Former Supreme Court Justice Jeff Souter in a 2012 interview: “[Republic] government wasn’t threatened by foreign invasion or a military coup, but by civic ignorance…What I worry about is, when problems are not addressed and the people do not know who is responsible…some one person will come forward and say, ‘Give me total power and I will solve this problem.’ That is how the Roman Republic fell…That is the way democracy dies.”
One the ways we can reverse “civic ignorance” is to learn to distinguish between fake news and real news. Fake news got its start by advertisers seeking to drive traffic to websites in order to earn ad revenue. Tragically, there is a lack of civic and media literacy in our world that causes people to be vulnerable to “fake news,” which includes sponsored content and traditional corporate advertisements. To strengthen your ability to tell real news from fake news, begin by asking the five most common interrogatives of any stated news item:
- Who wrote it? Real news contains a real byline of a legit journalist dedicated to reporting facts. Once you find the byline, look at the writer’s bio. This can help identify whether the story is a reported news article (written by a journalist with the intent to inform), a persuasive opinion piece (written by an industry expert with a point of view), or something else entirely.
- What claims does it make? Real news will include multiple authentic sources when making a controversial claim. Fake news may include false or out of context sources that can be disproven through some basic research. When in doubt, dig a bit deeper. Real facts can be verified.
- When was it published? If it’s “breaking news,” be extra careful.
- Where was it published? Real news is published by trustworthy media outlets with a strong fact-check record. If you get your news from social media, verify that the information is accurate before you share it.
- How does it make you feel? Fake news, like all propaganda, is designed to elicit strong emotions. So if you read a news story that makes you feel angry, double-check the claims by comparing it to the news on other “trusted” outlets. Weigh and investigate the angles of each outlet to determine the legitimacy of the news. There is no substitute for critical thinking.
If you consistently ask all five of these questions whenever you read a news article, then your basic news literacy and civic awareness will grow stronger.