How To Tell If You’re Reading Fake News Or Real Journalism

By Julia Song
·  8 min read
how to know if youre reading fake news

In the age of “Fake News” and public distrust of the media, we’re left to wonder “Where can I find real news?” and most importantly “How can I identify when an article is trying to mislead me?” I compiled some of my best tips to avoid deception – and how to quickly identify when your time would be better spent reading something else!

Trusting institutions meant to disseminate the truth is a concept that has been ingrained in us from an early age. We learned to trust our church, our school and teachers, our family, the media, etc., but such institutions don’t always have our best interests in mind.

It has become clear from recent developments that misinformation is a danger we’re all exposed to, up to a certain extent, and that we can never really tell how much “fake news” we’re actually consuming and which publications are out to trick us. However, by the end of this article, we will hopefully have become savvier readers capable of spotting the lies, avoiding them, and even doing our part to spread the truth by calling out the deceptions as we see them.

The Fake News Lair

The first thing I should mention is that the spotting of fake news is a skill, and it takes time to master it. But as amateurs in the ways of the lying media, one of the first instincts we may have is to assign the title of Fake Media to any publication we catch in the act of lying, especially if they’re in disagreement with our beliefs. Like an animal’s lair, we expect to find the cave in which all the editors of the mainstream media hide to concoct their lies and then confront them with the truth.

Perhaps a more honest and realistic approach to this issue would be to assume that it’s in the strongest of interests of the mainstream media to play ball with certain rules, to avoid certain topics, and to report on issues that best align with their viewers and advertisers. So, when determining what’s deceptive, I don’t simply revert to “this or that outlet” in order to immediately tag all of their articles as fake. 

I have seen publications from all sides of the political spectrum produce articles that are misleading and articles with truthful content and accurate reporting. 

Rather, I approach it by each individual article. I have seen publications from all sides of the political spectrum produce articles that are misleading and articles with truthful content and accurate reporting. Particularly, when I’m working with an outlet I prefer to build relationships with the editor and the department to determine their commitment to the truth. But as the reader doesn’t have access to the editing team directly, are there other ways to spot deception?

You bet.

The Headline

Back in the day it was much easier to determine whether a headline was click-bait or not. It has become much more difficult to determine if a news article is attempting to deceive you, but we need to remember the one foundation behind news reporting: neutrality. If, by only reading the headline, you don’t feel the need to click on the article and read it in its entirety, and you feel fully informed and have an opinion made about that subject before reading more into it, then that headline was written to deceive you. Oftentimes, once we click and read the article, we can notice very quickly that the assumptions we made from reading the headline can’t be sustained, and sometimes they don’t clarify that until the last paragraph of the article, you know, to cover themselves from lawsuits. 

In the age of internet, however, and accounting for how fast headlines travel around and how quickly people move from one subject to the next, most people don’t have the time to sit down and read a full article. They believe the writer has already done all the research and has summarized it for them in one headline. Disregarding that, in journalism, the facts should be presented in a neutral manner that allows the reader to come up with their own conclusions based on their life experience, knowledge, and other personal factors. That is how you promote change, by realizing that many people with different backgrounds agree to a similar approach to solve a problem, instead of manipulating the crowd by telling them what to think.

In journalism, the facts should be presented in a neutral manner that allows the reader to come up with their own conclusions based on their life experience and knowledge. 

If you feel fully informed, outraged, and that you have an opinion formed about a complex subject simply by reading headlines, and there are several publications with similar headlines with the same agenda behind them contributing to push you into conclusions, that’s a dead sign that you should click on the article and read it in its entirety. But if it’s a fake article, you don’t want to waste your time by reading all of it, right?

If only there were a way to discover if an article is fake in the first couple of paragraphs…

How To Discover If an Article Is Fake in the First Couple of Paragraphs

The principle behind this is similar to the one about headlines. The author knows that life happens, and people probably won’t be able to sit down and read the whole article. Between work, kids running around, school, and other interruptions, most people will be looking for a quick, summarized way to stay informed. That is why, when writing papers, the first paragraph is usually a quick summary of what you’re about to read, and if the headline plans on deceiving you, the first couple of paragraphs will definitely cement that.

Misleading and biased journalism is nothing new, but whether it’s the yellow journalism of the 1890s or the “fake news” as it’s called today, journalism with an agenda is dangerous to a free society. Good journalism is clear about the kind of reporting it’s presenting to its readers. There are news pieces that report strictly the facts and let the reader come to conclusions. Then, there are opinion pieces, which are clearly marked as such and let a reader who is somewhat educated on the subject, but can’t make up his mind on it yet, review what others in the community are thinking and consider the issue from multiple perspectives.

There are news pieces, there are opinion pieces, and then there are whatever it is that we have today — unethical, murky hybrids between news and opinion pieces.

Finally, there is whatever it is that we have today — a hybrid between news and opinion pieces — and the unethical part of it is that they’re not clearly marked as such. The viewer believes they’re reading a news piece, but they’re actually reading an opinion article masked as news. Your first clue: the length of the article.

While opinion pieces must be lengthy in order to explain all the reasons as to why the author holds such opinions, news pieces must be short. That is designed specifically to avoid any unwanted opinions from the author in the news piece. Hybrids, as you can imagine, fall somewhere in between that and have longer paragraphs than normal. Once you see this structure, you should probably stop reading it.

Other Ways To Check for Fake News

Another quick way is to look at the date the source studies were published. Using studies from 10 or 15 years ago may not be as reliable when applied in today’s environment, and it might be used in a blatant attempt to deceive you.

Some publications are also more open about their activism taking priority over their journalism, and those are the ones you must avoid when in search for the truth. Often their social media posts are a dead giveaway.

We deserve the truth when giving some of our limited time to publications in exchange for being informed.

Cross referencing is another quick way to determine the reliability of the information you’re being given. Are other publications reporting something similar? If not, you’re reading an op-ed.

The most important tool of all against the evils of the Fake News, however, is your gut feeling. How do you feel after you begin reading that article? Are both sides of the story being equally represented? What is the basis for the claims made? Do you trust the sources? Raging emotions on subjects that shouldn’t warrant such reactions, feelings of having your mind made up, and failing to be given any information that could represent the other side of the equation are all clear signs that something is most definitely up.

Closing Thoughts: Why Should I Care?

Because the truth shall set us free. We deserve the truth when giving some of our limited time to publications in exchange for being informed. To be misled is something none of us appreciate, especially by those whose whole careers are built on the basis of delivering us the news.

Riling up the public with misleading information can be dangerous, have serious consequences, and affect the lives of people forever. Choosing to deliver only one side of the story is using your platform to censor the other side. Most importantly, if your opinions are to be biased based on your life experiences and things you believe to be common sense, please mark it as an opinion piece. There’s no need to pretend that you’re a news writer if you’re a columnist.

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