One of the hottest questions in the aftermath of the 2016 election has been how to fight the plague of fake news. Facebook has alternately evaded and grappled with its role in the crisis. Fake-news writers have explained their motivations. And my colleague David Ignatius has looked at the international implications of a wave of falsehoods.
As much as it’s important to push back on what’s not true, it’s also important to focus on what is trustworthy and to explain why outlets and reporters who continually do a good job amidst this onslaught are worth trusting. After this disorienting election, I reached out to a wide range of friends from all points on the political spectrum to ask what outlets and which writers they had confidence in and to explain the reasons for that confidence.
Many of the people who responded suggested that they trusted individual writers — or the judgment of individual people passing along stories — more than the trusted specific institutions.
“This will be unsatisfying, but I (increasingly) don’t trust organizations or outlets; I trust individual journalists and opinion leaders. This is partly because I think it’s harder [nowadays] for outlets to impose quality control, editing, fact checking, etc., and partly because Twitter is a primary means of consuming information,” wrote the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis. “This is not to say that some outlets aren’t dramatically more trustworthy than others, but the brand name that I tend to trust is the one on the byline, not the masthead.”
“I’ve found myself gravitating to specific, individual trusted voices, not just as sources but as curators of other sources — e.g., trusted filters: [The Washington Post]’s own Dave Fahrenthold, Greg Sargent and Dave Weigel come to mind, as do MSNBC’s Joy Reid, CBS (and now [the New York Times’]) Sopan Deb, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and [the New York Times’] James Poniewozik,” agreed Jeff Yang, vice president of cultural strategy for the research and branding firm Sparks and Honey, and a prominent advocate for inclusion and diversity in the entertainment industry. “Note that each of the publications these individuals work for also have sources I considered to be unreliable and in fact, truly problematic, as far as promoting trivia or spreading falsehood.”
“Does ‘My own personal Twitter feed’ count?” as a trusted source of news, Washington Free Beacon executive editor and Act Four contributor Sonny Bunch wrote. “I mean, honestly, I trust people more than I trust institutions. And I’ve curated a feed that delivers quality news from discerning people.”
Other correspondents passed along more specific outlets or rules of thumb.
Dara Lind, a staff writer for Vox who covers immigration and criminal-justice issues and co-writes the Vox Sentences newsletter, wrote that she has been finding the Wall Street Journal useful because the way its coverage is framed can help her see big stories from a new perspective.
“Because its coverage of the business world and its foreign desks, for example, aren’t usually refracted through the lens of US politics, I feel that the information I get from reading the [Wall Street Journal] is more useful in helping me understand a news story on its own terms — it might not help me win an argument, but it keeps me informed,” she explained.
“I tend to trust the outlets that run headlines at odds with their editorial point of view,” offered Ben Shapiro, who left Breitbart this year and now serves as editor in chief of the conservative site Daily Wire. “So, for example, National Review will run headlines that praise Trump even though the publication opposed Trump. [The Washington Post] will run anti-Hillary headlines. Breitbart will rarely run an anti-Trump headline.”
Nick Baumann, senior enterprise editor at the Huffington Post, wrote back with a lengthy list of basic tests for readers, among them checking how long the outlet has been around and what its leanings are, trying to figure out what else the author has written and seeing whether any other outlet has confirmed the story’s findings.
“Does the writer show her work by saying how and where she got her information? Or does she simply assert things?” he wrote. “Do the names in this story sound made up? Are experts cited? If you Google their names, are they real? … Does this story being true require there having been a secret conspiracy to hide it? How many people would have to be involved in that conspiracy? The more people who would have had to be involved, the less likely the story is to be true. The main question is the classic one: Is this too good to be true?”
To Baumann’s suggestions, I’d add a few more quick checks. If there are numbers in the story, where do they come from? A recognized think tank or data-gathering government agency? If the writer quotes people, do they provide some indication of whether their sources’ statements are true? To Lewis’s point, does the publication employ editors, fact-checkers and copy editors, and do all of them look at every piece that’s published?
These ideas are only helpful, of course, if people want to verify that what they’re reading is real. For the rest of us, the fake-news epidemic demands of us that we do more than share good stories. We have to explain why we’re passing along the news, what we trust about it and why.
Note: Jeff Yang’s original email listed James Poniewozik’s old place of work. We’ve updated it.