• Amy Cherie Copeland

Fake or Fact?

Resources for evaluating the veracity of news

seated person holding a burning newspaper that hides the face
Photo by Elijah O'Donnell on Unsplash

While on vacation, I overheard a conversation in which one person reported the President had called Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen "nasty." The other person expressed doubt about the claim, but ultimately asked, "Who can even tell what's true and what's not anymore?"

Did the President really say that? With so much nonsense going around, it's tempting to simply give up on knowing the truth, but I would argue it is in all our best interests to reject that notion. In most cases, a minimal amount of investigation can clear things up.

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) represents the voices of librarians and information professionals worldwide.

In their 2018 official statement on fake news, the Chair of the IFLA Advisory Committee on Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression Martyn Wade said,

"Freedom of access to information is a right of all, and the increase in activities intended to deliberately mislead citizens leads inevitably to damaging everyone's human rights."

So, what can we do about this problem? We need to educate ourselves and others. The IFLA offers this info-graphic to guide readers in discerning fact from fiction:

info-graphic describing how to spot fake news
FREE download from https://www.ifla.org/publications/node/67341

When I applied the principles for spotting fake news to the story in question, it was fairly easy to sort out.

Consider the Source

A quick Google search of the terms "President," "Denmark," "nasty" brought up a long list of headlines dated August 21, 2019. Liberal leaning outlets like MSNBC, CNN, BBC, and USA Today were among six of the first eight sources that had published headlines claiming the President had called Denmark's Prime Minister "nasty."

Among the first eight, only the Washington Post headline clearly described how the word in question was used: "Trump attacks Danish Prime Minister for her 'nasty' comments about his interest in U.S. purchase of Greenland."

Actually, I Google searched this topic a few times, and each time I did it, the results changed slightly. Between yesterday and today, I noticed that some networks had changed the wording of the headlines appearing in the search.

For example, MSNBC is no longer saying the President called Frederiksen "nasty" and now reports, "Trump calls Danish Prime minister's comments 'nasty' after cancelling trip." Here are the latest results I got:

Displays the results of a Google search on the terms "president" "Denmark" "nasty" on August 30, 2019.
Results of my 4th Google search on the terms "president" "denmark" "nasty"; 11:45 a.m. on August 30, 2019. Each of my searches came out slightly different due to Google's algorhythms.

Read Beyond

Beyond the headlines, though, most of these articles reported the President's full statement as follows: "I thought that the prime minister’s statement, that it was 'absurd,' that it was 'an absurd idea,' it was nasty, I thought it was an inappropriate statement."

It's one thing to call a person "nasty," and another thing to characterize their statement as "nasty." Unfortunately, our competitive news media sensationalizes headlines, but it's understandable why someone would believe the story, and therefore, important that we learn to read and think more critically about the news and information being presented to us.

Check the Author/Date/ Supporting Sources

When researching news, we don't always find a byline with the story. However, all the news I found in my search was published August 21, 2019 by major mainstream news outlets. Most stories were cross-linked to other related stories, and all stories reported at least the relevant portions of the President's statement using the same wording.

Is it a Joke?

The story appeared in major news media and not in The Onion or Mad Magazine, so it doesn't appear to be a joke.

Check Your Biases

I have a feeling many readers readily believed the click bait headlines, at least in part because the President did in fact call candidate Hillary Clinton "such a nasty woman" in the last presidential debate before the 2016 election. (Watch it here if you need a refresher.)

Still, no matter how biased I may feel about the President, he did not call Denmark's Prime Minister "nasty," and I'm not going to perpetuate incorrect information.

Speaking of Biases

No matter how fair they are attempting to be, news organizations are comprised of humans who have biases. Left-leaning MSNBC initially portrayed the President's remarks in a less accurate and more negative light, but later changed their headline. BBC and People kept their inaccurate headlines.

It's been more than 30 years since the FCC's "Fairness Doctrine" was applied to news media, so it's probably true to say media bias isn't going away. Unfortunately, according to patent attorney Vanessa Otero, “Now, however, many sources people consider to be ‘news sources’ are actually dominated by analysis and opinion pieces.”

That's why Otero created a helpful Media Bias Chart, to illustrate the level of bias detected in mass media sources. “If you have just a couple sources that you think are in the middle but none exist either to the right or left of them, or up or down from them, you may be on the wrong track,” Otero said.

Ask an Expert

Even if you don't have access to a librarian, there are several reputable fact-checking websites where you can search for the truth. Here is a list of websites endorsed by Florida State College at Jacksonville's guide,

Fake or Fact: Evaluating news, information, and sources:

  • FactCheck.org describes itself as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit 'consumer advocate' for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics."

  • OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics, "is the nation's premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy."

  • Politifact.com is an independent, Pulitzer Prize-winning site created by the Tampa Bay Times. Their About page reports, "We emphasize primary sources and original documentation. We don’t rely on what a campaign or elected official tells us -- we verify it independently."

  • Snopes.com is an independent publication that began in 1994 as a platform "investigating urban legends, hoaxes, and folklore." They are widely respected as one of the oldest fact-checking sites on the internet.

  • AllSides.com says, "Unbiased news does not exist; we provide balanced news and civil discourse." They provide the same news stories from multiple perspectives - left, right, and center.

Keep in mind, each site has its own process for choosing which stories to highlight, and not all sites will address all news stories. I found the Denmark story was addressed on Politifact here and on AllSides here.

I especially like AllSides.com for the way they curate stories by date and topic, the quality of sources they select, and their placement of curated stories side-by-side, clearly labeled as Far Left, Left, Center, Right, and Far Right.

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