Author’s note: This blog post is part of a multi-week assignment for students taking my introduction to marine biology course at Arizona State University, and also part of an exercise in my professional development training workshops on communicating science to the popular press. I am sharing the background information publicly because I believe it’s a topic that is of broad interest.
The internet in general and social media specifically have made it easier than ever before in human history for experts to share information relevant to their area of expertise with the interested public, with journalists, and with policymakers. Unfortunately, these same communications tools have also made it easier than ever before in human history for misinformation to be widely shared. When wrong information goes viral, it can lead to
the destruction of democracy and civilization as we know it people believing factually incorrect things about fish.
Therefore, it’s important for
anyone and everyone who cares about the future of democracy and civilization as we know it my marine biology students and media training workshop participants to be aware of how to find reliable and accurate news, and how to spot misleading or inaccurate news. If you can do this effectively, you may well save democracy and civilization as we know it do well in my course.
Something need not be actual “fake news,” a term we should consider using less because it’s become politically charged to the point that it’s nearly meaningless and people don’t hear what you actually mean to say, to be inaccurate and problematic. There are many different ways that a news article can be biased, misleading, and/or wrong.
First, I’ll go through some elements of a reliable, accurate science or environment news story. Then I’ll go through red flags of inaccurate, problematic news stories. Throughout, I’ll highlight representative examples. (Students, after reading this you’ll be assigned some articles to look for these elements and red flags in).
Elements of a reliable, accurate science or environment news story
Ideally, a reliable, accurate science news story should contain most or all of the following elements.
–Cited sources. You should be able to find out the source of the information they’re reporting and check it out yourself, sometimes in the form of links. Typically, for science and environment news, this should be a peer-reviewed scientific journal article, a government agency report, or a reputable environmental non-profit report. If it just says something vague like “scientists say” or “according to experts” without saying which scientists or which experts, that’s a red flag.
–Interviewed experts. The article should include a quote from a qualified, credentialed expert. Ideally, the article should quote a qualified, credentialed expert who was not part of the study or project the article is about (in addition to, not instead of, quoting someone directly involved). Sometimes people try and trick journalists and their readers by making up titles and affiliations and important-sounding organization names, but usually someone who is not a qualified, credentialed expert does not try to hide this. One egregious example of this is when there are news stories about unusual shark behavior and the article quotes a self-identified “shark enthusiast,” (i.e., someone who has no qualifications or credentials but thinks sharks are neat, students, I promise not all my examples will be sharks). You can easily check who these experts are with a quick Google search, which may also turn up any red flags about their reliability or accuracy. Another frequent problem with this comes from coverage of the “Ocean Cleanup,” supposedly a solution to saving the Earth from plastic pollution… articles about it only quote people associated with the project and not independent experts in plastic pollution. This is not surprising, I’ve been looking for years for an independent expert in plastic pollution who thinks the Ocean Cleanup is a good idea and I have not found any, I have found many experts who think it’s a terrible idea and have never been asked by a journalist covering the story.
-Information that isn’t preposterous and against all known laws of physics and biology. Every once in a while there’s a major paradigm-shifting breakthrough, but most science is incremental in nature and follows well-known well-established laws of how the universe works that aren’t likely to be overturned. Such a breakthrough should be appropriately framed as a major breakthrough and should include a LOT of evidence and big-deal experts. If there’s something preposterous or incredible that’s treated as ho-hum everyday news, that’s a red flag that it’s unreliable. Sometimes straight-up made-up misleading nonsense gets through, as with claims that the Megalodon shark is not extinct that were lies made up by Shark Week that were presented as “WOW this is AMAZING and here is EVIDENCE,” but the evidence was fake.
–Published in a reputable outlet, and confirmed in others. If the news outlet is one that you’ve heard of and has a reputation for doing real, thorough, accurate news, that’s a good sign that an individual story is accurate. (If the news outlet has a reputation for nonsense or has a goofy name you’ve never heard of, that’s a red flag). If the news story is real, and you do a quick Google search for that topic, it should return multiple reputable news outlets also covering that same story in generally the same way. (If no one else in the whole world has ever written about this topic, that’s a bad sign for the accuracy of your story). While this is no guarantee of anything (reputable news outlets get it wrong sometimes, news outlets you’ve never heard of break real stories sometimes,) it’s a good sign and a good thing to check.
(NOTE: if you’re new to science or environment journalism, you may be unfamiliar with what counts as an outlet that has a good reputation for doing real, thorough, accurate news, or news outlets that have reputations for nonsense. At the bottom of this post you can find a brief list to get you started).
–Original reporting (not just reprinting a press release). When a new peer-reviewed scientific journal article is published, it is often accompanies by a press release, a document that summarizes key elements of the paper with the aim of getting journalists to want to write about the paper. In the Before Time prior to the internet, members of the non-expert public would rarely or never see these press releases, they’d only see the resulting newspaper article. Lately, these press releases are widely shared, and many people wrongly believe that they are media coverage. They are not, they were written by the scientist’s employer’s PR team to make the employer look cool and important. (Example: One of my peer-reviewed articles, a press release about it, some great resulting media coverage.)A good press release should be a good summary that is factually accurate (just because a press release’s purpose is to make something look cool and imortant doesn’t mean that it isn’t really cool and important), but even so they are highlighting the good stuff and downplaying any issues. A bad press release tries so hard to make a paper sound cool and important that it says things that are misleading or wrong. This document should be easy to identify, they often say “PRESS RELEASE” or “RELEASE: FOR IMMEDIATE DISTRIBUTION” or something on them, though some “news” sites just reprint press releases word for word. Also, ScienceDaily and PhysOrg are press release aggregators, literally everything you can find on those sites is a press release. Press releases should generally not be shared as news, if they result in a thorough, thoughtful piece of journalism that includes all these other elements you can share that as news…and thorough readers will often notice important differences between what a press release says and what the resulting media article says.
–Context. A story should place the new bit of information you’re learning about into broader context. How does this new piece of information build on or challenge what we/scientists already knew? How bad is it, how good is it, how important is it, etc., noting that most things are not the worst/best/most important thing ever. Absence of context makes it more likely that a story will be misinterpreted and misunderstood even if the journalist wasn’t trying to trick anyone.
–Not debunked by a reliable fact checker. The rise of misleading information has led to the rise of the fact-checker. If you google a topic to determine if other reliable news outlets have covered it, you may uncover that a fact checker or expert-written science or environment blog has debunked it.
Some red flags to be aware of (in addition to the ones mentioned above):
–Satire. Some news is indeed made up, but by people trying to be funny, not by people trying to maliciously trick anyone. A well-known example of this style of news is the Onion, but there are many. One that I see people share from a lot is World News Daily Report; a claim that a 3,000 pound great white shark was captured in Lake Michigan after killing hundreds of people was shared on Facebook hundreds of thousands of times, largely by people who thought it was real. To be clear, this did not happen, like, at all. Great white sharks do not and cannot live in lakes, no shark of any kind was caught in Lake Michigan. But the authors aren’t trying to trick you, they’re trying to make you laugh. (This was a separate incident from the time that Shark Week producers faked footage of a shark in the Great Lakes to terrify people and get them to watch Shark Week, which was a very dumb thing for them to do.) Anyway you shouldn’t treat satire as if it is an accurate reporting of a real thing that happened.
-Ideology. Straight-up made-up wrong information designed to mislead often comes from people or outlets with a particularly extreme political ideology, and this phenomenon is much, much, much more common on the far right than on the far left. News outlets associated with an extreme political ideology are unlikely to accurately report a news story. Mainstream popular press outlets or science/environment focused outlets are much more likely to be reliable sources of information than extreme political blogs or “news” sites, as well as extremist pseudoscience lifestyle sites like NaturalNews or Goop.
–False Balance. This is less of a problem these days but was an issue in climate change coverage in the 1990s and early 2000s. Basically, false balance is a commitment to present both sides of the story equally when one side is true and supported by overwhelming evidence and the other isn’t.
–Overly human-like animal behavior. Wild animals are not humans. They have different behaviors and we don’t always know what the mean. Be wary of a popular press outlet claiming that a wild animal is doing something for a specific human-like reason For example, no, that beluga that went viral in late 2019 was not playing with humans because it just likes to play, it was a captive trained animal that escaped and associated humans with food (and doing tricks for humans as a way to get food). The Dodo is infamous for this. I follow the Dodo for cute doggo pictures and literally nothign else.
–Old/Out of Date Information. Articles include a publication date. For some reason, old articles often go viral, and the information contained within them is no longer accurate or relevant, even if it was the first time.
–Sky is falling exaggeration without appropriate evidence. Sometimes, things really are horrifically bad. When that’s the case, there’s no shortage of evidence and credible experts supporting the claim. An article that makes a dramatic claim without providing reputable evidence and credible experts in support of their claim is suspect. One recent high-profile example of this was a claim that wildfires in Australia made koalas go functionally extinct, which was one of the most widely-shared sicence articles on Facebook in 2019. It wasn’t true, as I documented in American Scientist. In the ocean world, the claim that we’ll have no fish in the ocean by 2048 has long been debunked but is still shared.
–Absence of quotes from credentialed experts. We see this a lot in “no one knows what happened here” or “no one knows what kind of animal this is” type stories, which are stories that tend to be spread far and wide because of the perceived mystery. Actually, lots of credentialed experts know exactly what’s going on, you just didn’t ask any of them.
–Questionable methods that aren’t clearly explained. One example of this is widely-reported rates of “seafood fraud,” when a particular fish for sale at a market isn’t what the people selling it say it is. The non-profit who does these tests has done us a great service by bringing this important issue to the world’s attention, but they aren’t doing random sampling of fishes at the market, they’re focusing on fishes that are known to have a high rate of mislabeling and fraud…which means overall the problem is much, much less bad than it is sometimes presented as. (To be clear, it’s perfectly reasonable for an NGO to focus efforts on the biggest part of the problem, you just can’t then claim that results are broadly applicable across all seafood).
“The first” and “new discoveries.” Sometimes a well-known thing is “discovered for the first time,” according to certian media outlets. Sometimes somethings that’s been widely studied for decades is “newly studied” or “the first to look at a problem.” One recent example of this as the “new discovery” of a coral reef at the base of the Amazon River, which had of course been known for decades.
There are people in this world who are actively trying to spread misinformation to improve their own chances of gaining power–that’s a fact. Arming yourself with basic media literacy skills knowledge can help prevent you from being tricked, and
can help ensure the survival of democracy and civilization as we know it make sure that you know correct things about fish.
Media literacy is a complex subject, the people trying to spread misinformation are very good at what they do, and this is only the briefest of introductions. However, keeping these elements of reliable journalism and red flags in mind can help you from getting fooled and maniuplated, and help you to learn some amazing things from reputable information sources. And while the examples here focus on science and environment topics, some of the principles are more broadly applicable.
An incomplete list of outlets with good reputations
Science-focused outlets with good reputations include National Geographic, Scientific American, Hakai Magazine, WIRED, Popular Science, American Scientist, and New Scientist.
Mainstream media outlets that generally do a good job covering science and environment stories include the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, the Miami Herald, NPR.
An incomplete list of outlets with bad reputations
Relatively widely-shared media outlets that have questionable reputations with science and environment stories include Mashable, the Dodo (mostly about overly human-like behavior), Huffington Post (which does publish some great stuff but also lots of garbage), LiveScience, ScienceAlert, the Daily Mail.
Want to learn more about spotting reliable vs. unreliable news?
Here are some basic introductory links from sources I trust.