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How Fact-Checking Can Help Us Stay Informed in the Digital Age

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Mon, 10/28/2019 - 4:15pm

In the information age, it's easier than ever to keep up to date with the latest happenings in politics and government. From online newspapers to social media, new stories are constantly at our fingertips. We can be alerted to breaking news right as it's happening. And we can easily follow developments throughout the day.

This all seems wonderful at first glance, but the downsides are worth noting. It has become increasingly difficult for the average person to determine how accurate the news he or she consumes truly is. Each outlet seems to have a different angle, and often, even seemingly straightforward stories spark strong disagreement regarding their very essence. When the same event provokes such a wide range of responses, how are we supposed to trust that any one outlet is capable of getting the story straight?

The public has long been aware that all news—even that which seems completely neutral—is filtered through a lens. That lens seems to grow more distorted with time. In such an environment, it is up to each of us to make informed choices about how and where we obtain our information so that we can better separate fact from fiction.

Choosing Sources Carefully

You wouldn't select just any source for a college paper or business report, so why are you willing to settle for less-than-reliable sources for your daily news? How you perceive the world around you largely depends on which voices and opinions enter your daily sphere. If you depend on cold, hard facts, you're more likely to maintain an accurate, unbiased view of today's most relevant issues. If, on the other hand, your information primarily derives from social media rants and unreliable opinion pages, it’s easy to be misled.

To begin, take a close look at where you currently obtain information. Be honest. Are you reliant on social media? If you are, you're certainly not alone; a notable Pew Research Center report reveals that, as of 2017, a full 68 percent of Americans at least occasionally looked to social media for news updates.

Despite the prevalence of social media news, most users anticipate that the updates they come across on Twitter or Facebook will be inaccurate. This doesn't stop many from depending on social media for news updates, but it should give you pause. What if, instead of heading straight for Facebook, you looked at a reputable newspaper first? Other outlets might not be as convenient, but they're more likely to offer accurate information backed up by reliable sources.

Of course, finding a reputable news outlet is easier said than done. Begin by examining several options. Do these outlets let opinion page reporting creep into stories that are supposed to focus strictly on facts and figures? Do they primarily get the facts directly from the source? Or do they rely on quoting other outlets before filling up the remainder of the page with commentary? Compare and contrast various outlets to determine which are most dedicated to getting the story straight—and which are content to stick with poorly-sourced clickbait. Resolve to include the best outlets you come across in your daily news consumption.

The Role of Fact-Checking

Even the best news outlets occasionally publish inaccurate stories or are forced to correct mistakes after the fact. Such is the hazard of reporting quickly in a digital environment that demands instant updates. Thankfully, multiple options are available for confirming information found in a variety of outlets and, of course, on social media.

Although not always 100 percent reliable, fact-checking provides a valuable antidote to the rumors and incomplete stories that seem to litter today's top news sources. These websites are entirely dedicated to determining the truth and refuting inaccuracies that might otherwise mislead the public. Top fact-checking sites include the following:

  • PolitiFact
  • ProPublica
  • Snopes
  • The Sunlight Foundation

 These represent just the beginning, however. Fact-checking sites abound, and unfortunately, some are more reliable than others.

When determining which fact-checking sites to use, look closely at each website's process. Keep the following questions in mind:

  • How, exactly, do the experts at these sites verify claims?
  • Does your fact-checker of choice list sources? Are these sources reliable?
  • Is additional information provided to help you decide for yourself what to believe about a particular fact?
  • What is the fact-checker's process for refuting statements believed to be false?
  • How much overlap does your go-to fact-checker hold with other fact-checking sites? Can the same statement be verified via multiple sources?

Keep in mind that some fact-checkers explicitly identify as liberal or conservative. When in doubt, aim for a site that deems itself neutral—or check in with a variety of sites for confirmation. This may require extensive searching, as the best fact-checkers often remain at the periphery of breaking internet stories and may fail to sufficiently get the word out.

While there's value in browsing fact-checking sites on our own, we can also take solace in knowing that today's media outlets aggressively fact-check one another. Rather than read a single story and assume we've gotten the full message, it's important to look at multiple takes on a single issue to determine what various media outlets have to say not only about the story but, also, how reporters regard other accounts of a given event.

Keeping up to date with politics can feel highly frustrating in today's media-saturated environment. That being said, multiple opportunities exist to remain fully informed in a quickly-changing world. If you're willing to do the hard work of sifting through various news outlets and fact-checkers, you can feel confident that you fully understand today's top stories.

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