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Current Topics: An Undergraduate Research Guide : Fake News

Articles - Scholarly and Popular

Try searching these terms in the resources linked below: false news, false news and social media, accuracy in journalism, political satire, media bias, journalism and objectivity, misinformation.    

Overview Resources

News

Books

Selected books covering the topics of fake news and media bias available through UW-Madison libraries. Possible subject headings include: journalism ethics and journalism--objectivity. 

About this Guide

This research guide provides information on recognizing fake news articles and websites, fact-checking, and researching fake news.

What is Fake News?

Many news outlets and journalists will exhibit some level of bias in their reporting. However, bias does not necessarily brand stories as false or untrustworthy.  It is important to learn how to tell the difference between false reporting and news stories based on facts. Below are some definitions to keep in mind when evaluating news and media sources. 

  • Fake News: Sources that intentionally fabricate information, circulate deceptive information and content, or grossly distort actual news reports. Fake news is information that has no factual basis or information that is fabricated by those who do not have the appropriate credentials to be writing news stories.   
  • Satire: Sources that use humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to comment on current events, particularly in the context of contemporary politics. 
  • Bias: A tendency that comes from a particular point of view or outlook based on personal opinions and judgment. 
  • Propaganda: Information that may be biased, untrue, exaggerated, or framed in such a way to convince a target audience to accept a framework as true.
  • Sponsored Content: Long-form advertisements that resemble news stories and are embedded in a news website as any other story would be.

"Fake News" and the 2020 Election

Fake News exploded into the public's consciousness during and after the 2016 election. While the impact of misinformation on the 2016 election continues to be debated by scholars and journalists, many wonder what to expect in the upcoming 2020 primary and general elections. A consensus on this topic remains elusive, but below are some sources to help you get a grasp on the role fake news might play in our next major election season.

Understanding Bias

Bias refers to preferences or prejudices in favor of certain kinds of beliefs, ideas, or people. We all hold both explicit and implicit biases.

  • Explicit bias describes beliefs about the world that we are consciously aware of and that inform our perspectives on a variety of issues. Explicit biases might include political preferences we know we hold or extreme and overt prejudices. 
  • Implicit bias is more subtle and describes the unconscious prejudices that influence our perceptions of different kinds of people and ideas. Even people who regard themselves as neutral and without prejudice display some forms of implicit bias. Once implicit bias is made conscious, it can become easier to unlearn. 

Why is it important to understand bias?

  • The biases we hold impact the way we view information. We are more ready to believe a news story, headline, or image if it confirms rather than challenges our biases.
  • Our biases may also influence the way we seek and receive information. We often look for information in sources that reinforce our biases. We are also more likely to passively view news shared by people in our social circles who are more likely to share our biases.
  • Bias is deeply ingrained into every culture. As such, there is no such thing as an "unbiased" reporter. Journalists, bloggers, researchers, and professors all approach their topics with bias, but they also have relevant expertise. Good journalism, like good scholarship, is done with curiosity and open-mindedness, rooted in facts about the world and honest about the judgments it makes.

Test Yourself

Harvard University's Implicit Bias Test can help you learn if you have implicit biases around race, gender, sexuality, disability, indigeneity, age, size, and nationality. Remember that these tests are just one way to help you come to terms with your biases, but they are a good way to get started.

Further Reading

  • Understanding Bias
    (The American Press Institute) "Understanding Bias" explains that the notion of bias as purely negative is outdated and cannot serve modern journalism. Instead, they argue that journalists must exercise critical thinking rather than strive for pure objectivity.
  • Speaking of Psychology: Understanding Your Racial Biases
    (American Psychological Association) In this podcast conversation, Yale psychologist John Dovidio explains how unconscious bias can manifest as "averse racism," a subtle form of prejudice which influences how different groups of people relate to one another.
  • How to Think about "Implicit Bias"
    (Scientific American) This article defends implicit bias from critics who assert that bias can only be overt. It considers some of the social consequences of this kind of thinking.

Understanding Media Ownership

Media ownership can take many forms both within the United States and globally. Who owns and funds a media organization may or may not have an impact on that organization’s editorial decisions. A good news consumer keeps in mind different media ownership structures when curating their news diet. Here are a couple common ownership structures:

  • Public Media describes media that is funded by taxpayers, but editorially independent of the government that funds it. This kind of media may have a legal obligation for objectivity, and may also be required to include a civic education component.  Examples include NPR or the BBC.
  • State-Owned Media describes media that is run by the government, often for the purpose of advancing that government’s agenda. This kind of media is often criticized as dispersing propaganda on behalf of the state that owns it. While tracing this kind of editorial control can be difficult, and while these organizations can produce solid reporting, they should be understood as having a particular point-of-view. Examples include Russia Today (RT)  or Voice of America (VoA).
  • Private Media describes media with a variety of ownership structures, but which are not funded by a government. A newspaper, channel, or website might be owned by a single individual or family (e.g. The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos), or owned by a parent company (e.g. CNN is owned by WarnerMedia, which is owned by AT&T). These organizations maintain editorial independence because they are funded by subscriptions and advertisements, though critics have wondered whether various benefactors have had a hand in newsroom decisions. These may or may not be for-profit entities. 
  • Alternative Media describes media which claims freedom from government or corporate influence. This type of media can include underground zines, radio, and online news program. Alternative media generally seeks to present information and stories from the perspective of a marginalized group, and is often, though not always, progressive. Examples include Democracy Now! And Adbusters. 

 

Currently, traditional local news sources like local newspapers are vanishing at the same time as national and multinational media organizations are consolidating. Take a look at these graphics: 

 

 

  • Local news organizations find it increasingly difficult to compete with media organizations with vastly more resources. They also struggle to garner as much interaction on social media, a popular way consumers receive news.
  • Many experts agree that a healthy democracy depends on the exchange of a diversity of views from a variety of independent sources. National news takes place against a more polarized backdrop and rewards more opinion-based journalism, This contributes to a sense that facts don’t matter or are impossible to know.
  • Local news also specializes in on-the-ground reporting about local issues. When these newsrooms shut down, people are less aware of how their city is being run, and government officials and local industries receive less oversight. This also contributes to the public’s lack of trust in traditional authorities, making room for fake news.

 

Commentary on Fake News Articles

The articles and links below provide tips on how to identify fake news and emphasize the importance of confirming the accuracy of information before sharing it with others.  

How to Evaluate News Articles

The librarians at UW-Madison are experts at helping you to learn and apply strategies for assessing the value of information you encounter. It is incumbent on you, however, to ultimately decide how to responsibly interpret and disseminate information. To help you get started, we have developed an "Evaluation Tip Sheet" that is useful for analyzing scholarly and popular articles. 

The resources below, including our tip sheet, offer checklists and questions to ask to help verify the legitimacy of news sources. 

Other Helpful Resources

Fact Checking Sites

Below are helpful websites that fact check news articles to ensure you are receiving and sharing accurate information. 

How to Read Poll Information - What to Believe?

How do we interpret election poll information, and how do we know it's accurate? As with all news sources, we should think critically about these polls to ensure inaccurate information does spread as fake news. Below are resources to help read election poll information, along with tips on how to interpret this information carefully and correctly. As you read polls, keep in mind that polls only give us an imperfect sense of what various populations believe in a moment in time. Polls are not meant to determine who should win an election or which policies would best meet certain political objectives.   

Journalism Ethics

Although many news articles may exhibit some level of bias depending on the author or source, it is important to remember that journalists should follow a code of ethics. Below are resources that discuss the ethics of journalism.