How To Thoughtfully Fact-Check Your Media Consumption
The news gets louder every year.
Or so it seems. Politics and world events as entertainment feels productive; we can indulge our humor, our pride, our outrage while apparently learning about what’s going on. An educational angle with an emotional hook keeps us coming back to certain outlets to read more—but that’s where it gets complicated. At best, we gain new information. At worst, we further entrench ourselves into opinions and narratives rather than facts.
With new information arising from the latest health guidance, to the Ukraine crisis, to upcoming midterm elections, finding unbiased information is more important than ever. Because we want to navigate the world as truthfully as we can, we’ve created a guide to thoughtfully fact-checking media, from finding neutral sources to checking our biases.
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1. Go straight to the source
When you read breaking news, sift through the story to find out who initially reported the news. Look for phrases like “according to,” and “originally reported by” so you can find the source. (What’s most ideal is to see when multiple credible sources are breaking the same story based on a variety of trustworthy reports).
Next, watch unedited coverage rather than curated clips so that you get the whole story. You can review transcripts of pivotal political speeches here, or even try attending events in-person at a local level. This cuts out the media—and their spin—in the middle. Because, when it comes to election-related news, it’ll be the candidate, not the news outlet, who will be working for you.
But you can’t always take every leader or spokesperson at their word. Political rhetoric and persuasive speech is designed to convince you, not always to educate you—so next, get to fact-checking.
2. Check the facts (then double check)
Whether you’re reviewing facts from a speech or information you’ve read or seen in videos online, Factcheck.org, Reuters, and Politifact are reputable fact-checking sites. You can even cross reference the sites with one another. And if you’re using the information to make a decision or plan on sharing it with others, it’s especially important to verify it’s true—even when you agree with something you’ve read or seen.
If you’re fact-checking through other sites not listed above, check for transparency about donors and stakeholders, potential parent company bias, and non-partisan leanings to ensure objectivity.
If you still find yourself unsure about claims, head to neutral and highly reliable sites. The Adfontes Media Bias chart outlines the reliability and factual accuracy of political media sources. Allsides offers a comprehensive left-right-center look at media bias, as does the app Ground News (we especially love how easy it is to swipe between different headlines for the same story). For $4.95 a month, you can also subscribe to Newsguard, a browser extension that gives outlets “nutritional labels” so you can identify websites that make false claims or lack transparency.
*Factcheck.org and Politifact have received donations from Facebook, which does not have input on the fact-checking, but is still something worth noting. Adfontes does not currently have any organizational donors, and Allsides operates on a hybrid revenue model so no one source of funding can be influential. Ground News is run by personal donations and subscription costs.
3. Watch out for angles & emotional appeals
Now that you have the factual backing for stories you’re reading and hearing, it’s important to understand that although these stories may be based on facts, at the end of the day, they’re stories. They’re designed to entertain, convince, infuriate, or evoke fear. Be extra observant of inflammatory or misleading headlines—this is how media outlets can interject opinion and partisan preference without the consumer’s full knowledge.
Start by looking at the language, and asking yourself if it’s meant to evoke an emotional response. Be wary of outlets that use highly inflammatory language, such as “the end of ___” or emotional appeals like “___ is our only hope.” Return to facts and research when you read euphemisms, exaggerations, or other unfounded claims. And of course, question these headlines and rhetoric even when it’s a story you want to agree with.
One useful question we can ask ourselves when reading a piece of content is, “who wins with this story?” You might find that a specific politician wins, or the news organization itself wins by convincing you to come back for more. If the information presented feels emotionally manipulative or leaves you feeling more angry than informed, it might be a good time to revisit those fact-checking sites or find a secondary source. (But don’t turn away just because a news story scares you—we do have to sit with uncomfortable truths sometimes!)
Don’t forget to question how frequently a media outlet covers a specific story, too; over-covering or under-covering a topic can be done intentionally to amplify or quiet a story to someone else’s benefit.
5. Read trusted opinions, but don’t call them facts
Finally—there is space here for connecting with opinions from people you trust. To find reliable voices, research authors and journalists across their social platforms and bylines. Do you find their tone helpful and feel comfortable with who they follow, repost, etc. on social media? Are their past professional experiences likely to skew their perspective? Check their work on those fact-checking sites mentioned above. Are they reporting objective information as opposed to content that’s emotionally exhausting, enraging, or needlessly sugar-coated?
You can and should disagree with the media personalities you trust; they have their own unique values and motivations, after all. If they present themselves as unbiased but you find their coverage inconsistent either in opinion, tone, or frequency, you can second guess and unfollow. Keep abreast of their background by searching for their name + “controversy” online and review any existing controversies. (Remember to look for reliable sites!)
If we’re getting our news from a person or source that has a reputation of bias, we should acknowledge it to ourselves and with others. If we insist on consuming only news that upholds our existing beliefs, there is likely critical information—both facts and points of view—that we’re missing from our media consumption. When we find ourselves agreeing 100 percent of the time with the stories we read, perhaps it’s time to explore what the counterarguments (and supporting research) are to the issues we feel most connected to. This goes for everyone, regardless of political ideology.
And the final tip in fact-checking is to practice humility. We are human after all—personal, social, and economic factors contribute to our views. And if not examined, our worldview can be unconsciously informed by our upbringing, race, religion, education, gender identity, and sexuality. By identifying and naming our influences, we can keep our biases in mind as we consume media.
To honestly fact-check our media consumption, we may have to give up some of the things we once held as truths to uncover the facts—including facts we don’t like. Because the only way the world is going to change is if we’re willing to change our own minds in the face of new, and real, information.
What does your news habit look like—do you have a single favorite source, or do you regularly cross-check across platforms? 🗞️ Share in the comments below!
Emily Torres is the Editorial Director at The Good Trade. Born and raised in Indiana, she studied Creative Writing and Business at Indiana University. You can usually find her in her colorful Los Angeles apartment journaling, caring for her rabbits, or gaming.