Sorting Fact from Fiction

The changes in how news is consumed (and produced) have also made it harder to verify if a particular news item is accurate – and made it easier for misinformation to be spread, either intentionally or unintentionally.

While young adult Canadians often check other sources to verify news items, this is typically limited to using a search engine to find out if other sources are reporting the same story – without reading any of those other stories, and trusting (incorrectly) that those near the top of the results are more reliable.[1] When readers search for a breaking news story, these results may be dominated by those who publish first: this can result in the spread of shoddy reporting or deliberate misinformation, as it did with the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.[2]

There are three types of news stories that need a particularly skeptical eye:

  1. Non-news content, such as ads and opinion pieces, that looks like news
  2. Entirely false news stories, including satire and fake stories that purport to be true
  3. Genuine news stories which are significantly compromised by the source’s bias

Research suggests that most people judge a news source based in part on whether it looks like news.[3] This can make it difficult to distinguish between genuine news and “native advertising” or “sponsored content” that mimics the form of news: one study found that 82% of students were unable to distinguish between a real news story and an ad with similar formatting on the same website.[4] Added to this is the increasingly blurry line between news and opinion and the difficulty of distinguishing between the two, especially in online contexts: while in print newspaper opinion pieces are generally kept separate from news, research has found that fewer than half of news organizations provide any sort of labels to online pieces to help readers tell when they are reading news or opinion.[5]

The second type – entirely false stories spread by unreliable or fictitious news sources – may be what most people think of as “fake news,” but there is evidence that it has relatively little impact compared to the other two types.[6] There are three ways in which it can have a significant effect, though:

  • first, when it reaches news consumers who don’t have the general knowledge to know the difference between the (real) Boston Globe and the (fake) Boston Tribune,[7] especially now that it’s relatively easy to create a professional-looking website;
  • when it reaches people who are prone to engage in motivated reasoning – the mental habit of working backward from what you believe to your judgment of a source’s credibility, which is associated with having highly polarized beliefs on the topic;[8]
  • and when false or highly distorted stories spread from unreliable sources to legitimate news. The blurred distinction between fact and opinion described above, along with the tailoring of news content to narrower audiences, can make news sources vulnerable to their own form of motivated reasoning in which they are more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to stories that align with their (and their readers’ or viewers’) political opinions or biases. Outlets whose readers have an opposite political alignment may also be more prone to covering these stories in order to debunk them, something that appears to have the overall effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, these stories’ distribution.[9]

This last may have the biggest impact, because while entirely false news items are the most obvious – almost everyone has a friend or relative who shared a story from The Onion or The Beaverton without realizing it was satire, or has seen made-up stories circulate during an election – it is most often when they spread to a legitimate but compromised source that they reach news consumers.

Another issue that can make it difficult to recognize how bias influences a source is that all sources have some bias or another, and that some biases are harder to perceive because they determine what isn’t included. As Margaret Gallagher put it, “it matters profoundly who and what is selected to appear in news coverage and how individuals and events are portrayed. Equally, it matters who is left out and what is not covered.”[10] While women now make up 43% of reporters in Canadian news media, for instance, they are only 27% of subjects in news stories.[11] The same study found that worldwide, “women’s relative invisibility in traditional news media has crossed over into digital news delivery platforms: Only 26% of the people in Internet news stories and media news Tweets combined are women.”[12] Members of minority and disadvantaged groups may also have good reason to trust social media and user-created content over mainstream news, given their long history of being marginalized and stereotyped by news outlets: one study, for instance, found that African-American youth considered user-generated media, and live video in particular, to be a more reliable source on the topic of racial bias and the use of force by police, a subject that had been little-covered by news outlets until user-generated media brought it to the fore.[13]

While bias is widely considered a reason to distrust a source,[14] the risk is that consumers may use the fact that all news sources are at least somewhat biased to reject anything but those sources whose biases they agree with.[15] Some researchers have found that this habit has given rise to “competing sets of ‘facts’ and interpretations of those facts, driving the increasing disagreement on key issues, and sowing uncertainty about what is opinion and what is fact”;[16] similarly, it may explain why a majority of Americans agreed that “fake news” can sometimes (51%) or always (28%) refer to stories that are accurate, but which portray the subject in a negative light, and why they simultaneously feel that there are too many news sources and not enough to overcome their biases.[17]

To correct this mistaken understanding of what bias is, we should be encouraging consumers not to reject bias but “to understand news in context, understand the motivations and interests (whatever they may be) behind the production of news, and how news relates to other ideas.”[18] Rather than dismiss a source because its bias disagrees with yours, a better mark of reliability is to see whether that bias compromises its news coverage (by being less skeptical of stories that support the bias, for instance, or ignoring news items that don’t support it) and look at what steps it takes to acknowledge and mitigate its bias.

Key signs that a news outlet is doing this include:

  • A commitment to accuracy. While every news outlet makes mistakes sometimes, frequent errors can suggest that accuracy is not a top priority for them. (Dodging this question by reporting on inaccurate stories spread by other outlets falls under this category as well.)
  • Openly retracting and correcting errors. Just as importantly, when an outlet does make a mistake they should be upfront about correcting it.
  • Following a story whether or not it supports the outlet’s political leanings or bias. News and editorial (where the editorial board publishes opinion or analysis pieces) should be separate: failing repeatedly to cover stories that conflict with their position, or focusing most heavily on stories that agree with it, are signs that bias is influencing the coverage.
  • Seeking out and presenting different viewpoints. News outlets have no obligation to amplify hate, harassment or pseudoscience, but in general they should make sure that all sides of an issue are represented.[19]

As well, outlets can take steps to be more transparent about their coverage:

  • Openly acknowledging their viewpoint and possible bias. Including not just what is known about a story but what is currently not known, to help consumers tell the difference between genuine gaps and things that have been deliberately left out.
  • Whenever possible, link to original sources such as transcripts, databases, et cetera, so that consumers can verify the accuracy of what’s being reported.[20]


[1] Thom, Jessica. “Believing the News: Exploring How Young Canadians Make Decisions About Their News Consumption.” (2016). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 4269.[2] “Fake News Fills Information Void in Las Vegas Shooting.” AdAge, October 2 2018.
[3] Wineburg, Sam, Sarah McGrew, Joel Breakstone and Teresa Ortega. (2016). Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Stanford Digital Repository.
[4] Wineburg, Sam, Sarah McGrew, Joel Breakstone and Teresa Ortega. (2016). Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Stanford Digital Repository.
[5] Iannucci, Rebecca. “News or Opinion? Online, It’s Hard to Tell.”, August 16 2017.
[6] Carey, Benedict. “Fake News: Wide Reach But Little Impact, Study Suggests.” The New York Times, January 2 2018.
[7] Stecula, Dominik. “The Real Consequences of Fake News.” The Conversation Canada, July 27 2017.
[8] Kahan, Dan. “What is Motivated Reasoning and How Does it Work?” Science and Religion Today, May 4 2011.
[9] Rimer, Sara. “Fake News Influences Real News.” BU Today, June 22 2017.
[10] “Who Makes the News: Global Media Monitoring Project.” World Association for Christian Communication, 2015.
[11] “Who Makes the News: Global Media Monitoring Project.” World Association for Christian Communication, 2015.
[12] “Who Makes the News: Global Media Monitoring Project.” World Association for Christian Communication, 2015.
[13] Madden, Mary, Amanda Lenhart and Claire Fontaine. “How Youth Navigate the News Landscape.” Data & Society Society, February 2017.
[14] Newman, Nic and Richard Fletcher. Bias, Bullshit and Lies: Audience Perspectives on Low Trust and Media. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2017.
[15] Kavanagh, Janet and Michael D. Rich. “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.” RAND Corporation, 2018.
[16] Kavanagh, Janet and Michael D. Rich. “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.” RAND Corporation, 2018.
[17] “American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy.” Knight Foundation, January 2018.
[18] Malik, Momin, Sandra Cortesi and Urs Gasser. ”The Challenges of Defining ‘News Literacy.’” Berkman Center for Internet & Society, 2013.
[19] Schudson, Michael. “Here’s What Non-Fake News Looks Like.” Columbia Journal Review, February 23 2017.
[20] Rosen, Jay. “Show Your Work: The New Terms for Trust in Journalism.” PressThink, December 31 2017.