Op-Ed

Practice safe internet against the real ‘enemy of the people’

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Fake news is real. It is not, however, what President Donald Trump wants you to believe it is.

In fact, the mainstream media — who Trump dangerously slanders as “enemy of the people” — are the best defense against the phony news infesting social media. That’s because news organizations like the Herald-Leader, where I worked for a decade, meet a set of credibility standards that you can — and should — test on your own for all of your news sources.

Here’s how to evaluate any news source in three broad areas: verification, independence and accountability.

▪ Verification: I’ll show some specific ways to verify news further down, but basically good journalism should be like good science, verifiable and repeatable.

▪ Independence: What organization or company produced the news? Is it from a political party, an advertising agency, an advocacy group or an unknown source? Legitimate news organizations are not beholden to any government, business interest or political party.

▪ Accountability: Are there bylines on articles? Does the news source run corrections? Can you call or email someone there? Does it have a physical address? Are there consequences for violation of standards?

Those are the broad questions you can ask of any news source. But there is even more you can do to protect yourself from real fake news.

First, remember what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” which he said “is believing something that feels true even if it isn’t supported by fact. Truthiness comes from the gut because brains are overrated.”

So, if something on social media makes you feel strong emotions, seems incredible or is unbelievably weird: Stop. Use your brain before you share it. Here are some simple tests.

1. Check the source of the information by clicking on the URL (the web address). Is it a legitimate news site? Have you ever heard of it? Or is it a phony site?

2. Any legitimate news site will have an “about” section with its history and contact information.

3. Check any quotes by copying and pasting them into Google to find out where they came from.

4. Click on any links in the story. Do they actually take you to a real, credible source? Do they back up the story?

5. If there is a picture, check it out by copying and pasting it into Google Images or Tin Eye. It will show you whether the image has been altered or used before.

6. Again, use Google to see what others are writing about the article.

7. Use fact-checking sites like Politifact.com, Factcheck.org, Snopes.com, Hoax-slayer.net and Washington Post Fact Checker.

One last thing that I know drives readers crazy and can hurt journalists’ credibility: anonymous sources.

Unfortunately, they are often a necessary evil to get at the truth because many people will not jeopardize their jobs or relationships by going on the record with their information.

Legitimate news organizations try to limit the use of anonymous sources and have a series of major hoops reporters have to leap through to use them, including approval by multiple editors and being clear about the source’s possible prejudices.

There are some things you can do to judge the credibility of any source in an article. And, again, there is a catchy acronym to help you remember the steps: “I’M VAIN.”

Independent vs. self-interested. Does the source have an ax to grind or something to gain? Or is the source an expert or non-partial observer?

Multiple vs. lone or sole source. The more the merrier and more likely true.

Verifies vs. asserts. Does the source use facts or direct observations or does he or she merely express an opinion?

Authoritative/Informed vs. uninformed. What is the source’s expertise that qualifies the source to make the statement? Did the source have direct knowledge of the event or witness it?

Named vs. unnamed. Named is always better. If unnamed, does the reporter explain why and is it about facts and not opinion or gratuitous score-settling?

As I hope you can see, good journalism is hard, serious work.

Good journalists are not enemies of the people.

Fake news is. Join the fight and follow these steps before you post and become part of the problem.

John Winn Miller of Lexington is a former publisher who taught journalism at the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University.

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