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Don't accept until you check

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| April 2, 2024 1:00 AM

Opinion is meaningless if it isn’t based on fact.

Worse, when its premise is false or lacks relevant facts, an opinion can do serious damage.

We all have the right to passionate opinions, even when poorly informed. Yet when we act on them, we create harm to others, to society or to ourselves. 

False or misinformation treated as fact has not only reinforced a polarized society (here and across the globe), it has ended relationships, impacted voting choices and continues to create bad laws.

That’s how our widely misinformed opinions — however innocent — change lives, potentially for generations.

One simple step can change this, and it’s incumbent on each of us to try: Fact-checking. Today is International Fact-Checking Day. 

Jointly created by the International Fact-Checking Network and similar organizations around the world, Fact-Checking Day promotes accuracy and truth in journalism, public health and other arenas, as well as everyday life.  

Imagine a society in which everyone had the same, verified facts. How much more efficient we could be when we inevitably disagree? 

Resolving problems would be made so much easier if the confirmed facts underlying the premises of argument were known by all sides. In essence, we’d be speaking the same fact-language. Without a common platform for communication, we just spin our wheels.

Today’s world is a vast sea of data, both filtered and unfiltered and without an easy means to tell the difference. With information less trustworthy, even formerly trusted official or media sources become less trustworthy to a larger segment of society.

Without fact-checking, there is little or nothing to filter out bias, fiction and error. Passions are inflamed. We share it, act on it and pressure our public officers to do the same with a righteous indignation tragically based on falsehood.

That’s no good for anyone, but let’s be realistic: Few have the time or inclination to spend much time researching everything we read or see on TV. The thing is, it doesn’t actually take more than a few minutes, once you develop the habit of fact-checking before sharing. Or more importantly, before concluding.

Here’s a DIY checklist, developed by professional fact-checkers:

Scan for basics: Note names, dates, references and locations. What quotes stood out for you — is that what they actually said (hint: it could be misquoted or taken out of context, so find the original)? Is that what the report or study actually says, or has it been misrepresented (or not fully reported)?  

Check credentials and sources: Who originally said or wrote it? Does the person or group have relevant experience and education to back up claims; are they well respected by others or largely discredited with minority views? If you don’t know, try a quick Google or LinkedIn search with the name and scan the results.

About us: Click this tab on relevant referenced websites to learn more about sources, and potential bias, and to see if they’re neutral or if they exist to prove something specific. If the latter, it doesn’t mean what they say is wrong, but it does mean you’ll need to verify with a neutral source.

Look for bias hints: We all have bias. What sets apart neutral reporting is being aware and careful about how information is presented. Word choice is a big hint and the presence or absence of opposing arguments/conflicting data. Are there many adjectives, or just straight fact reporting? Does it tug at your emotions, seem egregious or outrageous? Does it include unnecessary labels, political or otherwise? When there’s more than one side (not just reporting an event), is another viewpoint presented?

Investigate before concluding: It can be very tempting to form emotional opinions after reading or hearing one thing, but it’s unwise. There’s always more to a story, so it’s essential to consult multiple sources (never from the same list or recommended by one source). A well-informed perspective can’t come from only one direction.

Sensational isn’t factual. These days, moral outrage is a big red flag. Sensational claims or wording is meant to convince, not inform. Provocative headings, unnecessary capitals and exclamation points merit skepticism.

Facts stand on their own. They don’t need dressing up.

Check the causal logic. Finally, rely on well-informed foundations for your logic. This means sifting opinion/conclusion from factual building blocks. 

What underlying point do they start with (verify)? Does the chronology make sense? Is anything assumed or unproven to take next “if-then-therefore” logic steps toward a conclusion? Ask yourself if each point is backed up by evidence, and is necessarily caused by the previous one, or if another cause could be at play.  

If all that sounds like a lot, it really isn’t. It all quickly becomes a habit, and thanks to search engines, verifying is generally fast especially after you get familiar with relevant neutral sources (email me if you need help finding those).

Want to shortcut all this to quickly check a specific claim you saw online? Three sites have been independently verified as neutral and reliable:

Snopes.com (miscellaneous claims, fake news), Factcheck.com (for consumers and voters), and Politifact.com (national Pulitzer winner; verifies claims by or about politicians).

The information “superhighway” is more free and accessible to all than ever. The thorny mess it’s become is the price we pay for that. 

It’s OK; we got this. It’s just going to take more personal responsibility.

Before we accept, we have to check.  

 • • •

Sholeh Patrick, J.D. is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email: sholeh@cdapress.com.