‘Fake News’ vs. Actual News: Learning the Importance of Media Literacy

Colleen Narup | Editor

“Fake news” is a term that has been thrown around a lot in the media as of late. Cambridge Dictionary defines “fake news” as false stories that appear to be news that are spread on the Internet or other forms of media, usually created to influence political opinions or as a joke. In other words, fake news is equivalent to propaganda.

However, the meaning of “fake news” has been twisted in recent years. People seem to think “fake news” is whatever they disagree with or they don’t want to believe. Meanwhile, actual fake news spreads misinformation like wildfire across social media, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to trust anything seen on the Internet nowadays.

Critical thinking needs to be implemented when looking at media in this age, where nearly every happenstance is based in some sort of controversy. In 2016, FactCheck.org wrote an article detailing the key steps to determining if a news story is credible or not.

The first step is to consider the source and the author of the article in question. Sometimes a satirical news website may not be glaringly obvious, or the source may have a mission that’s questionable. Look around the site’s different pages, search on Google or refer to fact-checking sites to figure out if the sources are legitimate enough to be reporting on the subject.

Also, be on the lookout for URLs or handles that look similar to actual news sites. ABCnews.com is a credible news site, but ABCnews.com.co is not.

Reading beyond the headline is very important as well. Clickbait is everywhere you look now, using shocking headlines to draw in views. Even the most reputable news sources can post articles with misleading headlines, so click and read through the article before impulsively sharing it to social media.

Always check the sources on an article. Good reporters cite their sources, oftentimes through clickable links on specific details. If there are no sources whatsoever or the sources don’t back up the author’s claim, then it likely should not be trusted.

Most importantly, keep your biases in check when viewing any form of media. People, whether they’re aware of it or not, have a natural tendency to want to always be right. Even if you dislike Trump, set your feelings aside when analyzing news reports that cover him. If you have a strong admiration for a celebrity, don’t dismiss reports of sexual assault allegations against them because you don’t want to believe that celebrity is capable of any wrongdoing. Strong feelings can cloud your judgment; calm yourself and suppress your biases before rationally interpreting an article, rather than immediately tying it in to your angry Facebook rant.

Understanding how to interpret news media is extremely important, because the spreading of misinformation can be dangerous.

Take the “anti-vax” movement, for instance. British doctor Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study that suggested a link between vaccines and autism was proven to be fabricated in 2005 when other scientists could not replicate Wakefield’s results. However, sources advocating anti-vaccination still source and fabricate the study in different ways to convince the public that vaccines are “designed to kill.” Propaganda like this poses a risk to the public, especially when scared parents avoid vaccinating their children because of it.

“Roughly one to two percent of parents choose not to vaccinate their kids at all,” Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said in an interview with Berkeley Wellness. “Between 10 and 20 percent delay or withhold certain vaccinations. What those numbers tell us is that many children are being at risk of serious, preventable diseases. The best example is [2015]’s measles outbreak, which started in southern California and spread to 25 states and parts of Canada.”

Offit stated in the interview that before this outbreak, investigative reporter Gary Baum with the Hollywood Reporter conducted a survey in elementary schools across southern California, finding that many schools had a vaccination rate of less than 50 percent. Baum then accurately predicted that this area would be the “epicenter of a measles outbreak.”

Misinformation like this shows that provoking fear and anxiety in the public can lead to dangerous practices and beliefs. Even though official medical organizations such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have debunked many of the misconceptions about vaccines, 1 in 10 infants worldwide in 2016 were still left unvaccinated by their parents and thus at risk of potentially fatal diseases, according to Global Health Observatory’s (GHO) data.

The moral of my little editorial here isn’t to inform you that you should unquestionably believe anything that The New York Times, CNN, Washington Post or any news source reports—actually, that’s the exact opposite of the point. With all these crazy events in the world going on that are bringing out fear and anger in people across the globe, keeping a level head and being media literate is important. Check sources and credibility, and always keep your biases in check.

And, just as another clarification: “Fake news” refers to fabricated news that is presented as factually accurate, despite having no basis in fact at all. “Fake news” is not any news article or source that presents statistics or scientific facts that you’d rather ignore or choose not to believe.


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