Resilience Toolkit

4 ways to distinguish real news from fake

By Jessica Stump
July 1, 2019

Do you have trouble discerning what’s real and what’s not in the information you read?

You’re not alone.

According to an October 2018 report published by Project Information Literacy (PIL), 68% of 6,000 college students surveyed across the U.S. said they found the sheer amount of news available to them “overwhelming” — with 45% saying they lacked confidence with discerning real news from “fake news.”

In addition, about a third of students surveyed said the threat of “fake news” had made them distrust the credibility of any news.

Dr. Andrew Davis, visiting assistant professor in Appalachian State University’s Department of Communication, helps his students navigate this uncertain media landscape by offering resources they can use to “become critical scholars engaged in fact-checking.”

Here are Davis’ four features to investigate when authenticating news media:

  • Authorship — Davis encourages students to research the author of a given news story. “If no one is willing to put their name on it, that’s a pretty good reason not to take it seriously,” he said. “But if there’s a name to it, if someone owned up to authorship, do a little research about that person. See what else they’ve published.”
  • Sponsorship — Learn about groups that sponsor or fund particular research studies. Davis provided an example of recent studies that indicate people who have one to two glasses of alcohol a day are healthier than those who don’t drink at all. “Turns out, those studies are sponsored by alcohol companies,” Davis said. “These studies don’t necessarily produce false results, but you have to be aware of who is paying for this research, and what their agenda is.”
  • Recency — Check for the most recent update on the information presented, Davis advised. Some sources may report facts that are outdated and no longer relevant.
  • References — Davis said it’s always a good idea, when reading news media communications and research studies, to ask, “What references are they using? What are their citations? What sources are they drawing from? Do they have a decent, robust bibliography? Good research cites its sources.”

Additionally, Davis suggests examining a study’s research methods, as well as the language that is used, and to ask one’s self, “Does this seem like an opinion, or does this seem like this is based on actual research that’s been conducted?”

To ingrain media literacy, Davis also teaches students how to use research databases offered through Appalachian’s Belk Library and Information Commons and introduces them to the library’s Research Advisory Program (RAP), in which students have access to one-on-one, in-depth research assistance with a university librarian.

Where does fake news come from?

While the term “fake news” is often presented as a new phenomenon, the idea is not.

It is the direct result, Davis said, of the convergence of psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic research; the development of marketing, public relations and focus groups, and the gathering of data about people through these practices; and the social media format.

Algorithms for social media and for web searches are designed to predict, based upon a person’s past behavior, what they’re more likely to want to see, he explained.

“A lot of the content that gets shared, or gets directed toward each of us is, in a sense, highly personalized,” Davis said, “but also tailored in such a way to get us to engage with it in a very shallow and quick manner — to grab our attention just long enough for the ad revenue to be generated before we move on to the next shallow engagement.”