7 Ways to Tell if a News Story is True
We live in an age when the news can reach us faster than ever before.
With breaking news, you can find out what’s happening all around the world through what’s trending on social media, often before conventional news organisations can get anyone on the ground. And if it’s analysis that you’re looking for, beyond the mainstream media there are a plethora of smaller sites and blogs you can turn to. The entry cost to getting news and analysis out there is lower than ever before. But – of course – that means a lot of news stories that may not be all that true.
There’s a particular type of news story that’s prone to this, which writer James O’Malley has termed a ‘slap-up VIP lunch’ – based on the story that after a visit to the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, Jeremy Corbyn went to speak to veterans, while the other politicians in attendance went for a slap-up VIP lunch. While Corbyn did speak to veterans, the rest of the story is complete fiction – but inevitably, it was shared widely on social media all the same. It’s a classic type of invented news story because it’s hard to disprove, it’s not particularly important (so no one listed in it is going to bother challenging it) and it plays to a lot of people’s biases.
So if you come across a news story, and you think it might be a slap-up VIP lunch, or in some other way misleading or plain wrong, how can you tell? Here are seven ways to separate the fact from the fiction.
1. Check if reputable organisations are covering it
The first step is to see which organisations are covering the story. The best one to check in the UK is the BBC; if the BBC are covering a story, you can be confident that it’s true. They aren’t 100% reliable – no news site is – but they set the bar of proof higher than most of their competitors. The downside is that they often publish stories rather later than their competitors, perhaps waiting until all of the details have become clear. So if it’s breaking news and it’s not on the BBC, wait a while and it might yet pop up.
It’s also important to note that reputable news sites will avoid certain types of story even if they are true. One example is reporting suicides, where reputable news organisations will follow the Samaritans’ best practice guidelines. The guidelines are in place to avoid reporting on suicide resulting an increase in suicides, but following them can mean that not all the information relating to the suicide is given – they specifically say “avoid giving too much detail”, which can lead to stories not being reported if the detail is the newsworthy part. Another example is protests and demonstrations, which unless they are unusually large, unusually disruptive or noteworthy in some other way, are ignored by most national news organisations. That’s because while a protest of 5,000 or 10,000 people undoubtedly feels huge and significant to the people involved, the impact of the protest is more important than the fact of the protest – so if it has an effect, the effect will be reported, but not the protest itself.
Bearing all of this in mind, though, if you can only find the story on a tiny blog and not on any major site, it’s rather less likely to be true.
2. Check Snopes and other debunking sites
Figuring out if a news story is true can be hard work, but there are cheat’s options! Snopes started out as a site focused on debunking (and sometimes – rarely – confirming) urban legends, But since then, it’s expanded and now covers all kinds of rumours and misinformation, including the ones that come up in the daily news cycle. They now have a dedicated news section, though the focus is almost entirely on US news.
Thankfully, there are heaps of other, similar debunking sites out there, and you’ll probably be able to find one that relates to the type of story you’ve found. Also be aware that fake news stories have a tendency to be imitated endlessly. One example is the joke, usually told as a true story, about a ship, usually in the US Navy, rudely ordering what it believes to be another ship to move out of the way – only to be told that the other ‘ship’ is a lighthouse. As Snopes indicates, that’s been told time and time again, not just featuring the US Navy but a variety of other arrogant protagonists. So even if a story seems to be local, it might be worth putting its keywords into something like Snopes, to check if it’s a regional variation on an older story.
3. Browse Twitter for any discussion
Twitter is both fantastic and terrible for breaking news. On the one hand, it’s virtually unmoderated, so anyone can post any lies that they want to disseminate. On the other hand, it has good indicators of reliability in the blue tick verification system, and in the cruder method of a high follower count.
It’s especially useful in providing access to voices that might not otherwise be heard. The webcomic xkcd illustrated this neatly with a post about earthquakes – social media posts travel faster than seismic waves, potentially providing advance notification of earthquakes before they hit. (This seems more impressive if you’re aware that seismic waves travel at around 18,000 miles per hour, or 645 times faster than Usain Bolt’s top speed).
This is particularly relevant for Twitter. Someone experiencing an earthquake, in a conflict zone, in the middle of a military coup or watching a revolution take place is probably not going to have time to provide a thinkpiece of several thousand words on the matter, but updates of 140 characters at a time are more achievable. So have a look at the Twitter accounts of people who might have been eyewitnesses to the event you’re interested in. That might be local citizens, or if it’s something like a politician allegedly saying something horrific in a speech, see what the journalists in attendance had to say. You can also look at what’s trending in the relevant area; if the shocking story you’ve just read is nowhere to be seen, that suggests it might not be true.
4. Look at the context
Context isn’t just about which news organisation you came across the story from, as we discussed in the first point. There are a lot of other contextual clues that you might want to look at. For instance, is the story in an area that generally invites fiction? This is where the ‘slap-up VIP lunch’ is a good example; it’s hard to falsify and doesn’t have any immediately obvious consequences. Other examples of stories that fit the bill are ones about something that a celebrity or politician did a very long time ago (so the consequences, if there were any, have elapsed), particularly if it’s something they are alleged to have down on social media, and the relevant post has long since disappeared.
It’s not just about the context of the story itself. It’s also about where you heard it. If it was a Facebook meme with a dubious or vague source (for instance, claiming ‘www.theguardian.co.uk’ as the source without linking to the specific article) and it seems implausible, you’re probably safe in dismissing it. After all, honest journalism doesn’t seek to obscure its sources or make it deliberately hard to fact-check its claims.
5. See what you can verify yourself
The difficult part is when there are stories that are partly true, but perhaps presented in a misleading or biased fashion. If you’re determined to separate the fact from the fiction, it might be time to do a little detective work yourself. Thankfully, all the features that make bogus news so easy to spread also make it much easier to carry out DIY factchecking.
There are heaps of ways you can do this. An obvious one is to follow up on the source of the story. For instance, dodgy-sounding stories about triumphs of medical research (“green tea cures cancer” and the like) are often just simplifications of recently published scientific papers. It may be that the result that’s being reported with much fanfare only applied to a small group of patients, and it’s unclear whether it was actually the result of the treatment being used. Reading the abstract of the paper usually clears this up. In the specific case of medical research, patient groups and charities will frequently provide comments on studies that are more realistic than tabloid reporting.
If the story centres around a photograph, it may be worth using Google’s ‘search by image’ feature to check whether it’s authentic. You might be able to turn up the image it was photoshopped from, or it may be the case that the image is unedited, but actually of something else altogether, such as when a Fox News affiliate in the US claimed that a photo of riots in Venezuela was from Baltimore. There are even apps available that can analyse photos to see if they have been photoshopped.
6. Look critically at any statistics
We’ve written before about how easy it is to misuse statistics – often, people do it without meaning to. In fake or exaggerated news stories, misuse of statistics is often rampant. It might be that statistics have been provided out of context (“shock as number of unemployed in the UK at 1.7 million” – which is more than the population of Estonia, but is actually quite low for a country the size of Britain). It might be that the writer is not comparing like with like (“only 27,000 people in Estonia are unemployed, so why is Britain failing so badly to keep people in work?”). It might be that there is simply no statistic where you might expect a statistic to be, such as the substitution of descriptors like “very high” or “shockingly low” where a number would be useful so that you can judge for yourself.
Of course, it may also be that the statistics given have not been misinterpreted, but simply made up. Political polls are a good example of this. There are lots of pollsters and lots of polls published regularly, so a very unscrupulous writer can just invent one – for instance, in early August a fake poll circulated about the Labour leadership contest, claiming falsely to have been from YouGov. Twitter accounts such as Britain Elects and equivalents internationally are usually good at picking up on fake polls and pointing them out.
7. Assess if it seems too good to be true
If all else fails, the last remaining way to figure out at least how sceptical to be about a news story is to consider what purpose might be served in the writer lying. Uncontroversial stories about boring topics are generally reliable because there would be no point in inventing them. For instance, the Westmorland Gazette’s recent story about Tony Robinson, who starred in the TV series Blackadder as Baldrick, walking past a café is presumably much too dull to have been invented; if someone was fibbing, they would surely have come up with a better story.
Similarly, a story that shows a politician in a bad light from that politician’s supporters (or vice versa, one that shows them in a good light from their opponents) seems more likely to be true than a story that supports the worldview of the person sharing it. If the Telegraph writes that Jeremy Corbyn has saved a puppy from a well, or the Morning Star reports on Theresa May’s kindness to trade unionists, then it’s quite likely to be true. If it’s the opposite way around, it may be worth investigating the story further.
It’s always worth thinking about the impact that a news story has on you in particular. It’s easy to spot the biases of others, but less easy to spot them in yourself – so you might spot instantly that the story posted on social media by a friend you disagree with is a fake, but you may not even consider the veracity of news stories posted by sites that align with your own views. It’s worth thinking critically either way.
Image credits: stack of newspapers; apple watch; question mark; smartphone screen; magnifying glass; green tea; statistics; puppy; newspaper.