Fact-Finding: Do Not Trust, Always Verify

The whoppers of the last week have shown that even those who consider themselves savvy readers, can fall for – there’s no other way to say this – fake news.

It isn’t always because we’re suckers. Both CNN and MSNBC pushed out false versions of reality – everything from the imminent release of the Mueller report to the Jessie Smollett fiasco to the edited video of Senator Diane Feinstein –  and these are news channels that many rely on to some degree.

What this means is that we have to train ourselves to identify fact-based information from speculation, rumor-mongering or purposeful disinformation. And sadly, the unworthy pursuit of exclusives for the sake of ratings is popping up more frequently among cable news.

Now that the 2020 election season has opened and spawned bots spewing propaganda, it is acutely important that we become our own filters of fact.

Here are ways to discern truth from everything else.

TAKE YOUR TIME

This is hard for a lot of us. Very hard. We get on our favorite social media channel and become lost in reactive tweets and instant retweets. It’s crucial that we take a few deep breaths before engaging. Even your favorite Twitter account can make a mistake. We’re all human.

VERIFY

If you’ve read an earth-shattering post or tweet, do not do anything until you verify it. What does this mean? Here’s an example.

Three days ago, a tweet emerged from Shimon Prokupecz that turned Mueller-watchers into a tailspin. Prokupecz wrote:

“Attorney General William Barr is preparing to announce as early as next week the completion of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, with plans for Barr to submit to Congress soon after a summary of Mueller’s confidential report.”

I read this and could not believe my eyes. I began my process of verifying. I noticed first that he did not include any source for his statement. He mentioned Barr’s name but did not say, “according to Barr” or give any attribution. THIS IS A GIANT RED FLAG.

There were no unnamed sources, anonymous sources or people close to Barr. In other words, this unequivocal statement of fact originated from one person: Shimon Prokupecz.

An unsourced claim is speculation. If there is a single source, it’s questionable. Journalists rarely rely on one person for a highly controversial story – especially when that source is a reporter rather than someone involved in the context of the story. That’s like saying “X is true because I say it is true.”

When sources are weak or absent, check out the credibility of the writer. In other words, who is this person, what makes them an expert on their claim, why can they be relied upon, what is their public reputation, do their coworkers or colleagues hold them in esteem? You’re looking for solid reasons to believe this individual.

I checked the Twitter profile of Prokupecz, with whom I had no familiarity. What were his credentials? It was slim pickens. He self-described as a “Crime and Justice Reporter” with an Instagram account. Roger Stone has an Instagram account and we know what that produces. Prokupecz has a blue check mark from Twitter but – and this is important – he is not affiliated with any media on that social media profile.

So in verifying Prokupecz, I still have an unknown person claiming to be a reporter making a blockbuster assertion with no back-up.

This might seem labor intense but it took about the same time as pouring myself a cup of coffee.

SUBSTANTIATE

If there is no source or it cannot be verified and you have no evidence to back up a claim, check for other substantiation.

Again using Prokupecz and his Mueller report bombshell as an example, I searched for other news that substantiated his claim. There wasn’t any – just a lot of people frantically retweeting him as if he were The Truth.

Slow down, I warned. There is no source for this claim, I tweeted. I asked Prokupecz directly to source out his claim.

I got nothing from him but Twitter was on fire. Then CNN broke the same news.

Ordinarily, this would be the kind of substantiation needed. Unfortunately, the CNN story was shaped around the Prokupecz tweet. In fact, the lead paragraph copied it word for word without mentioning his name.

Here’s the CNN quote:

Washington (CNN) Attorney General Bill Barr is preparing to announce as early as next week the completion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, with plans for Barr to submit to Congress soon after a summary of Mueller’s confidential report, according to people familiar with the plans.

And here’s the Prokupecz tweet:

Attorney General William Barr is preparing to announce as early as next week the completion of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, with plans for Barr to submit to Congress soon after a summary of Mueller’s confidential report.

This is plagiarism, folks. CNN gets a failing grade here. Not only did it lift another’s language almost verbatim, it multiplied its malpractice by falsififying its source, claiming that Prokupecz was someone “familiar with the plans” of the Special Counsel.

I did a little more digging and discovered that the person responsible for this failed journalism is actually an employee of CNN. The tipoff? Prokupecz tagged two of the three reporters who “broke” the subsequent article: Evan Perez and Laura Jarrett.

So the network used Shimon Prokupecz as its source, plagiarized him and then deceptively attributed its story to him without revealing he works for CNN and is not affiliated with the Special Counsel’s Office.

The lesson here is that not even reputable news sources can be trusted. This is not the norm. However, it does happen.

As it turned out the Shimon Prokupecz-CNN bombshell was replicated across cable news and print media – each using the other as its source – until the Special Counsel shut them down and said “No report next week.” CNN danced around what amounted to a retraction but refused to take responsibility for its lazy, damaging and false report.

The dismal failure of CNN in this instance proves my point. If it’s a bombshell and there’s no source, no evidence and no substantiation, DON’T BELIEVE IT.

While this Mueller report mess dominated the airwaves, far more important news was ignored.

So, quick motto: DO NOT TRUST. ALWAYS VERIFY.


My background as a published writer, publisher, journalist and an English professor all dovetailed in writing this article. I’m a credible source.


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