The Big Story: Fake News 101

Story by Mary Gallagher
Nearly a quarter of Americans have passed along a fake news story—or a story they later learned was fake—according to a survey a year ago by the Pew Research Center.

In WWU Associate Journalism Professor Maria McLeod’s Introduction to Mass Media class, students learn how to not be one of them.

McLeod encourages her students to realize that media messages have the power to shape our beliefs and biases, so they deserve a healthy dose of skepticism.

“Becoming media literate is not so much a fixed state, but a constant and consistent attempt to be vigilant and critical of media messages,” she says.

Here are some questions McLeod suggests we should all ask before we click “share”:

Who’s the author and what qualifies them to be an expert? Go to the original website that published the story and learn more. Awkward design and spelling errors are a clue, of course, but do the other stories seem legit? Look for an “about” section to learn who sponsors the site. Check out the original date of the story’s publication—it could have a totally different meaning in current context. Find the author on LinkedIn, Twitter or elsewhere and see what other stories they have written—and for which news organizations.

Are you looking at what you think you’re looking at? Sometimes fake news hijacks authentic elements to appear more believable. Last year, the details of a real Skagit Valley Herald story about an accidental shooting were mashed up into a racist, viral yarn about a “thug” who shot himself while “taking an anti-Trump selfie.” If a photo is used with a suspicious-looking story, search for the image and see if it’s been taken out of context. And watch out for look-alike URLs that are very similar to those that belong to authentic news sites. When in doubt, see if the story has been debunked on a reputable fact-checking website such as, or

Why are you seeing this? Remember that social media platforms and websites gather an extraordinary amount of personal information on users, and that information can be used to target readers with messages designed for maximum emotional impact and manipulation. Break out of your own bubble by following reputable sources that provide diverse perspectives.

Are you making it worse? Sharing a false news story in hopes of exposing the lie can actually backfire, according to a study from the Annenburg Public Policy Center. Repeating misinformation, even to discredit it, can help spread fake news. Instead, share new, credible information.  

is editor of Window magazine