Freedom of the press is the right to publish information and opinions without fear of government persecution. This concept is protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Most basically, this can be defined as the separation of journalism from government constraint or restriction. The three branches of government provide checks and balances in order to maintain order and legitimacy, as well as prevent corruption. In the same vein, freedom of the press allows Americans to remain informed of, and active in the operations of the government. This liberty also restricts the government from limiting an individual’s right to information.
21st Century Americans are inundated by information. With the expansion of the internet, and immediate access to anything we want to know, we are constantly being updated on the current events in our country and the world. Exposure is at an all-time high and with the popularity of social media ,we are often witnessing news as it is happening.
All of this easy access to information is an incredible phenomenon. We are fortunate to live in a time of such transparency. However, with the world at our fingertips, there comes great responsibility. In addition to having access to any information that we want, in a matter of seconds, we also risk exposure to false information. Today, we hear trendy terms like “fake news” and “alternative facts” and while these amusing little phrases are regularly being used; they present real, very serious threats to us and our country.
Unreliable news sources have always existed; they have always posed a threat to the integrity of the American media. Today these sources are more damaging than ever before. Scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, articles with gimmicky dramatic titles quickly grab the attention of users. How many times have you read an article’s headline, not bothered to actually read the article, but then quickly relay the flashy title to a friend or coworker? We are all guilty of this. Taking this a step further: have you ever done this only to be contradicted, and proven wrong? Sometimes a situation like this can be enough to encourage an individual to do a little more research before sharing something they read online, but for many of us, it is easier to assume the information we are consuming is accurate. After all… it was on the internet!
With 21st Century technology and a contentious political climate we, as consumers of information, must be vigilant. It is important to not only stay informed, but to be critical of news and its accuracy. While reading false information may be seemingly harmless, when an individual shares incorrect or misrepresented information, they create a society of ill-informed people. Widespread misinformation threatens our ability to hold our government and more its powerful entities accountable for their actions, and thereby makes society vulnerable to corruption.
You might wonder how you can possibly decipher real news from fake news when you are being constantly bombarded with “news” from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed. Below I have compiled a list of questions that you can ask to evaluate your news source and determine if it is not only reliable, but even worth reading.
- What is the website or source? Is it a legitimate news outlet or organization?
First and foremost, when reading an article, ask yourself if you have ever heard of the new source posting it? While major news outlets like CNN, NBC, and FOX are held to a certain level of journalistic ethics; smaller sources may not necessarily be so inclined. Often times you can search for an entity’s code of ethics, journalistic integrity policy, or similarly structured standards code. If you cannot find a set of principles such as this for a news source it could be a red flag as to the accuracy and quality of content.
The following are some examples of ethics policies:
- Is this source associated or funded by any organizations?
Finding out if a source is funded by an organization with a very public political viewpoint can be indicator that you, as the reader, should proceed with caution. Often times, doing a simple Google search on a news source can provide a great deal of information as to what corporations or organizations might support it.
Looking out for advertisements that are politically suggestive or biased, might also help you to determine if this source is a quality one.
- Does the article contain opinions? Does it favor a particular viewpoint?
The article you are reading is an editorial and should not be interpreted as news. An editorial is an opinion piece. While editorials often reference facts or events, if the article reads like an opinion, that’s because it is an opinion. Along with the freedom of the press, the First Amendment also protects the opinions of Americans, as well as their right to voice them. While this type of reading may be persuasive, it is important to view editorials too with a critical eye.
- Are the facts stated in the article cited?
One of the most important things to look for: references. A news source should never present information as factual, without explicitly stating from where those facts came. Some of the most up-to-date news will contain quotes and first hand accounts, as well as links to additional information. These are clear indicators of accuracy, and can be cross-referenced or double checked. Articles and reports that blatantly state facts without any indication of the source of the information should not be trusted.
Additional questions you can ask about information sourcing:
a.) Who is contributing information to the article? A person? A company?
b.) Does it contain professional expertise?
c.) Does it contain witness accounts? Quotes?
d.) Can the sources be verified?
- Who is the author? What is their background?
The author of an article should always put their name on the piece. This allows for some direct accountability. Nowadays it is not uncommon for journalists to provide links to social media accounts so you can easily connect with them. This information can help you verify the accuracy of their work. This level of accessibility allows readers to ask further questions, and get any information that might be missing or lacking from a news source. If an article does not list an author: be wary. You can typically follow a link, or perform a simple Google search on a journalist to learn more about them, their background, and view more of their work.
- Does the title read like clickbait?
If an article’s title is open ended, or reads like a cliffhanger, then it is clickbate. Clickbate, by definition, are headlines that are meant to attract attention and encourage users to follow the link to find out what happens next. The primary purpose of these types of articles are to increase clicks and views of the site. Often this results in readers following down a rabbit hole of dramatic headline after headline. These rarely contain much in the way of substance, and should always be considered suspicious.
- Are images original or stock photos?
Original photography is a good indicator of a relevant news source. Photography associated with an article should specifically depict the subject of the article in some capacity. This suggests that the new source had some presence at an event. Photographs should also be captioned with the photographer’s name, this is a helpful indicator that the photo is an original. Articles containing stock photos, or images unrelated to the story itself are likely untrustworthy.
- Is the article satirical?
Sarcasm… Parodies… Conspiracy? Unsure?
Double check the source here!
As Americans we are fortunate to live in a country with a first amendment protecting our rights to share and receive information. However, artificial information can be very dangerous. Inaccurate information has the ability to produce an oblivious society. Additionally, when it is so widespread, claiming “fake news” can be an easy defense for those with something to hide. With the technology and resources that exist today, ignorance is a choice. Individuals owe it to themselves and society to stay informed and educated on the events taking place in the world around them. This equates to power; a power that is eliminated when we allow fake news to consume us.
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