I’m convinced the only surefire way to guard against “fake news” is to avoid all news.
That’s hardly an option for those living in a free society, blessed with the right to confront our government in person or at the ballot box.
Used to be, you could check a few news sources to assemble an accurate picture of the world. But today, there are thousands of sources offering wildly different and distorted perspectives on current events.
Used to be, you could trust your eyes or your ears. But today, technology has advanced to the level that video and audio can be manipulated.
But how does one sort through the flotsam?
News is an important element in navigating life. It alerts you of danger, tracks your tax dollars, challenges your beliefs. It introduces you to people and ideas you should know.
With this in mind, I have developed a beginners’ approach to spotting information scams that pose as news.
First, familiarize yourself with hyperbole.
Hyperbole is any exaggeration not meant to be taken literally.
The best examples I’ve found in today’s media are in sports headlines, and that is where you should begin:
“Urban Meyer getting crushed over pre-game comments.”
First of all, who cares?
Second, really? Is there anything a college football coach says that would get him “crushed?”
Third, go ahead and call up the story; you’ll learn it’s not much of a story.
Over the past week, I’ve seen five articles about five different sports figures who “are getting crushed” for something or other. Despite the “crushing,” all still have jobs paying them upwards of seven figures.
Another tipoff is the term “going viral.” If you see a headline declaring something is “going viral,” avoid it unless you have a taste for the mundane. Most times, the remarks or videos that are “going viral” are as provocative as a straw mattress.
Here’s another important, yet oddly sinister, example of headlines that tip you off the story isn’t worth your time:
“Five-star quarterback rejects major college offer.”
This is not so much inaccurate as it is irretrievably vague. It’s vague on purpose. It’s vague because the news service wants you to click on the story to find out which athlete rejected an offer from which school.
I see more and more of this sort of vagueness across most of the upstart news services. Used to be, copy editors were obligated to pack that information into the headline. Today, headlines are intentionally obscure.
Chances are, you could visit Sports Illustrated, ESPN or the Sporting News and get sound information in their headlines. No tricks, no gimmicks.
Time was, copy editors were encouraged to get as much information into a headline as possible — and do it concisely. The shorter, the better.
One light-hearted exercise prevalent in copy editing circles back then was to write the best, short headline in history about a real or fictional event — a headline that told the story but was short enough to fit across the top of the page in large, screaming letters.
The best I ever saw was: “Pope elopes.”
It’s sad to see sports writing fall prey to this ploy, manipulating readers into following a path to nowhere. Over the years, sports writers have provided some of the best prose in literature, clever, witty and full of Americana.
Witness one of the greatest sports headlines in history.
It appeared after a November 1968 football game between Harvard and Yale. Both teams entered with 8-0 records, but Yale wasted no time proving its dominance, stifling the Crimson through all but the tiniest sliver of four quarters.
Trailing by 16 points with 42 seconds remaining, Harvard scored two touchdowns with 2-point conversions to end the contest in a tie.
Yale was crestfallen. Harvard was ecstatic.
The next day, some wordsmith on the copy desk at the Harvard Crimson newspaper summed it up best: “Harvard beats Yale, 29-29.”
Now that’s a headline!