We all heard of it. The American president and hordes of other European politicians dismiss a lot (if not all) negative press about them as ‘fake news’ spread by their competitors. It’s come to a point where they even denounce their own statements (caught on camera) as fake news.

With companies, the challenge is a bit different. They have to fend off potential crises that can affect their brand reputation. Citizenship journalism, as important as it has become to our democracies, has one important risk: people became self-publishing journalists without the know-how a trained journalist amassed.

As a so-called millennial I’ve grown up getting a lot of my information from digital sources. I went to college and studied communications and got used to asking basic questions around my media intake: yes, I’m talking about the “five ‘W’s” of journalism: “Who,” “What,” “When,” “Where,” and “Why.” Basic, but still very important.

These days a lot of media literacy programs out there trying to educate citizens and consumers on how to deal with the fake news phenomenon while they navigate the complicated and convoluted media landscape. It’s complicated for us, people who grew up with the likes of Google, Yahoo Messenger, blogs, Facebook and social media of all sorts. I can only imagine how difficult it may be for people who are used to traditional journalism, people who say things like: It was on TV!, I read it in the newspaper! They are used to journalism and journalists playing the role of gate-keeping, for them whatever ends up in media (be it TV, the paper, the magazine) was validated as being truthful. And they transition that trust to other media sources — basically, any/all internet related sources.

I’ve been online since I was 14 (17 years ago…wow! am I old or what?!) and doing social listening for 8 years now. Social listening actually requires you read A LOT on countless online media. For the first 2.5 years, I read 100 articles or mentions/day on average and compiled summary reports in the morning and the afternoon. It’s safe to say I had my fair share of on the work training on fake news and spammy sources. I learned a lot and I decided I could share with you some of the things I learned. I hope it helps.

Who: Sources, Authors, Sharers

When you analyze a piece of news/reporting look at who wrote or produced it and ask yourself the following:

  • Follow the money: who creates and hosts the content? Is it an independent source or is it tied to specific interests?

Writing and producing content has its costs and someone needs to foot the bill.

Media moguls monopolize the public agenda, they invest resources in one topic that they want to influence, they want the public opinion to swerve a certain way. Look at how the topic was covered previously and if you see a pattern (multiple articles published on the same topic, the same view and tone&voice).

  • Who signs the piece?

Look at what the author has published and check if they have a preferred topic or they have previously expressed an opinion on that topic. Look at the material and try to scan for tone & voice: do those headlines seem like they come from an activist rather than a journalist? If yes, take everything they say with a grain of salt.

Another thing on the checklist — if we’re talking about a news outlet, check to see whether the name is the real deal or it’s just a pen name. Some news outlets will require some of their writers to sign articles under the same pen name and it’s sometimes very obvious. Why would you do that?

  • Who shares/syndicates the content?

Sometimes when you want to make a piece of news viral your best bet is to drive shares on social media. Look at who shares the content: if each and every single time a very aggressive Jane Doe journalist writes a piece on Trump/vaccination/immigration/big pharma conspiracy/any of the hot topics on the world wide web and it ALWAYS gets shared by the same activists/filter bubbles, question it, ask yourself if the piece was not published with specific goals in mind.

What you read: sources, links, backlinks

If the piece of writing is online, you as a reader can do a background check and assess the following:

  • sources: who’s quoted in the piece? who did the author interview? If the sources represent just one side of the argument then you need to read another piece that takes the opposing view. Read carefully and use your common sense
  • links/backlinks: who does the article link to, official sources or obscure media sources without any authority? Also, if you can, take into consideration how you landed on the article itself: did an anti-vaxxer website link to the article as a source? Again, read carefully and use your common sense

When, where and why: take a history lesson once in a while. Or stop to think about the bigger picture.

The public agenda is volatile and subject to the fast-changing news cycle. This week we’ll read about Brexit, EU leadership, Iraq war, Superbowl AND a proposal for new policy around international relations and national defense. And users/readers tend to interpret the topics in silos like they are not connected to each other at all. Most of the time they are. For example, a policymaker or candidate might push for new legislation or added budgets for defense BECAUSE of the other topics on the public agenda, because the moment is ripe for him/her to win some political capital or votes by claiming we need to defend the nation from 3rd world countries/immigration/external policy.

That happens because our attention span is shorter than ever, we don’t take the time, nor do we have the patience to put news/articles/opinion pieces into context. No wonder, we’re flooded with info from all over!

However, in a data-driven world digital literacy is a much-needed skill, individuals are valued more and more on how they find the correct information and how they process it. We need to train ourselves to have the patience to read more than one news article, to investigate the background story and connect all the missing pieces of the puzzle. To act as a reporter, if need be, and validate the information from different sources, play devil’s advocate, question the motivation for writing that particular article in a specific time & place.

This is a lot of work. It’s not easy. But it’s useful for us as individuals and citizens. It can help fend off fake news and malicious intent. It will take up a lot of our time so we need to carefully think about what media we consume, what matters to us and what can/will influence our lives.