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What is “Fake News” and How Can You Spot It?

The term “fake news” is getting a lot of attention lately, but what does it really mean?

HealthNewsReview.org evaluates health care journalism, advertising, marketing, public relations and other messages that may influence consumers and provides criteria that consumers can use to evaluate these messages themselves.

Health Talk checked in with publisher and Adjunct Associate Professor in the UMN School of Public Health Gary Schwitzer, about why fake news is a problem, and what news consumers can do about it.

What is fake news?
Fake news implies deliberate deception.  The term fake news is being applied much more broadly to what should more appropriately be called sloppy, incomplete, rushed, careless journalism.  It’s the latter type of news that we’ve seen so much of, with the 5,000+ media reviews and commentaries we’ve published on HealthNewsReview.org.

Wikipedia describes the problem: “Fake news is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation, be it via the traditional news media or via social media, with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. It often employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news-stories in order to increase readership and online sharing.”

By that definition, there are many non-evidence-based unsubstantiated websites that disseminate false health information.  But it’s misleading to call that news because it would be applying the label of “journalism” quite loosely to people who would not be described by most as “journalists.”

The words, definitions and context matter to our comprehension and understanding of the problem. Fake news and sloppy news are different problems with different sources calling for different solutions.

Why is fake news so damaging, particularly when it comes to health news?
Real people may suffer real harm as a result of misleading news and information. It’s also a problem because now anyone can spread misinformation. The democratization of the web brings with it the unfortunate side effect of allowing any snake oil salesperson to spread misinformation.

How do you and your team at HealthNewsReview.org determine what’s real and what’s not in health news?
We do this is by applying ten standardized criteria to the review of news stories and PR news releases that include claims about health care interventions.  A team of independent, industry-free experts applies those criteria to relevant articles. Three reviewers analyze and grade each piece.  Reviews are posted on our site for all to see for free. The reporter or PR professional then gets an email notifying them if they’ve been reviewed.  Here’s an example of a report card (note that two of the criteria are different for news releases than for news stories):

Report Card

We also blog about broader issues in journalism, PR, advertising, marketing and journal publishing practices – anything that might impact the public dialogue about health care.  We are one of a kind in the United States – one of only 2 such sites in the world – and we’re based at the UMN School of Public Health. That should be a source of pride to the University and the community.

You can see stories and press releases that Gary and his team have reviewed on their site, but you can also use these criteria to take a critical look at what you’re reading or watching to determine if it gets a passing grade.

For more information about fake health news, check out HealthNewsReview.org.

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