First, let me be clear: The above headline is not true. I made it up.
But another, equally outlandish, claim — “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president” — was a real headline that made its way around Facebook in the lead-up to Election Day. It popped into the feed of a friend of mine who isn’t Catholic. She was highly suspicious of the claim but still was compelled to ask me: “This isn’t true, right?”
I assured her it wasn’t true. Popes don’t endorse candidates for political office, I explained. And if Pope Francis actually did that, Facebook wouldn’t be the only source of information about it.
I wish I could say this was the only “fake news” I saw over the course of the long election season. But it wasn’t. Another story I spotted on social media carried the headline, “FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apartment in murder-suicide.” I searched several news sources that I trust because of their thoroughness and accuracy. A little research confirmed what I suspected: there was no truth to the story.
Fake news sites have been getting a lot of attention in recent months. Media and political commentators have raised concerns that stories published by these sites may have influenced some people’s voting decisions. And there have been calls for social media sites to limit the spread of fake news.
News media, when properly used, should be in the service of accuracy and truth. In their annual World Communications Day messages, both Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have emphasized that communications should happen in the context of charity, respect, responsibility and truthfulness — all of which is overlooked by purveyors of the kind of fake news making headlines today.
But placing limits on such content is a tricky task. There are First Amendment protections that must be respected. And where do you draw the line between clickbait that intentionally misleads and humor or satire, which can serve an important role in the marketplace of ideas?
That’s why it’s more important than ever — although more challenging than ever — to be a savvy news consumer. The internet and social media give the average person the power to publish and reach a wide audience. Gone are the days of relying on daily newspapers and a few TV networks for news. Today, as news streams 24/7 on our televisions, our tablets and our phones, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with the flood of information and the motives of its creators and distributors.
But we aren’t powerless. We can use the opportunity to brush up on some basic news literacy skills to help us — and others — navigate through the labyrinth of news sources and stories we encounter every day.
Here are a few, simple tips for starters:
- Check your sources. Who is publishing the story? Are they a trustworthy source? If you aren’t familiar with the source, do a little research. Are they committed to sharing accurate information or do they have some other purpose?
- If a story makes claims that seem far-fetched or extraordinary, check other news sources with good reputations. Are they covering the story, too? If not, be wary of the claims being made.
- Pause before you hit “share” or “send.” Wait until you know for certain that what you’re sharing is accurate and truthful before bringing it to the attention of others.
- If you watch TV news, switch channels every few days or weeks. Read widely. Follow a variety of news sources on Facebook and Twitter — not just the ones whose views you tend to agree with. This will broaden your perspective, help you understand all sides of a story and ensure your opinions are well-formed.
Pope Francis didn’t endorse this editorial. But I suspect he would be in favor of us honing our skills so we can be better consumers and communicators of news and information.