Decoding the News

“Be skeptical, not cynical.” Lori Robertson, managing editor of

Research has found that media literacy education can encourage and equip news consumers to avoid motivated reasoning and to identify reliable and unreliable news[1] regardless of an individual’s political beliefs.[2] An understanding of media – particularly the news industry and the networked architecture of the Internet – helps us to realize that the key question is not “Is it true” but “Am I confident enough that it’s true to act on it – to share it, to risk my health on it, to base my vote on it?”

Here are some essential media literacy steps that news consumers of all ages can take to help them decide:

  • Ask: Is this news or opinion? As noted above, this can be hard to tell sometimes, and news stories sometimes mix the two. While reliable news stories may sometimes include analysis (the reporter’s interpretation of what the facts mean), they should always consist mostly of verifiable facts – preferably with the sources given, so you can check them out yourself.
  • Find the original source: Since it’s so easy to spread content online, it’s important to find out where a story first appeared. This is partly because stories are sometimes altered or misrepresented when they’re spread, but also because you can’t decide whether it came from a reliable source until you know what that source actually was.[3] There are two ways of doing this: first, by following links or citations within the story “upstream” to see where it first originated; second, by doing a search for the story and using advanced search tools to find the earliest version of it. For example, this video of a motorcyclist falling into a sinkhole was posted by RT, an outlet controlled by the Russian government which has a history of spreading false news. If we do a search for “scooter sinkhole China” however, then select the News tab and sort the search to show us the earliest story, we find photos that are sourced to Reuters, a news agency with a strong reputation for fact-checking. In this case, for example, we find that while the source where we first encountered the story (RT) was not a reliable one, the story originated with a reliable source (Reuters).
  • Research the original source: Going upstream is only useful if you know the difference between Reuters and RT. Many sites that spread misinformation have all the hallmarks of a “legitimate” site – professional layout and graphics, a respectable-sounding title and so on – so if you’re not already familiar with them, it can often be hard to evaluate them based just on the content. Instead, open a new tab in your browser and research the source. Put quotation marks around it to make sure that related words are searched together (e.g. “New York Times”) and exclude results from the source by using the minus sign (e.g. Doing a search for “RT” and adding, for instance, gives you results that describe it as “a Russian propaganda channel” and show that it has registered as a “foreign agent” in the U.S., while searching for “Reuters” and adding tells you that it is a news agency that supplies stories to newspapers around the world. (Make sure to go past the first page of results, and don’t assume that the order of results tells you anything about how reliable they are!)[4]
  • Draw on professional fact-checkers. Fairly often, someone else has already done the two steps listed above. You can visit hoax-busting sites like Snopes or fact-checking services like the American Press’ AP Fact Check. (There are fake or biased fact-checkers, too, so make sure the one you’re using has signed on to the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles.)
  • Learn about how news is made. Research has shown that the more people understand how the news industry works, the better they are at distinguishing false news and accounting for bias. To find out how well you understand the news, try our News Quiz.


[1] Kahne, Joseph and Benjamin Bowyer. “Educating for Democracy in a Partisan Age: Confronting
the Challenges of Motivated Reasoning and Misinformation.” American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 54, No. 1, February 2017.
[2] Craft, Stephanie, Seth Ashley and Adam Maksl. “News Media Literacy and Conspiracy Theory Endorsement.” Communication and the Public Vol 2, No. 4, 2017.
[3] Wineburg, Sam and Sarah McGrew. “Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information.” Stanford History Education Group, September 2017.
[4] Wineburg, Sam and Sarah McGrew. “Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information.” Stanford History Education Group, September 2017.