to earth in New Jersey, quickly turned into reports of a spaceship and tentacled aliens who could blast through things with a heat ray.
Out of the approximate 6 million people who heard the broadcast, hundreds panicked (some reports inflate this to a million). There was a disclaimer at the beginning of the program and at three other times. People who did not pay close attention were tricked into believing something scary was going on.
In November 1996 Esquire magazine’s cover featured Allegra Coleman, said to be a hot new star taking Hollywood by storm. “Forget Gwyneth, Forget Mira,” the cover declared. “Here’s Hollywood’s next Dream Girl.” Excerpts from her diary presented her to be a mystery. Or, as Allegra herself put it, “It’s like Stonehenge, you know? The biggest mystery, totally unsolved.” After Esquire ran the article, the magazine received calls from talent scouts, eager to get in touch with the new star. Allegra was not real.
Even Oprah has been taken in by something that was not true. In the 1990s Herman Rosenblat submitted a story for a newspaper contest and was later featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Rosenblat had been imprisoned as a child in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He claimed that Roma, a Jewish girl disguised as a Christian who lived in the nearby town, used to throw apples over the fence for him. Years later they met in the United States and realized they knew each other, fell in love, and got married. The book, Angel at the Fence: The True Story of a Love That Survived was never published because historians discovered several issues with the story and it was determined to be a fake. In 2009 Rosenblat admitted it was made-up.
A precursor to what we now call “swatting” was a scam that usually included a man placing a phone call to a restaurant, claiming to be a police officer, and convincing managers to carry out strip searches and other acts against female employees. Out of over 70 reported incidents, most calls had gone to restaurants in rural areas as the perpetrator believed it was easier to convince people in those areas to comply with his instructions.
The 2012 independent film Compliance dramatically portrayed an event at a fast-food restaurant that was based on several of the incidents of the strip search phone call scam that took place between 1992 and 2004. It is a great example of why we should not be afraid to question people of authority and question the information that is provided to us. Before we act, rely on research, or even quote someone, we need to make sure our sources are reliable. Before we can do that, we need to understand how the media can distort reality.
As we see with President Trump, his calls of “Fake News” are often just accusations made because he does not like how a story is being reported, or the truth is somehow unflattering to him.
How To Identify Fake News
If you are not sure of a source’s credibility, think about why the information is there and when it was put there. Is the source trying to sell something, to persuade or just inform? Websites have copyright dates and any “journalistic” site will have a date when the item was posted and/or updated. Most will also provide a bio or a link to more information about the author.
Think about if there is another way you can verify what you are seeing. Is this news also available on other sites? Is it written to a general audience or a more specific one? Look up the website on one of the online tools mentioned earlier and see how good they are at checking facts and whether they lean too far to one side of the political spectrum.
Are there spelling or grammatical errors in the piece? Do all the links on the page work? Anyone can put up a website, and anyone can make it look real, just take a look at The Ova Prima Foundation. What gives it away?
Think about the language being used. Does the language or tone seem unbiased and free of emotion? Do you see a lot of “tagging” or “labeling?” Is the source using extremes when just the basics will do?
FactSquared keeps a database of all the accusations of “Fake News” that Trump has strewn about, in fact, they keep track of every official communication that comes from Trump. As of today, the count of “Fake News” utterances by Trump is at 1,879.
In a country where a free press is valued, this is dangerous rhetoric. In 2018, trying to spotlight the dangers lurking behind all the accusations of “Fake News,” Senator Jeff Flake (R, AZ) took to the Senate floor and stated:
“The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.”
He went on to explain how America’s Freedom of Press is valued throughout the world;
Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
“Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.”
How To Discern Media Bias
When we think of “journalists,” we are probably thinking of people who collect, write, distribute news and information to the public. Through some medium, a publication, broadcast, or online, information is being provided to the public.
While that is the basic description, there are journalists who specialize in different types of reporting. Some focus on sports, some focus on celebrity news, some focus on politics and any other topic that can be broken down (agriculture, business trading, advances in science, healthcare etc.).
Media Bias happens when the media is reporting the news in a partial or prejudiced manner. This occurs when the media appears to be pushing a viewpoint rather than reporting the news objectively, or just the facts. One of the trickier things to discern when it comes to identifying the validity of a news story is false objectivity. A writer might try to appear “balanced” by “not taking sides,” the problem with this is that some things are indeed facts, and some are not.
When trying to appear objective a writer may be afraid to call out a newsworthy person for a lie and instead refer to it as an “alternative fact,” or say something like “Trump was “distorting the truth” when he stated “Absentee voting is different from mail-in voting and has more protections against fraud” in a July press conference.
The truth is that there is no difference between absentee voting and voting by mail, they all require verification before they are counted, and there is no one going mailbox to mailbox looking to steal your ballots.
There are several different ways media outlets can engage in bias.
Bias by omission occurs when news leaves one side out of a story.
A major news story in recent years has been illegal immigrants in the United States. A lot of this attention has been brought on by President Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants. In 2015 when he announced his candidacy for President he stated:
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best, they’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
This has led to immigrants being demonized in many ways. The news outlets that promote that idea ignore certain facts. They tend to focus on one group of immigrants — members of the international MS-13 criminal gang.
The Cato Institute, which is a non-profit institute that provides research on public policy, has shown through a variety of studies that illegal immigrant incarceration rates are about half those of native-born Americans. They also showed in a study of 2015 crime statistics from Texas, that immigrants in the country illegally were 25 percent less likely to be convicted of homicide than native-born Americans.
By omitting, or not disclosing that information and other studies like it, news outlets show a bias against illegal immigrants.
Bias by Selection of Sources occurs when the author/producer includes more sources that support one view over another.
This type of bias can also be seen when someone uses such phrases as “experts believe,” “observers say,” or “most people believe.” Who are the experts? How do they know it is “most people?
When a news story only presents one side, it is usually the side the reporter supports. When someone researches a topic, they usually look for quotes, data and testimony that support what they believe, which is why it is important to be aware of our own bias and try to make sure we present the whole picture. A good example here is someone who supports the anti-vaccination movement.
In 1998, a researcher published a study which showed a connection between certain types of vaccines and the incidence of autism. Since that time, the study has been debunked and the methods have been proven to have been flawed. Several studies since then have proven that vaccines are indeed safe.
A person who is on a crusade to promote the anti-vaccination effort will not mention the studies that have been completed since 1998 that prove it was not a reliable scientific study. They would be omitting vital information for their audience to make an informed decision about vaccinations. They are only using information that supports their argument, strengthening their bias toward anti-vaccination.
Bias by story selection (what they choose to report on)
This type of bias is the action of selecting or leaving out some stories over others to highlight certain events & perspectives.
One of the most stunning under-reported stories of the last few years has been that of the rate of maternal mortality in the United States. A six-month-long investigation found that maternal mortality in the U.S. is on the rise while it is declining in other developed nations. Why is there not much coverage of this topic?
Some people make the case that because it impacts more minority and poor women, it does not receive the same coverage as it would if it impacted more wealthy, white women. It also sheds a light on how substandard our healthcare system can be in certain circumstances. Every American wants America to be viewed as a shining light of progress, innovation and “the greatest” country, which means we would have “the greatest” healthcare. The fact that we do not is shameful and not many news outlets want to show our country in that light.
Instead of covering this, news outlets might choose to cover advances in newborn care. For more information check out: US Has the Worst Rate of Maternal Deaths in the Developed World
Bias by Placement is the placement of a story, either in print, online, or in the nightly news lineup that can affect how important people think it is.
Where a story is placed influences what a person thinks about its importance. Stories on the front page of the newspaper are thought to be more important than stories buried in the back. Stories with the largest headlines and stories with the first spot on a news show are perceived as being the most important.
While a newspaper wants to report on a variety of things, if it runs a local story about a new local shoe store on the front page and only provides a few paragraphs on the back page about Blackstone purchasing Ancestry, that would suggest that the newspaper does not want to make the Blackstone story seem important. The purchase of Ancestry and all the data that comes with it is an important story, which could have a large impact on privacy issues. It is a bigger story than the new shoe store, so why does the new shoe store get the front page and the big headline?
Bias by Labeling occurs when words are used descriptively, usually in the extreme.
You might hear this referred to as “Tagging”. This occurs when people are labeled with extremes such as “Conservative Republican” or “Liberal Democrat” or when people are labeled as “Experts” when they don’t have the credentials. You can identify this type of bias by just looking at the types of words and phrases that are used.
Bias by spin is what most people think media bias is and the other more subtle variations of bias previously presented here are ignored.
Spin happens when a story is a one-sided interpretation of an event usually through the use of tone; objective facts are presented in a subjective manner and the story is “spun” in one direction. You can identify spin by looking for which ideological view it aligns with and look at the tone of the story.
This is where some online tools can come in handy. Ad Fontes Media, Media Bias Fact Check, and AllSides have developed tools that can help you see the accuracy of fact reporting and where a publication lands on the spectrum of political bias. Organizations like Fox News and OANN, which have been accused of being propaganda arms for President Trump, have mixed or low fact ratings. In the interest of transparency, Rantt Media was ranked by Media Bias Fact Check as “moderately left biased based on story selection” when they did their analysis of our work in 2018. We are proud to note that they also gave Rantt high marks for accuracy and Rantt has never failed a fact-check.