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News Know-How

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Publication: What Am I Looking At?

Do you pause before you share? Sharpen your skills for reading news critically: account for your own biases, and identify poorly supported claims, weak evidence, and bad sources. In other words, avoid "fake news" and less obvious forms of misinformation.

Publication Credibility Criteria

Publication Credibility: The article is on a site published by an organization with a searchable identity and history, written by an author with a searchable identity and history, and conforms to a particular online genre of news publication (blog, citizen journalism, etc) or classic news genre (editorial, straight reporting, photo-essay, etc.).

It's often hard to know what we're looking at, because we tend to encounter news links in our social media feeds. Let's take a deeper look at the two articles shared in Facebook (from the opening page):

facebook post of a news article. Photo of cars pointing in haphazard directions on a freeway. Headline: "Earthquakes: Reckoning With 'The Big One' in California--and It Just Got Bigger. Source: WSJ.com Facebook post of news article, with image of map of 'ring of fire' showing earthquakes. Headline: "Enormous Earthquakes Hit Both Sides of the Pacific And Experts Warn The San Andreas Could 'Unzip All At Once.'" Source: Redflagnews.com

Real or Fake?

The design practices for article links in Facebook make it hard to tell the difference:

  • All headlines are in the same Facebook bold font.
  • Facebook inserts an image from the site that may or may not represent the story well. (You can scroll through image choices when you post, but few people do this.)
  • The headline, the image, the text written by your friend, and your friend's name are all bigger and more prominent than the source, which is in tiny grey letters below the headline.
  • There is no date: this story could be10 years old.

These design features mean that stories from misleading sources look just like stories from legitimate sources, and you have to work hard to figure out differences. We've all been fooled.

Look carefully at the sources: On the left, wsj.com. That's the Wall Street Journal. On the right, redflagnews.com. That's, um, well, what is it?

News in Social Media

Do you look at the source of an article in your social media feed before reading it?
Always: 8 votes (40%)
Usually: 8 votes (40%)
Sometimes: 3 votes (15%)
Rarely: 0 votes (0%)
Never: 1 votes (5%)
Total Votes: 20

Digging Deeper

Here's how I investigated the Red Flag News article.

I clicked the author's name--Michael Snyder--on the Red Flag News story, hoping to find out more about him. Yes, that's right: before I even read the article, I left the page.

The author's linked name took me to the same article on Snyder's own blog, End of the American Dream. A quick check showed me it was word-for-word the same story as on Red Flag News. (That's how I discovered that Red Flag News is an aggregator.) I scrolled to the bottom of the blog story to see Snyder's author description:

About the author: Michael Snyder is the founder and publisher of The Economic Collapse Blog and The Most Important News. Michael's controversial new book about Bible prophecy entitled "The Rapture Verdict" is available in paperback and for the Kindle on Amazon.com

Why would someone who wrote a book on Bible prophecy be interested in (or knowledgeable about) earthquakes? Not a very convincing authority.

Snyder's blog article links to a Fox Science News story (from which he borrowed most of the information), which in turn is a reprint from an original story in the Wall Street Journal by Jim Carlton--the same story linked above. Full circle!

In other words, in less time than it would have taken to read the Red Flag News article, I discovered it was written by someone who specializes in Bible prophecy, and is a 3rd-generation inaccurate representation of the original Wall Street Journal article. This is something you should be doing, too. I just used available links, but if there are no links, use Google. Don't waste your time on unfamiliar, potentially questionable sites. Check their credibility before you read.

And because I'm a librarian and can't help but keep researching: the WSJ article refers to a Federal/State study published in 2014, as well as a report by a company called CoreLogic from November 2016. But I'm getting ahead of myself: evidence & sources are two pages from now.

Wondering how to do this kind of search? Ask a librarian! We live for this kind of thing. Yes, we're total geeks!

Types of News

There is a variety of types of items you might find on a news site:

  • news story - straight reporting of news
  • editorial - opinions & argument
  • analysis - a "meta" view of a story across different articles
  • explainer - usually paired with a news story, explaining complex scientific or financial information
  • interview - reported conversation
  • investigative journalism - in-depth, lengthy reporting about a complex story
  • photojournalism - photographic essay
  • advertisement - paid product marketing, sometimes masquerading as a story

Ideally, they should be relatively easy to identify. If they aren't--if, say, a straight news story is full of editorial opinions, or an explainer seems to be pushing a product--be suspicious. The Red State News article is a haphazard mix of explainer, editorial, and analysis.