Can You Believe It?

How to vet a news source

A news stand shows publications with fake headlines.
A misinformation newsstand is seen in midtown Manhattan in October 2018, aiming to educate news consumers about the dangers of disinformation or fake news.
Angela Weiss | AFP via Getty Images 2018

Updated March 5, 2020

This is part of “Can You Believe It?” a series of stories and resources focused on giving you the tools to fight disinformation heading into Election 2020. You can find more resources here. What have you been seeing? Share here.

Anyone who’s the tiniest bit tech-savvy can buy a dot-com domain, build a website that looks like a news organization and post fake news.

Then, they can get a Facebook or Twitter account and use those platforms to spread their message to, potentially, millions of real humans.

How’s a person to cope? Start by asking these five questions of every site you read:

Does the site have writers?

Questionable news sites often use anonymous writers or writers who use pseudonyms. Sometimes, stories have no byline at all. Legitimate news sources rely on accountability, which isn’t possible without a real name.

Can you contact the publication?

If there’s no phone number, address or email attached to a site, it’s likely to be a fraud. Good newsrooms will be accountable to their audience and give ways to contact them.

Some credible news sources, like NPR, have an ombudsman or public editor. Their job is to field and respond to criticism about the news outlet’s approach to reporting. Others will at least have a way to contact the newsroom.

You can also consult NewsGuard, a nonpartisan site that evaluates publications based on their transparency and credibility.

How does the site make money?

Knowing who’s paying for a publication can tell you who it’s accountable to.

Nonprofit media companies like American Public Media, of which MPR News is a part, must disclose their financials annually in a public tax document called a Form 990. Reputable nonprofit news sources will also disclose contributions, grants and corporate sponsorships in annual reports.

Commercial media will show its funding source in the form of advertising. There will be a clear way to inquire about purchasing advertising, like the link on the St. Paul Pioneer Press homepage.

If it’s not evident how the news source makes money, that’s a red flag.

Consider Alpha News — a website that appears to be an online, Minnesota-based local news source. But, as MPR News uncovered in 2015, it’s tied to a prominent Republican donor and his political group.

Does the site have a mission statement or ‘about’ section?

News organizations should explain why they exist. Do they report news? Opinion? A mix of both?

MinnPost’s “About Us” page outlines the types of stories it does, its reporters’ ethical standards and how it accepts commentary pieces. It also discloses major funders and donor statistics.

How does it get information?

Real news sites publish stories that include quotes attributed to real people, cite a variety of sources and stay clear of aggregated news.

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