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Fake News and the Search for Truth: Who to Trust and When

Please note: this post discusses how to search for truth in what we read, rather than addressing political issues. It’s about how distorted facts, misused statistics, and quotes from so-called experts worm their way into seemingly credible news stories. I will also touch upon truth in marketing, especially how to consider testimonials and claims on websites and other marketing materials.

Although the term “fake news” has been made popular in recent years, fabricated news stories are not new. The Wikipedia article on fake news includes examples of purposely fabricated news that date back to ancient times, including wartime propaganda and smear campaigns. Even legitimate news stories can include untruths, so it’s important to look at each story from multiple angles.

Quotations: Are the “Facts” Factual?

“It is interesting to note that “fact checkers” who go through stories on large publications will sometimes verify facts by making sure the source exists and was correctly quoted. They will not necessarily verify that the material in the quote is correct,” explains Ross Collins, Ph.D., author, journalist, and Associate Professor of Communication at North Dakota State University. His communications course material also demonstrates how the reporter’s or editor’s interpretation of the facts can creep into a story.

Also, when reading or viewing news stories including harsh accusations, consider who made the accusations, and whether the story includes any facts to support them.

Trust the Experts?

In practice, we all need to trust experts as we make important decisions in life and business. Let’s base that trust on something real.

I couldn’t begin to count the number of people who get labeled as experts. Writers and marketers don’t always clarify the experts’ credentials. When an expert makes a claim, consider the following characteristics:
Education and experience: does the expert’s education and experience qualify them to speak on the subject, or is the person speaking outside of their expertise? For example, a politician generally isn’t as qualified to explain a religious belief as a spiritual leader in that particular faith. A scientist may be an expert in one field of study and not another.

Knowledge or personal opinion: Experts may express beliefs and other opinions along with verifiable facts. Notice if the expert refers to verifiable research and personal experience in their particular field. Be especially curious when the expert expresses opinions without supporting them. You may discover people who hold opposing points of view and also refer to themselves as experts.

False Claims in Marketing

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires marketers to be truthful, and bars them from making misleading or false claims. Unfortunately, there will always be some companies that try to break the rules. Of special note on the FTC website is a trend toward making deceptive or unproven health and fitness claims.

When deciding whether to believe an advertisement, pay special attention to the way it uses statistics. Do the statistics reflect reputable research, or are they just facts and figures carefully crafted to sound good? For other types of claims, consider how well an advertiser would be able to support them. For example, if a product was supposedly designed for sensitive skin, look at the ingredients to see if they seem to support that claim.

Misuse of Statistics

Editorials and marketers alike will often cite statistics to back up their opinions. However, as a podcast from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania points out, it can be difficult to separate influences and say which ones caused a given outcome. The researchers use the example of retail sales that fell when the stores reduced prices. There could be many other factors that influence sales, so the lower prices might not have been the cause. People may interpret similar statistics in the news to show that a new law has decreased crime, or that a new policy is working well.

One way to misuse statistics is to choose only those research studies that support a claim. For example, a drug or supplement manufacturer could mention only the results of its most favorable study in its advertising, even if other studies show no positive effects.

Truth in Testimonials

Many people strongly believe in testimonials, and they can be somewhat useful when deciding to try something new. Unfortunately, there are too many fake testimonials and reviews in the world. Even the genuine testimonials are merely detailed accounts of possible results. They should not be taken as claims that a product or service will work for your particular situation.

Consider the fact that even the most ineffective products can garner genuine testimonials from satisfied customers. As customers, we are often unaware of the many reasons why we got a certain result, but many testimonials attribute the successful outcome mostly to the product or service being marketed. Other resources or outside factors tend not to play into these glowing reviews.

Event: How to Apply the Truth Test to Identify FAKE NEWS

Award-winning journalist and professor Carl Corry will present on this important topic on March 15 in Melville. Register at American Society for Quality (Long Island).

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