Fake news has gotten a lot of attention. Even the term has earned several definitions. The quantity and types of news sources in the digital age have made it more challenging to determine what's real and what's fake. Reputable news outlets adhere to a code of ethical standards that ensures that what's being reported is true to the best of their knowledge. They publish their codes of ethics and standards on their websites. You can read the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics to get a sense of the rules reporters must follow.
Of course, a lot of times, figuring out what's real and what's fake comes down to whom you trust and why. Some people distrust traditional news organizations (what they call the "mainstream media") and prefer newer voices. Some people choose to trust the news outlets they're familiar with. Kids should always follow the steps to media literacy and fact-check information. In general, the following are the key identifiers of legitimate and fake news.
Hallmarks of legitimate news:
- Attribution. Credible news stories include an author's byline, a dateline (when and where the story originated), and facts, figures, and quotes attributed to specific people and groups.
- Standards and ethics. Credible news adheres to certain standards of ethics and professional behavior that are published on its website.
- Full disclosure. An author should be clear about when his or her work is an opinion and whether he or she has any existing relationship with the subject matter that might color their judgment. Opinion pieces should be labeled "op-ed" or "opinion," and they're written in the first person (using "I").
- Objective sources. Experts and other sources should have no conflict of interest when commenting on a story.
- Trustworthy research. Studies created by scientists from reputable labs, such as ones affiliated with universities or independent, nonprofit institutions (that have no financial incentive to provide the data they're publishing) should describe their methodology. Research should be "peer-reviewed" (other scientists have read and signed off on the methods used to collect data).
Hallmarks of fake news:
- Advertorial. Content that mimics traditional news but is paid for by an advertiser must state that it's advertising. It says "paid for by" or "sponsored content."
- Viral videos. Not all viral videos are fake. But some that show up on the internet and on social media feeds can be misleading. Videos can be edited to include only specific scenes and audio.
- Unusual URLs. The most familiar URLs end with ".com," ".net," ".gov," ".org," ".mil," and ".edu." Anything added to the ends of those URLs — for example, ".co" — could indicate someone trying to disguise their identity. Especially suspect are URLs that look eerily similar to the legitimate sites you already know.
- Low quality. Look for words in all caps, headlines with glaring grammatical errors, bold claims with no sources, and sensationalist images (women in bikinis are popular in fake news). These are clues that you should be skeptical of the source.
- Clickbait. Headlines with words such as "unbelievable," "epic," and "amazing" and extreme images designed to get people to click on a story usually lead to dubious content (ads, contests, downloads, surveys, sketchy business opportunities, and content that doesn't match the headline).
- Unflattering photos. Websites and magazines with a particular bias or extreme view run photos of those they oppose caught mid-sneeze, frowning, and blinking. Legitimate news sources strive to use images that illustrate the main idea of a story.
- Guilt by association. Fraudulent news sources place seemingly unrelated photos side by side to make the subjects seem to be behaving inappropriately. (Legitimate news sources try to avoid this.)
- Unclear creator. Author bios should list why the creator is qualified to report on a topic. The site itself should clearly explain who supports the site or who is associated with it. If this information doesn't exist — and if the site requires that you register before you can learn anything about its backers — you have to wonder why they aren't being transparent.
- Annoying, intrusive ads. Banner ads, flashing ads, and pop-ups are signs that the site is just trying to get clicks.