news reports may be skewed—deliberately or not—to satisfy their advertisers, their audience, or their shareholders. Reporters may put opinions before facts. They may play up only one aspect of the story while downplaying the rest. And news that might offend audiences may be ignored altogether.
It used to be a lot easier to tell truth from error—at least when it came to news media. Tabloids—like Weekly World News and the National Enquirer—with sensational headlines and outlandish articles weren’t taken seriously. “Hilary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby” wasn’t fooling anyone. The line between fake news and real news was a lot clearer. But something changed.
Over time, the primary objective of journalism subtly shifted from informing to entertaining. News sources—like CNN, The New York Times, Fox News, and The Wall Street Journal—rely on big audiences because big audiences bring in big advertising dollars. In The Power of Critical Thinking, philosophers Chris MacDonald and Lewis Vaughn write:
After all, news outlets—whether print, electronic, or online—are businesses with profit margins to maintain, salaries to pay, and shareholders to please. A news organization makes most of its money not from selling its product (news) through subscriptions or direct sales but from selling opportunities for other companies to advertise to the news outlet’s audience.
Consequently, news reports may be skewed—deliberately or not—to satisfy their advertisers, their audience, or their shareholders. Reporters may put opinions before facts. They may play up only one aspect of the story while downplaying the rest. And news that might offend audiences may be ignored altogether.
Given the current state of news reporting, how do we decipher truth from falsehood? I think some critical thinking will help.
Here are three steps we can take to avoid being fooled by fake news.
1. Beware of bias.
Everyone comes to a news report with a set of prior beliefs or opinions. Some of those beliefs are grounded in sufficient reasons; others aren’t. Incidentally, many of us hold beliefs we absorbed from the culture or inherited from our family without sufficient evidence. These prior beliefs cause us to form judgments or opinions before looking at the facts. And if we’re not careful, these biases can create blind spots in our thinking.
Furthermore, we all have a particular view of the world—a worldview. Our worldview shapes our beliefs about how the world is and how it ought to be. This can also affect how we filter news reports—for good or for ill. If our worldview is accurate—matching reality—then it may help us see with more clarity. However, if our worldview is mistaken, it may blind us to the truth.