Real News, Fake News, Leaners, and Truth

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Photo by Matt Popovich

As I have been researching lately, I have been landing on some websites whose information is, shall we say, suspect.  This got me thinking about the difference between “real news” and “fake news”.

How can we tell the difference between a good source of information and a bad one?  People argue constantly about what is real and what is not, even at the highest levels of our government.

I want to offer you a quick guide to help you make decisions about the information you encounter.  At the end of this post, you will see one of the best lists of sources I have found to help us differentiate between real news, fake news, leaners, and truth.

Real News

News = Information.  That’s it.

The news media in its various formats exists for one main reason—to give us information.  Without the news, most of us would be in the dark about everything happening in the world.  The amount of information most of us can gather on our own without any news media is shockingly small.

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Photo by Natalia Ostashova

Instead, we now have what seems like an infinite amount of information accessible to us through the Internet.  There are many trusted news sources out there.  The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, ABC News, NBC News, and yes, even CNN, are but a few.

One skill required when using these sources is an ability to tell the difference between and informational news story and a piece written or recorded with a specific opinion.  Each of these news outlets provides opinion pieces along with informational news stories.  We do need to pay attention to what we are reading or watching to tell the difference.

Fake News

Now, what about “Fake News”?  This has become a popular term lately.  People even use the term to describe news they simply don’t like.  President Trump’s repeated accusations against CNN are a perfect example of this.

realWriters of fake news intend to make the reader believe a story is real, and they are good at it.  They provide just enough believable details to make us fall for the story.  This is why you find so many of them on your social media feeds.

Some of these sites try to pass themselves off as satirical or humorous, but there is a huge difference between “fake” and “satire”.  By definition, satire uses irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to expose, denounce, or deride human vice or folly.

The Onion is the master of all satirical news websites, with headlines like “Nation leery of very odd little boy”,  and “Steve Bannon’s inflamed liver pulsing visibly through shirt during strategy meeting”.

Satire is also the foundation for comedy shows like The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight, and Full Frontal.  These shows have a reputation of sharing accurate facts and incisive analysis of issues.  Then they make jokes.  The jokes don’t make the facts any less true.  They just make the facts funny.

There is also a difference between fake news and inaccurate news.  Sometimes news organizations or individual reporters screw up and get the facts wrong.  This is not fake news, it’s just bad reporting.  For example, this list on the website Info Wars makes this mistake.  It claims to show you “fake” news, but it is really a list of (mostly) inaccurate news.

If you want to spot fake news, I suggest two lists.  The first comes from Snopes.com  and the second from Factcheck.org.  These lists may be a good place to start when you want to fact check that story about Adam Sandler stopping by your local burger joint over the weekend.

Leaners

The next group to consider is what I call the leaners.  These sources are trying to make you see things their way.  Rather than delivering the straight facts, they deliver the facts with the purpose of convincing you their side of the story is the right side.

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Photo by Olga Guryanova

You can spot these sites by looking for a theme.  Does every report, blog post, or video seem to reach a conclusion that is distinctly on the right or left side of the political spectrum?  Do the facts they use seem to conveniently back up their conclusions every time?  These are telltale signs of a leaner.

One important caveat to consider here is that the facts these sources use are often accurate.  These sources even offer some very in-depth and exacting analysis of issues.  In the end, though, they don’t tell the whole story.  They use these facts to sway you in one direction.

Examples of such sources include the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution on the left, or the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation on the right.

Leaners can offer useful information, but it requires extra steps.  Always seek out the counter argument or fact check whatever information you get from these sources.

Truth

Finally, we come to the truth.  There is truth out there, believe it or not.  It comes in the form of scientific facts, measurable numbers, and accurate analysis.

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Photo by Alex Read

Most real news qualifies as truth, at least from the sources who deliver it well.  Sometimes the truth actually lands on one side of the political spectrum, allowing the leaners to be right after all.

The best pathway to the truth lies in primary sources.  These sources offer no interpretation, just the facts.  For many social issues, data gathered by government agencies like the Census Bureau or the Bureau of Labor Statistics qualify as primary source data.

These types of sources require you to interpret the facts yourself.  This isn’t always easy.  Luckily, some sources help us get straight to the truth.  Examples include the Pew Research Center, Politifact, & Factcheck.org.  These sources are not trying to sway us in any political direction or otherwise.  They are simply trying to present the facts and tell us what they mean.

One List to Rule Them All

Before you go, I want to give you an invaluable source I found recently.  The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics created a list of critical thinking resources.  This list presents an exhaustive breakdown of sources by topic and points out those sources leaning in one direction or another.

I hope that all of this helps you sift through the waves of information you receive.  Best of luck in your search for the truth.