Education can combat plague of fake news

I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion last week about the future of local news coverage in the Mahoning Valley. This important discussion was coordinated by the Youngstown Press Club and the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County and included this newspaper, representatives of local television news stations and online media, along with the local business journal publication.

Certainly, with this varied group of local news media, Mahoning Valley residents should rest easy that their local news is getting covered well. In fact, we all are doing our best to cover news as it breaks and also to delve more deeply into local stories that affect our lives.

That’s the good news.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that often less-than-legitimate sources still find a way to share less-than-legitimate news — fake news.

Aimee Fifarek, executive director of the Mahoning County library system, who moderated last week’s panel discussion, broached that hot topic.

My answer, in part, was that it’s our job as journalists to better educate the public on ways to discern between fake news and real news. So that’s the intent of this column.

I once wrote in this space that an average false story takes about 10 hours to reach 1,500 Twitter users, versus about 60 hours for the truth. And on average, false information reaches 35 percent more people than true news.

That tells me it’s the responsibility of all of us to combat the spread of fake news. Here are some tips.

The first secret is pretty simple: Don’t believe everything you hear. That’s particularly true if you picked it up on social media. Look for the existence of multiple sources that add balance and verification.

A former editor here once said, “If your mother tells you she loves you, get another source.”

In other words, verify, verify, verify.

“Real news” stories also contain facts, statements and quotes attributed to reputable sources. We don’t state items as fact without attribution. We independently verify all information that we can, and then we include that information and verification in the story.

If you read a story that has no balance, no attribution and states information as if you should just expect it’s true, then it’s probably not.

Next, frequency does not authenticate a story. In other words, the number of times a story is posted, shared or linked online or on social media does not make it more true. Unfortunately, it’s often the salacious and ridiculously false stories that go viral.

“Real news” stories also don’t state opinion as fact. If someone has an opinion, it’s attributed. This brings me to differences between opinion and news pages.

We strive to never allow our opinion to enter into our news coverage. Still, readers sometimes become confused, possibly because we do earmark one page each day for sharing our opinion on important stories of the day. The opinion page also carries columns by writers who often don’t share the same opinion as the editorial board. That’s OK because we know that freedom of varied expression is what makes America great, after all. Sundays we add a second opinion page to publish letters and opinions of our readers.

Everything on the newspaper’s opinion pages is clearly labeled as opinion, and of course, often contains thoughts and ideas that are not shared by all. Sometimes we are criticized for the things we print on these pages, but opinion pages are never intended as an avenue for the spread of fake news, but rather as a starting point for healthy debate and dialogue and as a venue for readers to share thoughts.

Of all this information, I can tell you there is one really good way to guard against fake news — that is by putting your trust in reputable newspapers like this one.

Linert is editor at the Tribune Chronicle and the new Vindicator edition.