Mind the Gap

Avoid misinformation online – tips on getting the most accurate news

It’s no secret that the information superhighway is packed with false turns, bad roads, and dead ends. Rumors spread quickly, and urban legends, misinformation, and disinformation abound, especially on social media and other online sources.

Remember, in the wise words of Viktor Frankl, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In seeking information, keeping ourselves safe, responding to emergencies, and living in our electronic world, let’s remember to choose wisely. It is important to know how to find reliable and factual information to guide our attitudes and decisions for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

This article from the University of California Merced, Web Evaluation & News Sources: Reputable News Sources, includes these characteristic of reputable news outlets:

  • Publishes accurate content; checks facts, and if errors are made, corrects them.
  • Uses reputable sources (people, documentation) and verifies those sources.
  • Presents headlines that accurately represent the article content; headlines don't play on readers' emotions.
  • Clearly identifies authors of articles with bylines.
  • Clearly identifies content types (e.g., report vs. editorial/opinion).
  • Employs journalists who follow the profession's code of ethics.

The UC Merced site also provides guidance to determine if a source is reputable, including:

  • Watch out for websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources. Example: abcnews.com.co.
  • Watch out if known/reputable news sites are not also reporting on the story. Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.
  • Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.
  • Bad web design and use of ALL CAPS can also be a sign that the source you’re looking at should be verified and/or read in conjunction with other sources.
  • If the story makes you really angry it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.
  • If the website you’re reading encourages you to DOX individuals, it’s unlikely to be a legitimate source of news. DOX refers to publishing an individual's personal information with the intent of causing harm.
  • Check the “About Us” tab on websites or look up the website on Snopes or Wikipedia for more information about the source.

A lot of what you read may fall in the category of opinion, rather than fact or legitimate news. For example, in addition to the wide-open platforms available online and in print to anyone who knows how to use them, some news organizations also allow bloggers to post under their banner, and many of these posts do not go through the same editing and verification processes. A good practice is to check to see what category the article falls under, and if possible, research the author.

Sorting fact from opinion is not necessarily easy. This analysis of a study from the Pew Research Center, Distinguishing Between Factual and Opinion Statements in the News reveals the challenges we face in today’s fast-paced and changing information environment. The study, which measured the American public’s ability to distinguish between five factual statements and five opinion statements, found that a majority of those surveyed correctly identified at least three of the five statements in each set. But, the analysis points out, this result is only a little better than random guesses, and far fewer got all five correct.

When searching online for articles and information, or going through a Facebook or Twitter feed, look carefully at the source, either in the web address, or in the posting information. Rely on information and updates from recognized local outlets such as The Santa Cruz Sentinel, or nationally, USA Today, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other recognized publications. While relying on random Facebook and Twitter stories can be misleading or dangerous, legitimate news institutions, as well as many agencies such as the County of Santa Cruz and the Sheriff’s Office have social media sites that can be relied on.

In an emergency, be sure you are getting the latest accurate information by registering to receive alerts and warnings (scroll to the end of this article for info), and checking reliable news on television and radio, if available.

You can also check out our Local Media Resources, which includes links to television stations such as KSBW and KION, as well as the Santa Cruz Sentinel and listings for radio stations.