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You Versus Fake News: Four Steps To Critical Reading

In a world where the buzzword of the day is Fake News and yet most of the media we consume are both digital and difficult to verify, knowing how to read an article critically is an incredibly important skill. Unfortunately, digital media especially is created to get readers, or to gain “clicks” and it is so easy to believe catchy titles, strong, controversial claims, or clever wording.

So, in this context, how do you know whether what you’re reading is trustworthy, true, or legitimate?

Since 2014 I have worked as a post-secondary teaching assistant – first in Political Theory, and now in Communication Studies, and this is a skill that I try to help my students learn every year. I’ve tried to sum up the process of judging an article to be trustworthy and legitimate in 4 steps. These steps are:

  1. Read
  2. Analyze
  3. Critique
  4. Decide

Read

Reading an article thoroughly is an important step in the process of figuring out if what’s being said is legitimate. We are often impatient with long articles, or complicated posts. Short bursts of information make us feel satisfied, and our brains are programmed to seek efficient sources of satisfaction. Digital media tends to trigger dopamine production – the chemical in our brains that makes us feel happy and satisfied. Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Things like food, sex, and exercise trigger dopamine production, which is important for our survival. But we can become addicted to the easily accessible dopamine burst we get from digital media, and this could lead us down an internet rabbit hole, where we click and click and click. Short articles with catchy titles make this cycle of clicking easy. But it also makes it more likely that we are not getting the whole story, or we are consuming problematic or questionable information.

So, you absolutely must read the whole article. This might take practice but once you become comfortable with longer articles or posts it will do your brain a world of good.

Digital media can trigger dopamine production – the chemical in our brains that makes us feel happy and satisfied. This can make it more likely that we’re not getting the whole story, or that we’re consuming problematic or questionable information.

Analyze

Just because an author seems to know what they are talking about, or the information you are reading seems interested, or complicated, doesn’t mean it can be trusted. This is where analysis comes in. There are a few simple but important questions you can ask yourself about an article that can help you decide whether it can be trusted

  1. Is the article’s title clickbait? That is, does it say something like “you’ll never believe what coronavirus can do to your pet!” This is a classic clickbait tactic. It offers you only enough information to make you want to click through, without telling you anything conclusive or even what the article is about. An example of something that is not clickbait, and therefore more legitimate would be “Research suggests that animals like cats and ferrets may be susceptible to coronaviruses”. Clear, tells you what the article is about, and doesn’t mislead you.
  2. Does the article have many spelling errors, grammar errors, or obvious mistakes? Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, and a single error or two doesn’t necessarily mean that an article can’t be trusted. But if an article seems unprofessional, or awkward, or if it is riddled with errors, that is a pretty big tip off that you shouldn’t be trusting the information it’s giving you.
  3. Is the article from a legitimate or trusted news source? Or is the author a trusted professional or expert in the area being discussed? Of course, I am not saying something is automatically trustworthy if it comes from the New York Times, but I am saying that you should try as much as possible to get more of your news from newspapers than you do from Buzzfeed. Further, consider whether the article is written by an expert – oftentimes freelancers rely on income from short articles on which they know very little, and unfortunately, the quantity that they must write to make a living means that the quality of articles they write may be poor.
  4. Do they provide sources – especially for controversial or complex subject matter? Having spent nearly a decade as a student, providing sources for information has become second nature to me. But for many of us, saying “I heard…” or “someone mentioned…” tends to be all we need to trust the information on offer. But an article that makes scientific, sociological, political, or economic claims can seldom be trusted if it does not provide you with actual evidence and legitimate — that is, academic — sources.

Reading articles from multiple news sources with different stated political values can help you unpack the political motivation of an article, and can help you learn to overcome the biases of your own political position.

Johanna Fraser

Critique

Your critique of an article is an extension of your analysis, but rather than only asking questions about the information in the article, a thorough critique demands that you also ask questions about yourself, the reader.

  1. Does the author use strong words that suggest unquestionability or infallibility? For example, many authors may use words like “proof” rather than “evidence”. Keep in mind that only mathematics use proofs. Evidence, on the other hand, can be provided to support claims in any field or study. Further, articles that claim they are providing facts — especially without backing up those facts with evidence and legitimate sources, are also highly suspect.
  2. Does this article confirm any of my biases? We all have biases, and some are definitely more problematic than others. But regardless of where they come from, they can colour our judgement of a situation or piece of information. For example, I am biased towards animal welfare and well-being and have a tendency to believe that people do not treat they animal companions with enough respect. This means that if I am reading an article that makes claims that confirm this — like an article about a man accused of animal abuse — I tend to side with the animal and believe the accused is guilty. Knowing this I have to be very careful not to immediately trust information like this, and thoroughly check sources before I decide what to believe.
  3. Is the article politically motivated? And am I reading it because I am politically motivated? Political motivation is not necessarily a reason to dismiss an article. But your political motivation or that of the author can influence how the information is written and understood. Reading articles from multiple news sources with different stated political values can help you unpack the political motivation of an article, and can help you learn to overcome the biases of your own political position.

Decide

After you have thoroughly read, analyzed, and critiqued an article, it is finally time for your to decide whether you trust it, and whether you believe what you have just read. If you decide you do not trust it, there a couple things you can do.

The first is simply to not share it. If you think something is untrustworthy, then it does not deserve your readership nor the readership of your friends, family, and colleagues — unless you don’t trust your interpretation.

Second, you can email, message, or call the person who posted the article to inform them of your analysis in a kind and respectful way. Especially if it was shared or posted by one of your friends or family members, it is a good idea to tread lightly when calling out the legitimacy of an article. A message that says “what you shared was complete nonsense and you should be ashamed” is not likely to be received well. However, a message that says “I have done a little research, and think the article you shared might be problematic. Let me know if you want to chat about it” is far more likely to receive a positive and open response.

Third, you can call, or send a letter, email or message to the author or the publisher of the article, asking for more information, or pointing out some of the problems you have discovered with the article.

Fourth, if you believe that it is of immediate importance, and you have not received any useful feedback from the author or publisher responding to your concerns, then you can share or post your own response to or analysis of the article. If you are not confident in your ability to do this well, send it to a trusted group, organization, thinker, or writer who may be able to write a clear, critical response.

Finally, it is important to consider the fact that even if you have decided something to be trustworthy or legitimate, others may disagree. Being open to their disagreement can help you gain a deeper knowledge of the issue, and may even change your mind. And that is okay!

Digital media is great because it is accessible, often free, can come from diverse sources, and caters to diverse audiences. But we have to be careful about what we believe and why. The above will hopefully given you some tools to help you do just that.

Further Reading

For a good read on clickbait, see this TechCrunch article: https://techcrunch.com/2016/09/25/wtf-is-clickbait/

For a detailed explanation on verifying the reliability of sources, see this UWaterloo page: https://subjectguides.uwaterloo.ca/infosources/getstarted

For a great and detailed account of how biases can impact our perception, see this article from NRMC: https://nonprofitrisk.org/resources/e-news/say-what-how-unconscious-bias-affects-our-perceptions/

Johanna Fraser

Johanna Fraser is a proud mom to a hilarious 2 year old, a grateful partner to a hardworking stay-at-home parent, and a friend to a house full of non-human animals. She runs a small handcrafted soap company called Dirty Daisy Soap Co., and whenever she has a spare moment you can find her in her small urban food garden in Hamilton, Ontario. Johanna is also a passionate collector of knowledge and is presently a PhD candidate in Communication and Culture at York University. She holds an MA in Political Theory from McMaster University.

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