How to fight misinformation and build a stronger democracy

by David Hiller

It was easier to figure out what news sources to trust when I was growing up in Chicago. You could read the Chicago Tribune or the Sun-Times. (I rode along on my brother’s newspaper routes.) You could watch the local news on WGN-Ch. 9 or tune into one of the network news channels. Newspapers published their opinions on the editorial pages or in clearly labeled commentaries, and all worked to get their facts right.

But now? Think about how we consume news in our digital age: largely through our individual screens, from fragmented sources across social media. Think about the young people in your life. Where do they get their news? How do they know where to turn for information they can trust?

We are facing a news literacy crisis. We are awash in content, from promoted posts, to user-generated videos and punditry meant to persuade rather than inform. Misinformation and disinformation lurk everywhere, helped along by bots, trolls and artificial intelligence and promoted by foreign agents. And too often, such content gets a boost from Americans who should know better.

As all this questionable content proliferates, local newspapers close at a rate of more than two per week.

In this information world, it has become exceedingly difficult to find credible news — the vetted facts that we all need to make informed decisions about our lives and communities that are the foundation of our democracy. Without the ability to find reliable information and verifiable facts, public trust in our institutions continues to fall.

Rather than throw up our hands and give in to cynicism, we can do something to separate fact from fiction.

This week is National News Literacy Week, an annual event aimed at providing people with the tools and skills they need to find credible news and information. Cosponsored by the nonprofit News Literacy Project, the week is a reminder of the importance of news literacy for everyone, especially the next generation. The idea is to spark a national movement for news literacy, much like previous campaigns against drunken driving or littering. We can — and we must — build a more news-literate America.

Being news literate means knowing how to think about the news and information we encounter, so we know what to trust, share and act on. We all need to get smarter about how we consume news and information, no matter our age. We can start with three easy steps.

1. Be intentional about the information you consume. This means actively seeking out news sources, rather than passively hoping that standards-based news stories will find their way into your feeds. It also means turning to a variety of sources — even those that might challenge our beliefs — rather than falling into echo chambers.

2. Take the time to analyze the information in your feeds. Simply pausing to consider whether a claim is true before hitting “share” on a post can stop misinformation before it has a chance to spread. Simply being skeptical of claims that don’t link back to an original source — a common misinformation tactic — can help prevent you from falling for false information.

3. Act as a trusted intermediary in your networks. Sharing information often provides people with a sense of belonging and validation of their beliefs. In an era of declining trust in traditional news media, leverage your personal relationships to spread reliable information. This will require using PEP — patience, empathy and persistence — in conversations with your family and friends.

We will never stop the supply of bad information. There will always be new sources that create and spread it and algorithms that promote it. Instead, we must fix the demand side and ensure that everyone has the skills they need to separate fact from fiction and seek out quality news and information.

To give verifiable facts a fighting chance, we all need the knowledge to make well-informed choices.

David Hiller, a former publisher of the Chicago Tribune, is a member of the News Literacy Project’s National Journalism Advisory Council.