SOJC faculty's tips for spotting fake news

Story by Carleigh Oeth


That was the 2016 word of the year, according to Oxford English Dictionaries. Thanks to an inundation of reports readily accessible through endless media outlets claiming a wide range of credentials, the line separating real facts from the alternative ones has become increasingly blurry. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of fake news has delivered yet another hit to the already beleaguered public trust of media while redefining readers’ perception of truth altogether.

“This is as old as philosophical questions get: What is truth?” said SOJC Professor Tom Wheeler. “It all has to do with our perception of reality, which is really what we’re talking about here.”

In December, Wheeler proposed the possibility of a revised SOJC curriculum that takes into account the increasingly relevant matter of fake news in the post-truth era. The curriculum revision, though still speculation, would hypothetically include a deeper focus on media literacy and critical thinking to help reinforce the boundaries between real and fake news.

“Things are always evolving. They’re just evolving faster now,” Wheeler said. “I think it requires a rethinking of at least some aspects of the curriculum.”

In the meantime, here are a few tips from SOJC instructors to help you identify and navigate fake news.

1. Be a healthy skeptic.

According to Wheeler, fake news is not always blatantly obvious. Falsehoods often masquerade as truth. Even if the source appears to be credible, remember that appearance alone cannot be trusted.

“A healthy skepticism — not necessarily a cynicism — is vital,” Wheeler said. “Don’t just look for the stuff that’s obviously wrong. Look for the stuff that could conceivably be wrong.”

2. If your fist rises, take a deep breath and look again.

According to SOJC Instructor Lisa Heyamoto, fake news succeeds by reflecting information that you already believe, whether it’s accurate or not. Heyamoto advises remaining in tune with your gut feeling and, most important, checking that gut feeling whenever it occurs.

“If you finish reading or viewing [your news], and you feel an overwhelming sense of self-righteous satisfaction and want to throw your fist up in the air and say, ‘I knew it!’ then you should immediately question what it is you’re reading,” Heyamoto said. “Because that is exactly what it is fake news tries to do.”

3. Do the tedious, unsexy work.

“Fake news sites work really hard to look credible,” Heyamoto said. “Ask yourself: Where did this come from? How long has this outlet been around, and what’s its reputation? How was it funded? Who wrote it? If I look at this topic elsewhere, am I going to find the same thing?”

It’s easy to take an article at face value because the necessary research can be “unsexy” and boring. But reviewing sources, verifying authorship and digging for a publication’s ulterior motives will eventually reveal a piece of journalism is real or fake.

SOJC Instructor Todd Milbourn had the same idea:

4. Peel the onion.

News, like an onion, has many layers.

“All information is not created equal, but it kind of looks that way,” Milbourn said. “It’s on us as news consumers to really be vigilant and try to understand that. Follow up. Get to the source.”

5. Give yourself a frame of reference.

Milbourn addresses how important it is for audiences to maintain a contextual understanding of news in order to fully grasp what it is they are consuming.

“It’s really hard to parachute in [on news],” Milbourn said. “I think sustained, daily engagement with the news is really important because things are moving so fast.”

6. Subscribe to a newspaper.

“We are used to getting news for free and taking it for granted,” Milbourn said.

In an era of immediacy, news is readily available to us at the click of a button. But as information becomes increasingly free and more accessible, the credibility of what we are getting decreases.

“[Reliable information] is not going to continue to be there if we don’t pay for it. It’s our job as citizens to support that kind of work,” Milbourn said. “It’s the lifeblood of democracy, and it falls on us.”

Carleigh Oeth is a senior studying journalism in the SOJC. She is from Portland, Oregon, where she held an editorial internship with the city’s local arts magazine, Artslandia, during the summer of 2016. This is her first year as a part of the SOJC’s Communications team, and she is also working as an associate editor for the Daily Emerald. You can view some of her work on her online portfolio and visit her on Instagram @carleighoeth.