Sources Unknown: Fake News

Modern but cozy study room with lamplight shining on an open laptop with a browser window that has a picture of fake news.

According to a Pew Research Survey, a majority of Americans believe that fake news is causing confusion about basic facts. Is this a concern for you? Do you know how to spot fake news? We want to be your partner in helping you find reliable information online and in the media. Try these six actions to help you spot fake news:

1. Read more than the headline

Caution sign icon

Your first fake news sign should be a shocking, clickbait headline.

The main purpose of a headline should be to describe what an article is about. It should be brief, easy to understand, and accurate. However, as readers, we might be less likely to click on and article with the headline, “7 Earth-Size Planets Orbit Dwarf Star, NASA and European Astronomers Say” than an article with the headline, “Has NASA Discovered Alien Life?”.

If a headline seems shocking, or if you feel strong emotions when you read it, this article could be fake news. Ask yourself why the website used this headline. Are they trying to get you to click a link or share widely on social media? If this is the case, they probably don’t care as much about whether the information in the article is true. There is even a word for this type of attention-grabbing headline that cares more about getting you to click a link or share an article than it does about being accurate: clickbait.

Another question to ask is, "Are they trying to sway my opinion about an issue or event?" If this is the case, the story might be one-sided and not tell the whole story.

2. Check the website

Website icon

Be a website sleuth to discover the truth.

Websites can exist for several reasons. Sometimes they want to inform. Other times they might want sell or persuade or simply to entertain us. When you are trying to spot fake news, it is important to learn about the company behind the news. What is their mission or purpose? Do they have contact information?

Screenshot of news feed with a headline that reads 'President Donald Trump: The First 100 Days' with a photo of the White House below.
Screenshot of a website's newsfeed about President Donald Trump's first 100 days in office.

At first glance, you might think that the, "President Donald Trump: The First 100 Days," special coverage feed passes our headline test. It is not shocking or misleading. It clearly states what the feed will be about: President Trump’s first 100 days in office. You might start reading some of the articles, such as "Day 39: Trump To Skip Correspondents’ Dinner." You think, "Oh, I heard that on the radio, or saw it on TV, or read it somewhere else". Or perhaps you spot, "Day 38: A Timeline of the EPA," where you see that the first event was listed in 48,000 B.C., when the first tree was hugged. Wait a minute. That’s not right, is it?

That's because it is not correct. Why are they lying? One way to find out is to search for the website’s about page. For this particular website, we might discover that The Onion is a news satire organization. News satire is a parody or mocking take on news. This means the purpose of the site is about not giving factual news.

Figuring out the purpose of a website is not always apparent on the website’s about page. For example, The Onion’s about page is satirical rather than factual, but that might be difficult for some of us to pick up on. Doing a quick, online search can sometimes reveal what a website is about. However, if it is a lesser-known or pop-up website, this might be difficult to find. A quick guide for determining whether a website is not meant to accurately inform is to find out if it is on the fake news list created by Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of communication at Merrimack College. Zimdars also recommends looking closely at the URL of the website. The endings should be recognizable, such as .com, .org, or .gov. If it ends in something like, the information on the site should not be trusted.

3. Check the author

Paper and pencil icon

Before you promote it, figure out who wrote it.

Anyone can write and publish something on the web. Be sure to research the author of an article. For example, if an author raves about a new healthcare drug, you should find out more about that author. Is the author a licensed healthcare professional? Does the author work for the company that makes the drug?

4. Check for multiple, reliable sources

Spectacles icon to denote expertise

Feel at ease when sources have unbiased expertise.

Sometimes authors or reporters are not experts in a topic. If this is the case, be sure that they reference and quote experts on a topic. Even if the author is more of an expert on the topic, they should still reference other reliable sources. This is especially true when the story is covering a hot topic with a lot of strong opinions.

Review those sources yourself, too. Are they experts? Do they have any possible biases or prejudices that might make their claims more opinion than fact? Check out these sources like you would the news story’s author and its website.

If there is a quote from a public official or a famous historical figure with expertise on the topic, you might also want to check whether that quote can be found anywhere else and if the quote is being used in the proper context. For example, is the author only using a piece of a quote which changes the original intent of what a person said?

5. Check the date

Shark icon to denote the risk of taking the bait when a news story is out of date

Don’t take the bait if the news story is out of date.

Make sure to check the date to see when the article was published. How recently did the events in the article happen? Is there more current information about the topic available? Sometimes an old article or outdated information about an event is used to mislead readers about a current event or recent developments.

There are a couple of quick ways to check the dates for an article:

  • Publishing Date: Find the publishing date. This will usually be at the beginning or end of an article.
  • Original Story's Date: Sometimes, an article will explain that it was based on an original article from another source. If this is the case, check the date on that source. You would also want to check the headline, website, author, and sources of that original posting.

6. Ask the experts

Magnifying glass icon to denote detective work

If you need more perspective, consult the fake news detectives.

Are you still not sure if a news story is real? Sometimes, media sources can be tricky, and it can be difficult to take the time to find out for yourself if the news is real or not. This is the time to call in the information experts.

Contact SJPL Staff

You can ask San José Public Library staff about whether a news story is fake or real in several ways:

Start with SJPL eResources

Information experts at San José Public Library have evaluated every online resource we provide. Access any of these eResources on our eLearning page. We offer vetted eResources on a range of topics, such as access to Magazines & Newspapers, Health & Wellness resources, and Law, Government, & Voting resources. If you want to explore issues that have a lot of controversy, check out Opposing Viewpoints. This eResource has over 20,000 pro/con arguments from credible sources.

Use Fact-Checking Websites

You can also consult fact-checking websites, such as Snopes. Check out our blog post on fact checking to learn more.

More from Our Sources Unknown Series

Add new comment

Comments are expected to follow the basic rules of civility and be relevant to the topic being commented upon. Comments will be reviewed prior to posting. Blog comments represent the views of the person commenting, not necessarily those of San José Public Library. For more information see SJPL's Comment Guidelines.