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Is fact-checking ‘fake news’ a waste of time?

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A new study suggests that fact-checking has little influence on what online news media covers, and fact-checks of false news stories spreading online—”fake news”—may use up resources newsrooms could better use covering substantive stories.

“Faculty and students have been agonizing recently about the emergence of fake news—false information packaged to deceive the public into thinking it was produced by professionals with respect for truth,” notes Thomas Fiedler, dean of the Boston University College of Communication, in his spring 2017 COMtalk column.

Another interested consumer of news—Barack Obama—described the new media landscape to New Yorker editor David Remnick last year: “Everything is true and nothing is true. An explanation of climate change from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist looks exactly the same on your Facebook page as the denial of climate change by somebody on the Koch brothers’ payroll.”

fact-checking articles vs. fake news stories

The number of fake news stories and fact-checking articles by month (2014-2016). (Credit: C. J. Vargo, L. Guo, & M. A. Amazeen)

And fake stories, like cockroaches, tend to keep coming back. As Jim Rutenberg put it in his New York Times “Mediator” column: “Fake news dies hard.”

What to do about it: educate the public, convene scholars and journalists, set out to systematically identify and refute fake news? Those questions are the talk of campuses, think tanks, and newsrooms around the globe.

Two communications professors are doing their part to find the answers. Michelle Amazeen, an assistant professor of mass communication, advertising, and public relations, and Lei Guo, an assistant professor of emerging media studies, have analyzed three years of data on fake news and come up with some surprising findings, which appear in New Media & Society.

Their study, which uses computational modeling to examine the relationship between fake news and online news media, investigated the impact on online news media of seven fact-checking sites, PolitiFact.com, FactCheck.org, Snopes, Climate Feedback, Gossip Cop, Health News Review, and Wafflesatnoon.com.

Amazeen and Guo say more research is needed, and they caution that while their study measured the extent that fake news dictates part of the agenda for online media, it did not attempt to separate the chaff (fake news stories that went unquestioned and got repeated and circulated) from the wheat (stories that tested or refuted the fakery).

Their point: taken together, all those stories tied up a remarkable amount of news media resources that could have been devoted to other important issues.


This text is published here under a Creative Commons License.
Author: Sara Rimer-Boston University
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