Kaitlin Ugolik is a brooklyn-based journalist who writes and edits stories about the law, health, finance, technology and the media.

Real talk about fake news

Happy Monday, friends. Let's talk about media literacy.

For some context, check out this piece in the Washington Post about a man who fired shots into a D.C. pizzeria, allegedly because he believed fake news rumors about it being the site of an underground pedophilia operation connected to Hillary Clinton...

A lot of people are going to say this man was mentally ill and write him off. I think that's a mistake. 

For one thing, we toss around "mentally ill" way too much in this country, both as an excuse for bad behavior and as a way to write people off as not worth paying attention to. But aside from that, if we write this man's actions off, we miss a glaring opportunity to face this fake news problem.

Everyone has heard it mentioned in the wake of the election. Really, this should have been a huge story much earlier. I've written about this issue on this blog before, specifically with regard to sites like naturalnews.com, which pretend to be legitimate news organizations writing about scientific facts and are, in fact, conspiracy theory-ridden scams. Please check out this list of some of them, and note that they're not all conservative-leaning. "Occupy Democrats" is (rightfully) included, for example.

This type of thing has exploded this year, with dozens of new political conspiracy sites popping up to take advantage of the high anxiety around the presidential election. And that's the really important part. These sites have popped up to take advantage of your anxiety. Or your fear. Or your frustration. Or your excitement. Whatever you've been feeling, they wanted to capitalize on that, for clicks. And before you write me off as just another liberal elite journalist laughing at the dumb general populace: You didn't believe what you read because you're stupid. You believed it because you were supposed to. It was designed that way. You followed these sites and believed what you read on them for the same reason you are suddenly hungry while watching a football game and don't even realize you've seen 18 McDonald's and Popeye's commercials, or start craving PopTarts after binge-watching Gilmore Girls. I've been there; we've all been there.

So what do we do about this? How do we avoid falling prey to lies created just to make us angry, or make us do something we might not think to do on our own? For a lot of people, the answer has been to just completely distrust the media. I get it. I do. Even as a member of the media, I understand that, especially when I accidentally find myself watching hour 76 of a CNN breaking news meltdown. But if you're going to decide you distrust the entire media establishment, and you're going to break out on your own into the land of Google and YouTube to try to find the truth, there's something you should know: Everyone you find will have an agenda. Everyone. As a media consumer - of any kind of media - your job is to try to determine what that agenda is, and then make a decision about whether or not you're OK with it.

We all do this every day without realizing it. I think that in order to combat blatantly fake news, we need to make this more of a conscious effort. This is not always easy. My friend Darlena did a two-part series on her blog going through the motions to debunk one false claim Donald Trump made based on a fake news report (yes, even the president-elect is not immune) and it was kind of shocking how much work it took to get to the truth. 

Why is this so hard? you may ask.

Isn't it someone else's job to do this? you may also ask.

It's hard because of capitalism, essentially, but that's a whole thing I don't really feel qualified to explain. But in answer to the second question: yes. This is the job of investigative journalists. And they are doing it. But you either don't believe them because of their perceived association with establishment media, or you don't know where to find them because they do not have the resources to advertise in the way most establishment media do, because people don't like to pay for what they do. I believe that the first option will take care of itself if you follow me to the solution for the second option. 

Here are some places you can find - and financially support - good investigative journalism:

ProPublica. "Journalism in the Public Interest." But really, because it's independent and non-profit

AP News. When I was looking for just-the-facts-ma'am journalism to share with a relative, I realized that apnews.com doesn't even appear to have an opinion section. If you didn't know, the Associated Press is one of the oldest wire services. Basic news is its bread and butter, but it also does great investigations.

The Washington Post. Even though I don't always agree with their editorial page or the way they cover certain things, their investigative journalism chops are hard to deny. We could all stand to compartmentalize like that a bit more in the service of supporting truth-based journalism, I think.

BuzzFeed. Yes, BuzzFeed. This site has leveraged advertising based on cat videos and stupid quizzes and listicles to fund real investigative journalism and it is incredible. In fact, here is a listicle about some of their amazing investigations.

I learned a lot about how the media works in college, but that's because I majored in journalism and then did an entire graduate program dedicated to the same subject. I also worked for about four years doing freelance reporting while in school and spent six years as a full-time journalist. Some would say this gives me some kind of professional expertise in the subject; others suggest that it just means I'm blinded by bias to the industry. But, my point: Most Americans do not have years of instruction in how the news business works. There are many reasons for this, and I won't claim to know or understand them all. But it's a fact that, though we obviously know it, often gets forgotten or dismissed as unimportant among members of the media. 

What you need to know is that, yes, some members of the media are well aware that most people reading or watching their content don't fully understand how or why it's made, and they're more than happy to take advantage of that fact. Journalists with integrity are working to make it easier to tell who you can trust, but you have a responsibility too. Stop clicking on those fake/misleading news sites (linked above, and again right here), support real journalism (suggestions above), and check out organizations like The News Literacy Project, which are working to educate young people about how to read the news - the real news - so we can worry less about fake and manipulative stuff in the future. 

Do you have questions about any of this? Ask me! 

 

On empathy as a magic bullet

Some thoughts on November 8