Think Like a Journalist: How to tell real from fake news

Originally published in 2009 in News Trust, a non-profit news network. Updated March 2020.

People who care about truth differentiate between journalism and media. Journalists report, produce, design and edit news. Media disseminates content via digital technology (i.e. tweets, posts, blogs, video apps, websites, etc.). Reporters and editors adhere to ethical standards. Social media does not.

Journalists have one core responsibility, thanks to America’s founders, especially Ben Franklin, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson: Inform citizens so that they can make intelligent choices in the voting booth. When voters no longer believe what they read, view or hear, they get the governments they deserve. Founders affirmed this tenet in the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

We have a choice, not only in the voting booth, but also what we decide to believe and share on social media. We can embrace lies, exaggerations, half-truths and falsehood, or subscribe (pay something) to access fact-based reports.

According to Forbes magazine, trustworthy outlets include The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, BBC, The Economist, The New Yorker, Associated Press, Reuters, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic and Politico.

By reviewing this pamphlet, you’ll begin to think like a journalist. That’s the first step in restoring truth at home, school and work. You’ll distinguish news from opinion, become familiar with journalism principles and ethics, and sharpen your critical judgment.

Start by viewing this 2016 video (still relevant today) with NBC-affiliate anchor Dan Winters, WHOtv, and Michael Bugeja. (Note: Dr. Bugeja’s title now is distinguished professor of journalism; he no longer directs the Greenlee School.)


The Four Defining Traits (“Four Ds”) of Journalism

The best way to learn news literacy is to think like a journalist.

Reporters have distinct traits that either led them to the profession or that they developed while doing journalism.

The “Four Ds”–defining tenets–exemplify these qualities:

  1. Doubt — a healthy skepticism that questions what you hear, view or read.
  2. Detect — a “nose for news” and relentless pursuit of facts and accuracy. 
  3. Discern — a priority for fairness, balance and objectivity in reporting.
  4. Demand — a focus on free access to information and First Amendment principles.

Doubt — Don’t automatically believe everything you view, hear or see.

If you have studied or practiced journalism, you’re probably reading this to see where, if at all, this guide goes astray. That’s part of a journalist’s profile—a healthy skepticism that questions everything, including issues in which they fervently believe.

Reporters who lack skepticism are easily hoaxed or manipulated. A hoax is a bogus story meant to embarrass the journalist and his or her media outlet. The popular phrase for hoax is “fake news.”

There is nothing new about fake news. Media manipulation has existed since Colonial times in America. The new element, however, is the decline of fact-based journalism to balance the impact of fake news and the omnipresent prevalence of social media, which treats each post according to the platform’s algorithms. As such, we are inundated with false reports.

On what do fake news and hoaxes depend? Answer: Your deeply held beliefs, convictions, fears and desires.

Think about something in which you passionately believe—the truth about climate change, pro-life vs. pro-choice, liberals vs. conservatives—and then imagine a tipster confirming your worst suspicions.

A non-journalist might take the bait, praising the font of fake news; however, a seasoned reporter would interrogate the source knowing how dissemination of false information not only undermines his or her credibility, but that of the entire media outlet.

To think like a journalist, ask yourself:

  • Do I seek information or affirmation?
  • Are my beliefs, convictions, fears or desires coloring how I see a topic?
  • What is the difference between skepticism and pessimism?

Detect — Relentlessly pursue the truth to discover the “big picture.”

Journalists have a “nose for news.” They hunt down stories. They follow up on all tips and leads. They are relentless when pursuing the truth.

Reporters share a lot of character traits with detectives who assemble a puzzle piece by piece, or fact by fact, until they see the “big picture.”

Reporters also pursue sources as detectives pursue suspects, giving them their day in court—the court of public opinion, that is.

Of course, not all sources are suspects. Those who aren’t should be expert witnesses because they are either authorities on a topic or have experienced an event first-hand.

To think like a journalist, ask yourself:

  • How can I use the Internet like a detective in verifying assertions?
  • What is the difference between verification in news and assertion in a post?
  • Does the public have a right to know the news that affects or afflicts them?

Discern — Think critically to find a fair balance.

Journalists think critically. They often tell sources that they will contact them again with more questions about a topic or event.

Meanwhile, they are discerning how to balance a story so that it is fair to all parties. They want their stories to be balanced so that their reports are as objective as possible.

Let’s define those terms:

  • Fairness means making sure all viewpoints are included in a story. Reporters discern which viewpoints are more important than others in conveying the truth about a topic or event. If some facts detract from that truth, or are unfair, ethical journalists leave them out or call them out, correcting misstatements.
  • Balance doesn’t mean getting two equal sides of a story. It means discerning which side is more accurate and then gathering facts to make that case by detecting motives of sources and getting expert opinion to support or refute them.
  • Objectivity means seeing the world as it is, not as the reporter or reader would like it to be.  Reporters discern whether they have any biases that might taint a story and, if so, how they might adjust for that when filing a report.

Did you know that the Columbia Journalism Review prefers Dr. Bugeja’s definition of objectivity above others?

To think like a journalist, ask yourself:

  • How do I feel when viewing news that omits a viewpoint or hypes another?
  • Is the news or opinion politically or personally motivated, slanting truth to manipulate rather than inform?
  • When I see a “hole” in a story missing viewpoints or sources how can I fill it with facts using online resources?

Demand — Uphold and protect the free flow of information.

The best reporters make demands—on themselves and others.

The most basic demand is for freedom of information. Reporters believe if taxpayers fund a project or function, citizens should have access to details and documents. They believe that when elected politicians meet, the public should be informed in advance, an agenda should be provided, minutes should be taken, and time for public testimony allotted.

You don’t need to be a journalist to file a freedom of information request. Click here to see the process.

Journalists demand that their and citizens’ Constitutional rights are protected, especially the five freedoms of the First Amendment: speech, press, religion, petition and assembly.

The best journalists demand high ethical standards in their own work and in that of others associated with such topics as:

  • Plagiarism (passing off someone else’s work as their own). Invention (fabricating data and quotations in a story). Both are firing offenses in journalism. Not so in social media.
  • Good taste (deleting offensive language, slurs and stereotypes from reports). Editors spend hours on some reports, deciding what to disseminate. Not so in social media.
  • Conflicts of interest (reporting on issues for personal gain). Another firing offense in journalism. Not so in social media.
  • The common good (doing the least harm). Editors decide what to share to protect innocent others. Not so in social media.

To think like a journalist, ask yourself:

  • What are the rights in the Bill of Rights?
  • How does freedom of information ensure transparency?
  • What role do media ethics play in ensuring quality journalism?

News vs. Opinion

Now that you are thinking like a journalist, one more thing to keep in mind is the difference between news and opinion:

  • News  informs. Opinion persuades.
  • News is based on multiple  viewpoints. Opinion is based on singular viewpoints.
  • News believes the facts speak for themselves. Opinion believes informed arguments do.
  • News is objective and impersonal. Opinion is subjective and personal.

News formats include:

  • News Report — disseminating facts the public needs to know.
  • News Analysis — interpreting issues and events objectively and impersonally.
  • Special Report — focusing in-depth on an issue, newsmaker or event.
  • Breaking News — covering news events as they happen.
  • Investigative Reporting — disclosing data, documents, and testimony.
  • Poll — surveying the public about issues, newsmakers, attitudes and events.

Opinion formats include:

  • Opinion — a stance about an issue, newsmaker or event.
  • Editorial — the voice of an entire publication, such as a newspaper or television station.
  • Interview — questions and answers featuring a newsmaker or source.
  • Speech — spoken remarks by a newsmaker or source.
  • Comment — statement or post about issues, newsmakers, attitudes and events.

Remember to think like a journalist — so you can make more informed decisions as a citizen. Call out false statements or information on social media and direct friends and family to a trusted news source. Consider learning more about journalism and technology so that you can be a conscientious news consumer.

Michael Bugeja, distinguished professor of journalism at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, is the author of Living Media Ethics (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine (Oxford Univ. Press)

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