How to spot a fake news story

In a world of fast news and sensational headlines, how do you spot the real from the made-up?

Uncovering fake news can be tricky. When we click into a news article, we usually believe what we’re reading to be true, and the majority of us aren’t likely to spend more time checking our facts.

But with the growth of social media and constant story-sharing from a variety of online sources, it’s more important than ever to be able to decipher the facts from the fabricated.

To help you spot the difference, we spoke to expert Tracy Powell, the BA (Hons) Journalism course leader at Nottingham Trent University’s Centre for Broadcasting & Journalism, who shared a few tips to make the process easier.

Be mistrustful

“A cynical mindset is really good when it comes to news,” says Tracy. “It’s important to know that not everything is as it seems, particularly when it comes to social media and the stories that have been shared by friends or gone viral.”

Credible journalism should be balanced, and it goes without saying that fake news often isn’t. Alarm bells should also start ringing when only one news outlet or source has covered it – there might be good reason why other journalists are giving it a wide berth…

Give some thought also to where the news has come from; if it’s been shared on social media, you might want to trace it back to see where it started for extra peace of mind.

Check the source

Checking and verifying the person who has written the story or tweet doesn’t have to mean full-on detective work. In many cases, it’s clear after a quick Google of the author’s name whether they are genuine.

Tracy advises: “Look at what they have written before – do they have some sort of agenda? Might they be politically or racially motivated? What type of language do they use? These are really important questions to ask as you can learn a lot from the answers.”

Digest it – and don’t rush to share it

You’re on the bus and you’ve read something shocking on your phone, so naturally you want to share it – let’s face it, we all like to be first with ground-breaking news.

But next time this happens, take an extra five minutes to think it through. This will allow you to potentially do a little research and uncover anything fishy about the story, or to find out if the author is a well-known agitator with a vested interest…

Whether its political or corporate, there are plenty of people with motivation for publishing untruths. And if you’re one of the people spreading this, you could be held accountable for passing it on.

Has it been verified?

“If you’re dubious about the story then try to find out if it has been verified,” says Tracy. “Where has the information come from? Is it a trusted source? Has it been backed up by someone official? These are the sort of questions you should be asking,” she adds.

It also helps to look closely at the URL – do you recognise it? Some fake news-spurning sites will use a slight play on a reputable domain name, like ‘BBCnews.co’, or something that won’t be detected as easily.

The bigger picture

A picture’s worth a thousand words, supposedly. But whilst photographs can be the easiest form of news to digest and trust, stay critical – they can also be easily manipulated.

Whether they’ve been doctored on Photoshop or taken completely out of context, photo misappropriation is the oldest trick in the book. For example, in the hours after the London Westminster Bridge terror attack on 22 March 2017, in which six people were killed and 50 injured, a photograph was widely circulated of a woman wearing a hijab and talking on the phone on the bridge. Thousands shared this picture claiming the woman, as a Muslim, was indifferent to the suffering of victims around her. #BanIslam was also circulated alongside the image.

After the negative attention she received, the woman in the picture released a statement and spoke of being "devastated by witnessing the aftermath of a shocking and numbing terror attack". The account which first tweeted the image, 'SouthLoneStar', was then suspended by Twitter after being identified as a Russian bot. 

Instances like this show just how the use of a photo can fuel an agenda, so conducting some research of your own can help you spot whether they’re being entirely genuine.

Make the news great again

Whilst this ethos of questioning and cynicism is important to the people following the news, it’s also extremely important to those writing it.

Journalism students at Nottingham Trent University are taught how to decipher the facts from the fiction and investigate stories according to the industry-recognised NCTJ guidelines.

Lessons in media law, court reporting and shorthand are run alongside modules such as podcasting, broadcasting and social media. “We are very much a multi-platform course,” says Tracy. “From voice recording, to editing and uploading video, we make sure that our students are equipped with all the necessary skills so they can finish university and go straight into employment.”

If you want to take your passion for journalism further but have missed this year’s January UCAS deadline, don’t worry – it’s not too late to apply. Use UCAS Extra to apply for your place at Nottingham Trent University for the September 2019 intake, or visit www.ntu.ac.uk for more information.

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