On June 23, author, lecturer, and researcher Christopher Sebastian hosted the second installment of Sentient Sessions with a presentation titled, “Nothing But The Facts.” The session served as a valuable roadmap and reminder of journalists’ responsibilities when it comes to accuracy in reporting, as well as ways to sniff out and avoid information disorder.
Separating fact and truth from fiction can be tricky, and often requires a little more time investment than a simple Google search. There are two tools at your disposal for achieving the highest degree of accuracy when reporting a story:
Fact-checking. Facts are indisputable, based on empirical research and quantifiable measures. Fact-checking involves obtaining information from experts, government agencies, or academia.
Verification. Truth is acceptable and may include a blending of fact and belief. Verifying truth involves seeking evidence from eyewitnesses, or using geolocation or reverse image searches.
Steering Clear of Information Disorder
Information disorder ranges from misinformation (unintentional mistakes) to mal-information (deliberate wrong info published with an intent to harm). Disinformation is where mis- and mal-information meet, resulting in information that is deliberately manipulated or made-up, such as conspiracy theories.
Like any infectious disease, it can be all too easy to spread information disorder. This is why journalists need to be able to identify and avoid using inaccurate information. Below are a few tips that can help get any reported story a clean bill of health.
Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Or did he?
Quotes are an important part of any story and can significantly enhance reporting. However, the internet is filled with quotes that are inaccurate, misquoted, or just plain made-up—including the Gandhi quote above. Sebastian points out that people often attribute our values and principles to quotes, allowing quotes to transform into what we want them to be. This process is akin to the game of telephone, where the message becomes more garbled the more people it travels between. It also shows the need for each and every quote to be verified.
The way to verify quotes will vary depending on who said them. For quotes from historical figures, turning to authoritative books is a better option than just googling them, although keep in mind that mistakes are published in books all the time. In the case of public figures, such as politicians, try finding videos that contain the quote so you can watch it coming out of their own mouths. For regular people, such as researchers, authors, and journalists, reaching out via email should be your go-to.
They say that assuming makes an ass out of you and me (and this doesn’t require verification). During his talk, Sebastian drives home the importance of both providing and gleaning accurate context when sharing video or images. He goes on to point out that people often weaponize images based on their own beliefs and values. This is why it’s critical to always use image attribution, which allows the original sources to be more easily tracked down to secure verification.
Disinformation can sometimes appear legitimate. But there are a few clues to help you quickly spot funky information. If the article has no byline or date, or you find it on a satire site, beware. Sebastian provides the troubling stat that 60 percent of users don’t read past the headline—a habit that sows fertile ground for confirmation bias. When both consuming news and citing sources, be sure to understand the source and content of the article before using or sharing it.
Tips to Identify Fake News
Bookmark the following sites to help with fact-checking:
- Fact Check.org
- Media Bias / Fact Check
- Poynter Fact-Checking
- BBC Reality Check (for fact-checking coronavirus COVID-19 myths)
Here are a final few tidbits of wisdom from Sebastian:
- Understand the difference between punditry and reporting
- Avoid the term “fake news”, because there’s no such thing. (It’s either news or it’s not.)
- As a journalist, you are tasked with carrying on traditions of honesty, decency, and integrity. Remember that information disorder can, and does, negatively affect people’s lives.
- Last but not least: Stay skeptical!
- Society of Profesional Journalists – Tips for Digging out of the “Fake News” Sinkhole
- News Literacy Project – How to Know What to Trust
- BBC – Snopes: How do you survive 25 years debunking fake news?
Subscribe to Sebastian’s Patreon for more valuable insights.
Laura is a published fiction & nonfiction author. Her essay on Western dominator identity is featured in The Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity.