by Daniel Salcedo Rubio
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about the importance of scientific communications and novel steps STEM creators have taken towards scientific dissemination. Well, today my dear reader, I’ve come to you with the ABCs of fact-checking. Because no matter how much informative content is posted on social media, Auntie Grace will probably keep sharing those sketchy links.
Question the Source
First things first, before even opening the article, make sure it’s coming from a serious news outlet, blog, or webpage. You have no idea the number of people (and news outlets) that share articles from satirical publications like The Onion or The Beaverton thinking it’s actually a serious piece.
Okay, so it’s not an article from The Onion, what next? We now have to ensure the publisher is a reputable source. This one is easier said than done. There are a couple of methodologies that might help you determine if a source is reliable or credible. Five Ws, SMART check, or the CRAAP test can all be useful tools. Some of the most important aspects to review in all three methodologies are:
- Who is the author? Do they have a good or bad reputation?
- What’s the purpose of this source? What’s the intent behind it?
- Is it objective? Do they tend to use facts and studies, or do they write with emotion?
- Is it current? Has this been disproven already?
- Who is being interviewed? What ideas are being platformed?
This should help you build a strong case for or against the source. Before moving on, I want to give some notes when checking the author of the piece. Let’s remember everyone has some bias no matter how objective we try to be: it’s part of being a human. Getting to know who is writing the article or maybe even reading some of their previous articles can help you understand their point of view. Ask yourself questions. Is the author being objective? What’s their background? Is there a clear conflict of interest? Read the “About the Author” section if it’s available.
I don’t fully endorse that you put all your trust in Bias Charts, using them will definitely help you better understand and criticize the publisher. Bias Charts are a helpful tool to understand the tendency of a publisher or a media outlet towards a specific point of view or political affiliation, hence the name. Bias Charts are also made by humans, so bias in Bias Charts can still happen (I know, the irony). The organizations behind Bias Charts should be transparent on their methodology to rate and score each media outlet. There are a couple that I personally like to use, but my absolute favorite is the Ad Fontes chart. They are very open about the methodology behind each score they give.
Question the Article itself
Okay, first filter down, here’s where we actually begin to work on the article Auntie Grace sent us. Ask yourself if there’s anything too outrageous to be true and pay special attention to the headlines. Remember, people tend to only share articles after only reading the title, so it stands to reason that fake news will have impactful headlines made to catch peoples’ attention.
Ask yourself — Is the title written so it will get clicks, likes, or shares? If it is, then that’s your first red flag. Headlines can be exaggerated so people feel the need to share it, but usually, there’s nothing to sustain such claims. That being said, don’t be so quick as to dismiss an article for an outrageous headline, there are some pieces that are so impactful there’s no other way to write about them. Can you discern which headline is real and which one is fake?:
- Spinach In Your Inbox: 2016 Study On Scientists ‘Teaching’ Spinach To Send Emails Goes Viral
- Clever Gorilla Learns How to Knit
If you guessed that the spinach story was the fake one and the gorilla story was true, well, you would be in the wrong. Headlines are a good way to start, just don’t make any final assumptions solely based on them.
Now we move into the article’s content. Carefully read every section, and begin your questioning:
- Are they making any hard affirmations?
- Do they have any sources to support their claims? If so, which sources are they using?
- Are they reputable?
- Are they current?
This might seem like a never-ending story: to review one article you must check its sources, and it goes on and on. And while that might be slightly true, sources that support hard affirmations should come from official communications or organizations that have the capacity to give hard data. Official sources can be Health Canada, WHO, or The Government of Canada. Other reputable sources that aren’t official or government related could be The Associate Press (AP), Reuters, or the Wall Street Journal. Finally, we can also trust publishers like Nature, The American Association for the Advancement of Science, or the European Scientific Journal when it comes to science-related content. While all these sources are overall trustworthy, they aren’t exempt from bias either, so also read and use them with a critical eye. One tip I can give you is to cross-examine your sources. News articles are bound to be covered by multiple media outlets, are they all saying the same thing? Are they unclear with their conclusions or have they convoluted the facts?
You can also find support on third-party fact checkers, though I recommend using only those whose processes are well documented and available to the public. AP Fact Check is my personal favourite and I would actually encourage you to use it to make your life a bit easier.
Question Yourself (and maybe the person who shared it too)
Finally, you should always question yourself as well. We have talked a lot about bias and reputability in the media, but we are also subject to judging articles as truthful or fake based on our own personal bias. Our perception of the world is deeply affected by our own biases, and while analyzing them is well beyond the scope of this article, ask yourself (I know, you probably hate me by this point for making you question everything): Why am I making this judgement? Is my opinion supported in facts or in feelings? If the latter, what makes me feel this way? Is there something that would make me change my mind?
Fact-checking is not an easy thing to do, it takes time and effort to view the information we receive with a critical eye. We’ll be the next generation to lead society, so it’s important we acquire and train these skills. I hope that this short-and-sweet guide can help you better discern between accurate information and fake news.