Tired of falling for false information? Recent examples range from online hoaxes to outright lies that have been spread across social media—with occasionally disastrous results.
While you might feel savvier than the average person who peruses the internet for news or products, the truth is that we’re all hard-wired to be a little bit gullible.
The article linked above explores why our brains are prone to taking the path of least resistance and gives tips on how to help train your brain to care about the accuracy of information.
Why Should You Start Fact-Checking Information?
First, to protect your wallet and your well-being. Often those spreading false information have a vested interest in their audience’s mental apathy.
For example, in the above-linked article, we shared information from the Environmental Working Group that advocates the use of supplements instead of sunscreen for sun protection.
It didn’t take more than two clicks to discover that the so-called expert who’d advised the publication was a supplement manufacturer.
Image via JASalisbury
However, the post still made its rounds and likely influenced at least some readers to forgo their SPF, while others very likely bought the supplements advertised as being sufficient sun protection.
When false information is widely repeated, the decisions it shapes can also have negative repercussions on society as a whole. Sure, these days we’re less likely to stay close to shore for fear of sailing off the edge of the world. However, misinformation can still affect personal, household, and political decisions that run counter to your best interests.
Steps to Fact-Checking Like a Journalist
Just knowing that you should check facts before believing what you read often isn’t enough to inspire a pursuit of accuracy—again, rejecting information requires an extra cognitive step.
To make it a little easier, we’ve compiled tips and resources that will help you start checking facts like a journalist:
Step 1: Perform a Basic Assessment
It takes time to perform a heavy-duty fact check as a means of validating an article or product claim. To save you the trouble, you can weed out more obvious information shenanigans with a little critical reading and observation. Ask yourself the following:
Does it make sense?
Like Roger Ebert might look for plot holes in a movie, check any article or claim against itself. Be careful not to allow your own biases to shape your assessment. But, instead, look for internal disagreements in the information presented to you, such as conflicting data from “clinical trials” used to promote an anti-aging product.
When was it published?
It’s very common for an article to make the rounds, getting people all riled up about something they think is happening now. However, a quick look at the date can show that the information may be outdated. A great example is whenever there’s a food or product recall, there are invariably a few folks who hear about it six months later and panic.
Image via Failblog.com
Does the content justify the headline or main promise?
You’d be surprised how often it doesn’t! In the report Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content, Craig Silverman of Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism found large numbers of articles where a headline would treat a rumor as if it were true, but the article body would say the claim was unverified or even false. The problem, as we know, is that many people don’t read beyond the headline.
What’s the source, and do they have a motive?
Is the writer quoting another article? If so, you may need to dig deeper. Is it a satirical news site? The joke’s on anyone who didn’t check! Does the information presented to you push you towards making a purchase? That’s when it’s time to look up those claims through secondary sources.
Step 2: Check to See If Someone Else Has Debunked the Claim
Do choose your resources carefully. Even serious news sites that we generally trust can get a story dead wrong.
Therefore, we limit our definition of “fact-checking sites” only to dedicated organizations whose sole purpose is to thoroughly investigate claims—and who have a track record of doing so well.
These political fact-checking resources are great places to check on claims made by politicians:
Additionally, SciCheck is a resource created by the University of Pennsylvania that focuses on addressing scientific claims that are made in the political arena—particularly useful during an election year.
Wondering if that image being shared could be real? Plenty of them are not. Thankfully, there are several fake photo checkers dedicated to debunking fake images of every sort:
Ever hear the news report on one day that chocolate is bad, only to prescribe three squares a day for your health the next week? Whether it’s sodium, fats, carbs, or coconut water, health-related claims capture our attention and sell products.
Enter Health News Review. Run out the University of Minnesota; this website tries to address the very real and pressing problem of terrible health reporting.
To do so, Health News Review uses a team of over forty reviewers, mostly medical professionals, who grade mainstream health news articles against ten criteria.
This includes things like: Does the article engage in disease-mongering? Does the article discuss the costs of the proposed intervention? Was the study in question done on mice rather than humans?
Even better, you don’t need to break out your Biochem degree to understand because they spell all this out for the reader, then give the article a rating.
Adding to Health News Review, here’s my personal toolkit of resources to check health-related facts:
- Cochrane Library offers a database of systematic reviews
- Science-Based Medicine provides overviews and resource links for acupuncture, vaccines/autism and more
- Mayo Clinic is chock-full of personal health information
- PubMed publishes medical studies
- Dietary Supplement Label Database compiles data from the National Institutes of Health
- Physician’s Desk Reference provides prescription drug information
Step 3: Use Authority Websites to Verify a Claim
If you’ve stumbled upon a bit of information that’s yet to be debunked by another website, then it’s time to check the claim against an existing body of knowledge.
That being said, the scope of human knowledge is vast, and sometimes a reference that works great for one type of claim just doesn’t help on another. What are some good general principles for finding reference works?
Be creative with your Googling! Building your own fact-checking toolbox begins with thinking outside normal search parameters to find different ways the information you’re looking for might be presented:
Look for the organizations that are connected with your topic.
Let’s say I have a question about proper skin care. If I don’t currently know what organizations cover that area, I can Google “dermatology,” or “dermatology organization,” to find that the American Academy of Dermatology is a leading authority.
If I want to Google search within their website, I append the search string “site:aad.org” to any search terms I want to use.
Look for people
For example, you could combine the term or topic you’re interested in with “expert” or “professor”—just don’t forget your critical thinking caps when judging the qualifications of the people you find, of course!
If you’re trying to understand something complex, consider sending an expert a polite email to ask if you can talk by phone for a few minutes.
Human conversation is invaluable because when you’re exploring a topic, it’s easy to form misconceptions—and not to know what it is that you don’t know.
A real, live person can point out where you’ve gone astray. Lay out your preconceptions and let the expert correct you.
Look for journals and journal articles using Google Scholar.
Even if you’re not prepared to dig deep into the journal articles themselves, often a scan of study titles can give you an idea of how a subject is addressed by experts, which can enable further searches.
Also, try searching with the terms “review” or “meta-analysis” to find studies that combine large bodies of research.
One final note: When you’re searching for information, Wikipedia often comes up first. However helpful the website, it should never be treated as a primary source. Though, its footnotes, which are often links, are actually a great way to find articles and studies that you can rely upon.
The Bottom Line: It Pays to Start Being Skeptical
What kind of information should you start to check? All of it!
At HighYa, we’re dedicated to helping you shop smarter. However, it isn’t just product advertisements that affect your purchasing decisions.
And, it’s not just those looking to make a quick buck off of our brain’s tendency to be lazy who are at fault for spreading false information, either.
Since news has been used to sell papers, there have been journalists too excited to share their scoop to perform a decent fact-check.
As we mentioned earlier, these little bits of information have a way of boring into our subconscious, shaping our future purchases, decisions, brand loyalties, and more.
The bottom line? Once you start to stock your own fact-checking toolbox with resources that can verify topics most important to you, recognizing the gaps left by false information becomes relatively easy.
- Online Tools for Skeptical Fact Checking
- Verification Handbook: A definitive guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage.
- University of Green Bay Wisconsin: How can I tell if a website is credible?
- Psychological Study Reveals Why Misinformation Is So Effective