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How to Read: Media Literacy Lessons for the Age of Post-Truth and Fake News

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Deep in the forests of Borneo, anthropologists have discovered an entirely new species of human. They are, on average, seven to eight feet tall, and instead of big toes, they have opposable digits on their feet (similar to our primate ancestors). This is likely because they rely on climbing abilities to reach food. Reports suggest that they’ve evolved in total isolation for the past 50,000 years.

Okay, I made that up—but this is the kind of fake news that has become commonplace in today’s digital media landscape. Take a lack of media literacy, add a dash of creative thinking and, voilà: the perfect environment for fake news to flourish.

I came across this quote recently: “One lie is enough to question all truths.” It seemed a little heartbreaking at first, the amount of damage a single lie can do. But then I thought, Maybe this is some good advice we ought to follow when we read.

relearning how to read

Why We All Need to Relearn to Read

I’m not trying to be patronizing with this headline, I promise. I don’t doubt that you can read. But in today’s Wild West media landscape, content is evolving rapidly, and it’s easy to let overconfidence and a busy schedule cloud our critical eyes when it comes to reading news, conducting market research, and so on.

According to research cited by the BBC, an increasing proportion of US adults are getting their news from social media: a platform that allows any and all forms of content (whether it’s from a trustworthy source or not) to be spread among a huge global audience. And there’s a lot of it. Too much. So, what ends up winning in this scenario? The most sensational headlines, the most controversial claims, and, as always, anything with cats.

Just as we’ve seen with the evolution of phishing scams, fake news has come a long way. Whereas humorous publications like The Onion prominently proclaim themselves “A farcical newspaper . . .”, others, like National Report (no link because I’d rather not continue to boost their traffic), are intentionally misleading. Some website owners have discovered they can make more money by making people believe the nonsense they’re reading is actually true. There was even a shooting incident in Washington based on information reported in a fake news article.

7 Tips for Better Critical Reading

The ease with which fake news spreads is worrisome, but it is a reality that both readers and writers of content have to contend with. A recent study out of Stanford paints a bleak picture, particularly when it comes to high school and college students (in other words, our future) and their inability to evaluate information presented online.

So, here’s a modern-day refresher on how to read more critically and ensure you’re doing your part not to spread fake news.


1. Check the URL

Check to see what the source of the article is by looking at the URL. First, check that you recognize the site, and if you’re not familiar with the outlet, check for a security certificate. Safe sites will begin with “https” (the “s” is for secure) and may have a closed padlock symbol in the address bar. Also, watch out for what comes before and after the final dot. For example, www.bbc.com is the official BBC website. Beware of sites that include “bbc” and “.com” but have additional dot sections, like a “.co,” at the end. It’s easy to take a quick glance at the URL and miss the fact that it’s a fake.

2. Fact-Check with External Fact-Checking Websites

Snopes, Politifact, and FactCheck.org are good resources to turn to when you’re not sure about the credibility of the article you’re reading. It’s worth checking to see what these sites have to say, but remember that they don’t catch everything, and it can take some time to debunk a piece of fake news that’s been floating around. So, use your own judgment as well as some of the other tactics on this list to help you out.

3. Is the Story One-Sided?

One of the more in-depth tests of fake and biased news stories is to analyze the arguments presented. Is there only one side of the issue discussed? Are all sides presented fairly and objectively, or does the author favor a certain interpretation? Where is the weight of the newsworthiness of the story placed? For example, if a story’s newsworthiness comes from reporting on the unproven accusations of person A against person B, rather than on the validity of those accusations, you could be looking at a biased piece of news at the very least, and a totally fabricated piece of news at the worst.

4. Are Claims Backed Up?

It’s easy for facts to morph into hypotheses and extrapolations (and, with a little creative thinking, even outright lies) when no sources are present to verify claims in an article. Just like you would have to do on a college paper, an author or editor has to back up every claim in an article; typically, they do this with a link or by calling out the source—or otherwise identify the author’s theory or hearsay. But don’t assume something is a fact just because there’s a link thrown in there. If the claim seems vague, general, or extreme, follow that link to identify where it leads and what the original idea/quote/fact/figure really is. If you can’t find it, ask for it. You can try tracking down the author’s contact details or simply leave a comment asking for a source.

5. Does the Story Sound Too Good or Too Bad to Be True?

If the story you’re reading seems particularly shocking, controversial, or unusual, you should always question its credibility. Many outlets, even well-established legitimate ones, get desperate for traffic to support their sites and will sometimes turn to misleading headlines as clickbait to draw you into a story. Watch for sensational headlines that are posed as questions, like “Did the US Secretary of State Really Swear at Reporters on Live TV?” The answer to such questions is usually no. The headline is often just based on accusations (or even entirely made up, in this case), just designed to draw you in.

6. Are Other Outlets Reporting on the Story?

Never stop at one source to verify what you’re reading. Even if it’s a credible news source, its best to double-check that the story or the topic is being reported on by other outlets, too. This can also be a good way to get a more thorough understanding and analysis of the topic. Different news outlets may have different tones and points of view (particularly when it comes to political reporting, as major publications often have their own political leanings). Get to know the angle that your favorite major publications usually take on a story so you can better assess the extent to which they may be skewing the discussion of future topics.

7. Don’t Share Unless You’re Sure

Fake news thrives when people share those sites and articles with their social networks. We tend to trust our friends more than we do other people, so when your bestie shares a piece of fake news, you’re that much more likely to click on it, believe it, and share it yourself. And, thus, the epidemic grows. Even some legitimate outlets have picked up on fake news, rewriting the story without providing a source to the original article. And when legitimate sources start spreading that news, even some of the biggest and most trustworthy outlets can rebroadcast, assuming that their legitimate source has got it right. You can help to break the cycle by following these steps and making sure you’re confident about the credibility of an article before sharing it with your social networks.

Reading critically is a media literacy skill that we ought to actively practice regularly, rather than assuming we’re educated enough to always know the difference between real and fake news. I don’t claim to be omniscient in this, either. This is advice that I plan to try to follow more vigorously in my own reading and writing going forward.

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Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at AnewTraveller.com. Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at nicola.lauren.brown@gmail.com

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