Being skeptical in a digital world is a good trait

During National Newspaper Week, Oct. 1-7, our industry pauses to remind our fellow citizens of the importance of a free and thriving press.

I’m excited to say that newspapers continue to be relevant in all their forms, be it digital or hard copy. In South Dakota, newspapers reach more than 206,000 households every day.  

We continue to be the watchdogs of government. Reporters at more than 100 newspapers from around the state of South Dakota cover the Legislature in Pierre, county commissions, city councils, school boards, and more on behalf of you. In addition, those same government entities are required by law to publish public notices of their actions in the legally designated newspaper for further accountability. Not hidden in some obscure place on a website, susceptible to hacking and manipulation.

We are the first recorders of the history of our communities. We cover life, death, and everything in between as the keepers of the permanent record. We live in the communities we cover, we have a vested interest in the health and success of our towns, and we really enjoy what we do.

Given the current national conversation about fake news, newspapers are still the primary source for real news. We are held accountable for the facts and truthfulness of what we publish.

With the proliferation of false information, sources that are not accountable and antagonistic internet trolls it’s get more difficult to sort the truth from fiction. I ask you to please take the time to learn to be a better consumer of information. I have given talks on this subject numerous times and so I have decided to share some of my tips. Being skeptical in a digital world is a good trait.

Here are some tips for helping you spot fake news:

1) Check the date on the article. Is it current? Does it make sense?

2) Learn to be a fact checker. There are numerous reliable sources:

Pewresearch.org — Pew Research Center, nonpartisan fact tank that conducts public opinion polling, content analysis, data-driven social science research and more.

Poynter.org — online “fact-checking” section from The Poynter Institute journalism school.

Politifact.com — nonpartisan fact-checking website that rates claims by elected officials. It is a project of the Tampa Bay Times publishing company, owned by the Poynter Institute

FactCheck.org — nonpartisan, nonprofit project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Politics, science, health issues and more. Flackcheck.org — sister site for political literacy

• Locally: southdakotadashboard.org — In partnership with libraries this nonpartisan, nonprofit online project provides data-driven community information for South Dakota. Data comes from state and federal sources and is made available thru easy-to-use charts, graphs and maps for individual counties and communities.

snopes.com — nonpartisan, for profit website that helps research rumors.

3) Know your source.

• Watch those URLs (Don’t trust websites that end in “.com.co”)

• Be suspect of odd domain names- they are rarely factual

• Make sure it is a legitimate, news-gathering company, government or scientific source.

• When a story quotes a source or study, go look it up on the fact checking sites I listed above.

• Does the photo you’re looking at look photo shopped? If it does, drag and drop it into Google images and see what comes up. It will help you verify the original source.

• Ground truth the source of “According to Polls” claims. These are solid polling sources:

   •  Pew Research Center – pewresearch.org

• Gallup Poll – gallup.com

• Rasmussen Reports - Rasmussenreports.com

• Is this business or charity legit? You can go to the following sources to find out.

• Charity Navigator – charitynavigator.org

• SD Secretary of State – sdsos.gov

• Don’t be just a Headline reader.  

• Verify the author of a story. Any reporter worth their salt will want to put their name on their story. As professionals, they want to take credit and be accountable for the information they are producing.

• If it seems impossible or like a joke, it probably is. Viral information is often satire or meant to trick readers into believing it is true. Don’t fall for it.

• If a story makes you angry, you should read further. Read more about the subject from other sources. This will help you ground-truth the agenda behind the original story and help you not fall prey to manipulation by the author. Make sure the original story wasn’t intentionally trying to evoke that emotion.

• Look at the quotes and who said them. Journalists use many sources for their information, especially for hard news stories. Look up the people they have chosen to talk to and quote. Are they a legitimate expert in their field?

• Check the online “comment” section. If a lot of other readers are raising questions about the accuracy of the story, then you should question it too.

• Don’t get drawn into forwarding chain emails or social media posts. Be wary of anything with an anonymous author, misspelled words, punctuation that yells at you by using excessive exclamation points or all CAPITAL LETTERS!!!!

• Bad web design. Again read multiple sources on the subject and make sure you’re not being manipulated. Once you arrive at a website look around. Do all of the other stories seem to have a view that is slanted to one side or the other of the political spectrum? If so, it is probably not a legitimate information site, but rather a site with an agenda to manipulate your thought process.

• Just because someone made a meme, it doesn’t make it a fact.

And just because you saw it on Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube that does not make it a reliable source for information.

• Know population numbers. It will help you ground truth and quickly put numerical information into perspective. Go to census.gov for the most accurate population estimates provided by the U.S. Census Bureau

• Spearfish (or your home-town): 11,500 (in city limits)

• Lawrence County (your county): 25,300

• South Dakota (Your state): 865,000

• USA: 325.9 million

• World: 7.4 billion

I hope this helps you to be a more confident consumer of information. Please feel free to send me your suggestions and tips as well. I’m always seeking more input and ideas from others.

Letti Lister is the president and publisher of the Black Hills Pioneer.

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