For years, I dreamed of doing the kind of reporting that everybody would notice. But when I arrived at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, my assignment seemed too small for a great journalist-to-be. Though the classes varied, the biggest lesson we learned was to get our facts right. It wasn’t enough to write “Smith,” we had to be sure the name wasn’t “Smyth.” Was Mr. Smith (or Mr. Smyth) definitely running for office, or just thinking about it? It was an important point, because people counted on us to get it right. They needed to know whether the county budget was $87 million or $88 million. Over more than four decades in the news business, I failed too many times in the pursuit of truth. To me, it was a personal failure when I misspelled a name, because the truth mattered. I continue that dedication to the facts in my books about St. Louis.
Now, it seems, too many people out there don’t care. They’re just as willing to believe a story that’s true as one that’s false. A just-announced analysis by BuzzFeedNews showed there was more interest in phony news stories in the last three months of the election as there was in stories from reputable news sites that got their facts right.
I’ve seen that too often on Facebook and wonder how people don’t care. Often I’ll point it out, but often I don’t bother. People on both sides are too willing to believe blatant falsehoods because they back up their own beliefs. In the end, can we believe anything?
So what’s an unsuspecting user of social media to do? Here’s some tips for holding on to the truth.
- Learn to be suspicious. Ask: why should I believe this?
- If you don’t know where a report comes from, you don’t have to believe it.
- Only trust reputable sites with a track record, with systems in place to debunk rumors and get out the truth.
- If the report seems too strange to be true, it probably is.
- Be as suspicious about sites that favor your point of view as those that don’t.
- If you’re not sure, check Snopes before you send it out.
Here are some other resources:
- Media literacy in 2016: Strategies to decipher what is real and what is fake news on your newsfeed
- The top 20 fake news stories outperformed real news at the end of the 2016 campaign
- Here are all the fake ‘news’ sites to watch out for on Facebook
- Fake News Is Always Fake News
To those who spread this stuff, fake news is just a way to generate more page views. But for the rest of us, fake news is like cockroaches, rodents or swarms of pigeons. It’s a destroyer, spread by vermin. The more there is, the less we can trust anything. It’s time we swept these pest from social media and stood up for the truth.