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How to Spot Fake News

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The director of the University of Texas’ School of Journalism shares her top five tips for taking in the news.

By Rachel Rascoe, Photo by Courtney Runn

Wielding a 30-year career reporting on everything from sports and dining to education and obituaries, Kathleen McElroy knows the ins and outs of our nation’s news. The Houston-born media maverick got started writing for various Texas newspapers, including the Austin American-Statesman.

After relocating to the Northeast, she eventually became an editor for The New York Times. Equipped with a Ph.D. and a fervor for preparing the next generation of reporters, McElroy was named the director of the University of Texas’ School of Journalism in June. Here, she shares her practical guidelines for mindfully navigating mass media.

Get information directly from established news outlets, or at least through their official social-media sites.

“Your family, friends and Instagram favorites might have the best intentions, but they are not reliable news distributors and could mislead you with distorted or downright bogus content.”

Sign up for mobile breaking-news alerts, which many outlets offer for free.

“If you don’t want to further engage, at least you’d have seen the headline. Get alerts from diverse sources: local, national and international, or CNN, Fox News and The Los Angeles Times. You’ll know something big has happened when everyone from the BBC to The Washington Post to the American-Statesman has your phone beeping.”

Read—yes, read—at least one neutral news site.

“Try to connect with a word-based story. The image of the shell-shocked Syrian boy and the audio of migrant children screaming for their parents are powerful. But you need context, background and reference points to truly comprehend the news. And do more than listen or watch news while cooking or driving. Give yourself the opportunity to reread phrases, quotes or information that don’t sink in the first time.”

Know the difference between news articles and opinion.

“Even legitimate news sites can do a poor job of clearly labeling ‘editorial,’ ‘opinion,’ ‘commentary’ and ‘analysis,’ especially on mobile apps. Opinion pieces and editorials are intentionally slanted, whether it’s conservative or liberal. … Most newsrooms have a separate opinion staff who write unsigned articles that take a stance. Op-eds, originally meaning opposite the editorial page, are commentary. Identify local and national columnists. Don’t confuse them with reporters who present information that is neutral and fully dimensional. And be aware sometimes news and sports reporters produce commentary. Make sure you know what you’re consuming.”

For the price of one airport-bar martini, get a monthly subscription to a paywalled news outlet.

“Cable news has taught us that most journalistic content is not really news. But it’s enlightening when that other stuff comes from a quality source. Gain access to culture, entertainment, event listings, analytical pieces and so much more. I proudly read comic strips and advice columns from across the country. On the other hand, I usually skip reader comments. Choose your rabbit hole wisely.”

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