Because I subscribe to a variety of websites and have a good-sized group of Facebook friends linked more by shared love of family, motorcycles and cars than political affiliation, I run across my fair share of questionable news reports. Whether they are conspiracy theories or just scary threats to which one should pay attention, a pattern always seems to be lurking in the mist, something that should alert me to the possibility of “fake news.” I could just never spot it.
Then this week I read a terrific article by Jeannie Banks Thomas, a folklorist of all things, and a professor at Utah State University. She nails it perfectly and provides four simple questions to tip you off that you need to get your fact checker fired up. I just loved it. Here is a link to her complete article, but I describe the high points below.
She uses the acronym S.L.A.P, as in slap your forehead, something those of us from the Midwest often refer to as the Norwegian salute. You can do it, right? You hold an open palm out in front of you, then briskly move it toward your forehead. When your hand hits your forehead with a slap, you’ve done it correctly. True natives also mumble “Uff da” under their breath, which adds an air of authenticity.
Professor Thomas’s S.L.A.P. acronym is as follows:
S: Scare or Shock – Does the account attempt to scare or shock? L: Logistics Test – Does this account rely on or involve complicated, far-fetched logistics? A: A-List – Does this story involve celebrities or famous people? Does it have Donald Trump, George Soros, Hilary Clinton, Vladimir Putin, or Joe Biden in it? P: Prejudice Test – Does the account demonize or portray a person or group negatively?
“YES” answers should trigger our BS detectors like a fire alarm. When that happens, do some quick research. Remember, research is not what someone posts on a message board. Research is vetted information supported with credible evidence. Professor Thomas reviewed over 50 years of legend, rumor and conspiracy theory and analyzed over 100 legends. It was during this work that these four patterns emerged. Don’t get me wrong, not everything you see which results in “yeses” to the SLAP questions is guaranteed to be bogus – just know the probability is much higher it will be, and you need to check before forwarding it along like a clueless doofus.
I love this easy tool which can help anyone quickly assess a story’s veracity. And given the amount of Norwegian blood in my veins, it’s easy for me to remember – I just salute.
In response to an email suggestion to watch the documentary “Totally Under Control,” a friend replied saying: “Thanks! Sounds interesting…but I have to ask the question: is it true? How do we know?”
With all the charges of “fake news” and media distrust, it turns out the methods for determining credibility and levels of truthfulness from various information sources hasn’t changed that much and most people know about it to one degree or another. My recommendation to watch the documentary carried with it the caveat it was controversial. But I do think it is true, and toward the end, I explain why.
Most can discern when information supplied to us is trustworthy and true. Few people equate their doctor’s prescription for a new medication to an Internet video hawking a miraculous supplement. We know now research studies underwritten by tobacco companies “proving cigarettes were highly valuable digestive aids and safe,” were lies. Educated people naturally consider the sources of the data to judge the degree of trust it should be given.
In high school my “sport” was debate. I loved debating, was very competitive and on a team that made it to the state level. Between my junior and senior years of high school I spent two weeks at Michigan State University in a debate training institute. Anyone in debate knew arguments must be supported. The first step in building that support was verifiable facts from trusted sources – encyclopedias, newspapers, magazines, etc. And one’s sources meant something – judges did not score facts gleaned from The Reader’s Digest as high as from The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. Lacking factual support for an argument, you went to the next tier of proof, which was opinion. Sometimes a quote supporting your position from a well-known, highly-educated and credible individual with a trusted position in the topic area could be almost as persuasive as fact. The more and better your sources and quotes supported sound reasoning and logic, the greater your chances of winning.
Another area where I have experience is journalism. Early in my free-lance writing experience, my work was subjected to fact checkers. Wow, what an experience! These professionals walked me through my piece sentence by sentence, challenging everything I’d written, asking over and over again, how did I know the truth of what was on the page, did I have more than one source, what were the sources, and so on. Not all writers are trained journalists following ethical standards and not all magazines demand it, though a great many do. Dan Gillmor wrote for the San Jose Mercury News during the part of my career when I was starting companies in the Bay Area. His articles were universally prized and hard to get. Meeting him once at a coffee shop for an interview, I offered to buy his coffee. He said, “No, it isn’t permitted by the newspaper.” In those days, coffee was only $2.00, but he was still not allowed to accept even that. The paper understood a gift, any gratuity, or anything like that could subtly seep in, create familiarity and affect a story. Their reporters had to remain totally unbiased. Years later we became friends and he told me one day, “You know I can’t write about your companies anymore, don’t you?” He went on to explain he considered me a friend and the paper would assign someone else to cover if in the future I believed I might have something newsworthy.
Newspapers and magazines have various levels of ethical reporting and journalistic standards. The very best ones not only make those standards and policies available to the public, but make it absolutely clear to all writers and editors, that violating any of the guidelines can lead to termination. As an example, you can find the standards and ethics for the Washington Post here.
The WSJ and The Washington Post news organizations are widely respected, even though their editorial (opinion pages) hold very different opinions from one another. To their credit, both publications understand the difference between opinion and the facts they gather and report in their news pages and draw distinct lines between them.
At one time, both network and local television stations had newsrooms and viewed themselves as professional journalists. Some still do, but others clearly dedicate the time formerly considered news, to creating stories that attract the most eyeballs and advertising revenue. When these programs began to be disguised as actual journalism, is when television news lost its credibility and became pure entertainment. Today, cable and network television “news-like” content is being produced by people who fall into one of two camps:
Television reporters, writers and anchors who are actual journalists and operate within a well-defined set of standards and ethics, which they have no problem disclosing or talking about. They have no issue correcting mistakes on the air. They have frequently graduated from top schools with advanced degrees, are well-read, articulate and cautious. They tend to work hard on stories, ask interview questions which display deep, expert and thoughtful preparation. They provide highly useful and important context and background to help viewers comprehend a particular story.
Reporters more skilled at story-telling than having a real concern for actual facts. Their goal is high ratings for entertainment. They are often egotistical and shamelessly sensationalist. They have little or no respect for journalistic ethics. They may have a certain view of the world which they frequently share with their audience. They are not above promoting and sometimes even creating unsubstantiated stories with zero fact checking or scenarios they “report,” as if it were “news.” They are rewarded with massive amounts of money because they generate eyeballs/ears which the media entities that employ them turn into dollars.
So, how to you know truth? The easiest and fastest way, look at the source. In the case of the documentary I recommended, it was produced by Alex Gibney, an Oscar-winning documentarian. You don’t win Oscars in the documentary category by making stuff up. His team was careful to site their sources. Since this is about Covid-19, they filmed interviews and reproduced other interviews with attribution from the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and CDC director Robert Redfield and others directly involved. Others they interviewed were the people in charge during the period for which they were reporting. Michael Bowen, who is interviewed extensively for the film, is a republican who voted for Trump and believed in him passionately. Bowen’s life-time of involvement and experience in the medical supply chain business provide highly credible insight into what caused so many deaths in the US.
Beyond this particular film, generally, if you don’t want to be deceived by what appears to be news but really isn’t, follow these guidelines: First, reduce the amount of time you spend with any television programs in category 2 above. Second, read news as reported by news organizations with a documented set of ethical standards and a track record of supporting reporters who write challenging pieces, even when unpopular. And third, read the opinion pages of not only the publications with which you agree, but also read opinions of those who are on the opposite side of where you typically tend to be. Reputable fact-based publications are always careful to label opinions as opinions. They do not peddle opinions as facts.