By Sue Cross, executive director and CEO | Institute for Nonprofit News
We’re awash this year in a sea of propaganda and misinformation. Fake news sites, false reports, news-like stories selected and spun not to make us smarter, but to make us hate, to steer us toward supporting someone else’s cause.
Recent reports sound a tsunami alert to the rising tide of the fake and the false. According to The New York Times, at least 1,300 political propaganda sites have sprung up — mimicking local news but serving up spin directed by PR and political operatives far from the hometowns named on their front pages — while false reports written in Spanish are flooding social media to pit Latinos and Blacks against each other. Facebook fiddled with the algorithms that determine what you get to see in your news feed, boosting conservative news and diminishing progressive sources, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. As private social media companies become censors of our public dialogue, the Economist reports, conservatives also fear being muzzled.
Fortunately, we are not powerless against misinformation or the manipulation of our news choices.
As consumers, we have the ultimate defense: credible news. We can find real news, follow it and support it.
The good options are growing. We’re entering a golden age of grassroots, public service journalism. More than 300 nonprofit, nonpartisan news sites cover the U.S., beholden to no one but the people they report for, responsible for public service rather than profit. Individuals giving small amounts to support these newsrooms generated more than $100 million for them over the last four years through the annual NewsMatch campaign, the largest grassroots campaign for news.
This is news for the people, with the people.
If that sounds patriotic, it is.
Finding and supporting real news is kind of like voting: it’s one of the best ways each of us can support our own individual rights and pull our country and communities together. Where there is news, research has found the politics are less polarized, government finances stay out of debt, more people run for office, more of us vote. Our right to free speech is upheld, our governments are held accountable.
It’s not hard to find real news and make your own choices about it. If you want to dig deeper, The Trust Project, NewsGuard and all kinds of news literacy how-tos are online to help you. But three simple steps will take you a long way.
- Go to the source. When you go directly to a news site, you’re making your own news choices rather than being steered by social media or search engines that often manipulate your news consumption to make more money. Seek out the news sites you’ve come to trust, that cover your community or interest area. Go directly to their websites or mobile apps, sign up for their newsletters. Going direct also supports the coverage you value, much more than reading it on third-party sites.
- Click through. Chances are, you’re still likely to come across a lot of news pushed to you on search and social platforms and apps. But however news finds you — Facebook, Twitter, Google, TikTok — click through! Get to the story’s original source whenever you can. Be skeptical that you’re getting a good selection of news served up to you on any platform.
- Know the donors and owners. You should be able to easily identify any news site’s donors or owners — usually in an “About” link. Most news nonprofits list major donors or funders on their site or link to a 990 tax form listing them. The nonprofits don’t have “owners” but operate as trusts for public good. Commercial sites should make it easy to see who or what company owns the news site, and from that you usually can tell if a local site is locally run. News sites that list their donors, their board and executives, reporters’ and editors’ bios are even more trustworthy. That transparency says a lot about their commitment to making sure you can know who funds and produces their news.
These steps aren’t full-proof, but they go a long way to helping find news we can trust.
Misinformation has been with us a long time. “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after,” the great editor Jonathan Swift wrote. That was in 1710.
Misinformation also isn’t going away, but we have a great defense: real news.
Sue Cross is executive director and CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a network of more than 300 news sites across North America, and a partner in NewsMatch, which runs November 1 — December 31.