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Fake News: Evaluating Current Events Coverage

Resources and strategies for evaluating current events coverage and finding reliable news.

Newspaper Boxes adapted from photo by Mike Licht via flickr, 25 Aug. 2013. CC BY 2.0.  Image: Newspaper Boxes adapted from photo by Mike Licht via flickr, 25 Aug. 2013. CC BY 2.0.

News Story Types

A preliminary step in recognizing fake news is to recognize the attributes of different news story types.

Is it news? News values, news judgment and newsworthiness

Media professionals - journalists, editors, publishers - can be seen as gatekeepers of access to current events information.  They determine the news values of a story and exercise news judgment in determining what is newsworthy to publish.

Exercising News Judgment: Is it newsworthy?

Seven News Values

  1. Relevance: Is the story significant to the general public?
  2. Topicality: Is the story new, immediate, or current?
  3. Composition: How does the story relate to other current events or content?  Is it being covered by other news outlets?
  4. Expectation: Is there a need or demand for this information?
  5. Uniqueness: Does the story present original reporting based on relevant, credible sources?
  6. Worth: What value does this story add as information in the public interest?
  7. External influences: How objective is the story? What biases influenced it? Has it been influenced by an advertiser, politician, or other private interest?

Hard v Soft News

News stories can be divided into two primary categories: hard news and soft news.

Hard News "The first draft of history"

Hard news stories present accurate facts about current events of significance to a broad audience.  Hard news is described as "that which is new, interesting, and true."  The attributes of hard news include:

  • Immediacy
  • Accuracy
  • Factual reporting in the inverted pyramid style
  • Relevance, significance, importance
  • General audience

Soft News "The lives of human beings"

Soft news stories present narratives of personal, social or cultural interest.  Often called features, soft news includes both timeless and universal stories of human triumph or tragedy, as well as timely coverage of sports, fashion, entertainment, celebrities, trends, etc.  The attributes of soft news include:

  • Trendiness or timelessness
  • Provocative
  • Narrative emphasis on story-telling
  • Limited impact
  • Personal, social, or cultural in nature

Holistic News

Hard news is neither better nor worse than soft news. Reading both hard news and soft news stories about the same topic can help us empathize with people experiencing major news events, and help us better understand the significance, breadth, and duration of impacts from these events.

Soft news often develops later in the information timeline as journalists have more time to analyze stories, identify interesting viewpoints, interview sources, and develop storylines to contextualize the facts presented in hard news stories.

However, soft news is also criticized as being motivated by revenue generation rather than providing information in the public interest, and is sometimes derided as 'junk' or 'fluff' news.

Information Timeline by adstarkel on May 7, 2014, via flickr.  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Image: Information Timeline by adstarkel on May 7, 2014, via flickr.  CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Fake News

Fake news is inaccurate, false, or misleading information about current events.

Fake news can take the form of either hard or soft news.

Some varieties of fake news include click bait, satire, misinformation, propaganda, and disinformation.

Click Bait

Click bait (clickbait, link bait, linkbait) refers to the use of sensationalist headlines to drive click-through traffic to a site.

Clickbait headlines often manipulate powerful emotions - including "anger, anxiety, humor, excitement, inspiration, [or] surprise" - to prompt the desired behavior - clicking the link.

Use of click bait is associated with online advertising revenue generation, news distribution on social media platforms, and the 'tabloidization' of news for entertainment.

Attributes of click bait include:

  • Sensationalist, provocative headlines
  • "Infotainment" or tabloidization of news
  • Manipulates emotions to prompt click-through
  • Clicks generate revenue
  • Content is not newsworthy
  • Content often features 'list articles'
  • Content often fails to meet the expectations created by the headline

Satire

Satire uses humor - often irony - to expose and critique the dark sides of powerful people, institutions, and systems.

Politics, war, and social mores are often the targets of satire.

Satire and irony assume the audience is 'in on the joke' and understands the hidden meaning of the news story, in which what is stated is not what is meant, or even opposite from reality.

As a news consumer, it is critical to identify when satirical news is purposefully presenting 'fake news' or distorting facts as a rhetorical device.

The attributes of satirical news include:

  • Coverage of people, institutions, or systems of power
  • Criticism of foolishness, gullibility or corruption
  • Use of rhetorical devices - humor, irony, exaggeration, etc. - to conceal social criticism

Misinformation

Misinformation is "untrue or misleading information" that is published accidentally, or without the intent to misinform.

The attributes of misinformation include:

  • Inaccurate, misleading information
  • Distributed accidentally

When misinformation is published intentionally for the purpose of manipulating the public for some interest, it is a variety of propaganda called disinformation.

Example

The Forbes article, "'Fake News' And How The Washington Post Rewrote Its Story On Russian Hacking Of The Power Grid," by Kalex Leetaru, provides a timeline of the Dec. 2016 publication of an invalidated Washington Post story about the hacking of an electricity supplier in Vermont.  The Post's fact-checking and article corrections protocols are called into question.

Propaganda

Propaganda is a news management technique to manipulate the thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes, and actions of an audience by presenting biased information or 'spin' to the benefit of some special interest.

Propaganda often uses entertainment as a means of distributing misleading information.

White, Black, or Gray The propaganda spectrum

Propaganda is often characterized as white, black, or gray.

The attributes of white propaganda include:

  • Techniques to create a favorable impression of the special interest
  • Persuasion or an appeal to positive emotions (happiness, group affinity or belonging, shared achievement or sacrifice)
  • Source of information is correctly identified
  • Information is accurate but subject to bias by omission or emphasis in favor of the special interest

Black propaganda is also called disinformation.  The attributes of black propaganda include:

  • Techniques to create an unfavorable impression of something for the benefit of the special interest
  • Appeal to negative emotions (fear, bigotry, hatred, resentment)
  • Source of information is concealed or intentionally misidentified
  • Information is intentionally deceptive, inaccurate, or fabricated

Gray propaganda is in the middle of the propaganda spectrum and combines attributes of white and black propaganda.  For instance, the source may be misidentified, and the information may be accurate but misleading, or unintentionally inaccurate.

Example

In the Vice News article "Tequila, Painted Pearls, and Prada — How the CIA Helped Produce 'Zero Dark Thirty,'" Jason Leopold and Ky Henderson broke the story of the CIA's involvement in the production of the award-winning 2012 dramatization of the pursuit and assassination of Osama bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty, based on redacted internal documents obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request.  This is an example of gray propaganda in favor of the CIA's torture program.

Disinformation

Disinformation, also called black propaganda, is the intentional distribution of misleading, inaccurate or fabricated information for the purpose of manipulating public opinion to the benefit of a special interest.  The attributes of disinformation include:‚Äč

  • Intentional distribution of misleading, inaccurate, or fabricated information
  • Information is intentionally deceptive, inaccurate, or fabricated
  • Source of information is concealed or intentionally misidentified