Skip to content

Truth in journalism: how to check the facts

With the rise of anonymous internet chatter and demise of traditional printed newspapers, where do we find the “truth” in a raucous world? Below are suggested information sources and tips on how to skeptically parse facts from evidence, belief and opinion.

Don’t miss this fascinating chart: Media Bias Chart and Ratings.

Beware of free news sources that monetize any of the following: extremism, misinformation (false news), disinformation (deliberately false news), or fake news (sensationally false news). For example, I suggest boycotting the following anti-scientific spigots: Fox News, Newsmax, and Breitbart.

Check the validity of facts, news, and rumors

Check news reports from responsible and reliable sources, such as:
Check political facts and claims
  • Google Fact Check
  • Reuters Fact Check
  • — a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, operated by the University of Pennsylvania
    • carefully analyzes claims made by national politicians and other newsmakers.
  • — a project of the Tampa Bay Times and partners
    • won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for its “Truth-O-Meter” ratings of national politicians’ claims.
    • includes links to affiliated state fact-checking sites.
  • Don’t miss this gem: AllSides Fact Check Bias Chart
Fossilized sand dunes, Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, Arizona (© Tom Dempsey /
Peel back the layers to find deeper meaning. Fossilized sand dunes, Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, Arizona. © Tom Dempsey /
    • finds “Biographies, voting records, issue positions, ratings, speeches, campaign finance information. All politicians. Instantly.”
    • “At a unique research center located high in the Montana Rockies and far from the partisan influences of Washington, our staff, interns, and volunteers are working hard to strengthen the most essential component of democracy – access to information. Project Vote Smart is a non-partisan, nonprofit educational organization funded exclusively through individual contributions and philanthropic foundations.”

A shocking 2018 MIT study found that false news spreads 6 to 20 times faster than does real news on the social network Twitter – caused by people retweeting inaccurate news items! Apparently, much of the fake news posted around the 2016 presidential election was motivated primarily by greed – earning money from click bait targeted across the political spectrum. A disturbing 2016 study found that most people retweet news by headline without ever seeing the contents. Computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute reported that 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked. Sadly these blind peer-to-peer shares promote what gets circulated and demote other topics, so thoughtless retweets actually shape our shared political and cultural agendas. Instead, one should mindfully curate what is sent to others.

Research general knowledge

Ironically, internet crowd sourcing has created a remarkably deep and reliable source of worldwide knowledge in Wikipedia:

  • — Wikimedia Foundation, San Francisco, California
    • can be as accurate as printed encyclopedias (albeit with inelegant prose).
      • A study in the journal Nature said that in 2005, Wikipedia scientific articles came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopedia Britannica and had a similarly low rate of serious errors. When Encyclopedia Britannica disputed the study, Nature refuted their main objections point-by-point.
      • From 2008-2012, various studies comparing Wikipedia to professional and peer-reviewed sources in medical and scientific fields found that Wikipedia’s depth and coverage were of a high standard (such as in pathology, toxicology, oncology, pharmaceuticals, and psychiatry).
      • I’ve found Wikipedia accuracy to be remarkably high. When I spotted a few errors on minor topics, I corrected the articles. For example, under the entry for my home town of Chico, California, someone had entered a joke name for the town’s founder, which I corrected back to John Bidwell.
    • should be read with a bit of skepticism, as with anything you read or hear, due to possible editor partisanship or rare mischief.
    • can enlighten you with a global perspective on almost any topic, as refined by the consensus of an army of anonymous collaborative editors.
    • democratizes knowledge by letting anyone edit articles, within quality control guidelines enforced by the global community and the small non-profit Wikimedia staff.
    • ranks in the top-ten most-visited websites worldwide.
Examine extraordinary claims and religious beliefs
  • Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, publishers of Skeptical Inquirer magazine
    • promotes scientific inquiry, critical investigation, and the use of reason to examine controversial and extraordinary claims (UFOs, astrology, paranormal and supernatural ideas, Creationism, urban legends, etc).
    • was founded by scientists, academics, and science writers such as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, James RandiMartin Gardner, and others.
  • — Skeptics Annotated Bible (SAB) website
    • Steve Wells shines the light of reason on the Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon to open the eyes of believers and non-believers alike.
    • Read how quotes from the Bible address modern human rights issues such as sexuality, women’s issues, slavery, etc.
    • Admirably, the site keeps an open mind by linking to stakeholder responses from believers and apologists.
    • Read what reviewers say about Steve Wells’ book at The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (2013) .

How not to get fooled by false claims or hidden agendas: be skeptical

While trust is the foundation of civil society, skepticism is still required to parse facts from evidence, belief and opinion.

Consider the disturbing 2018 MIT study which found that false news spreads 6 to 20 times faster than does real news on the social network Twitter, due to people retweeting inaccurate news items. Surprising or anger-provoking items spread faster than other lies, tapping into humans’ attraction to novelty and drama. The researchers subtracted the affects of automated bots and tracked roughly 126,000 cascades of news stories spreading on Twitter, which were cumulatively tweeted over 4.5 million times by about 3 million people, from the years 2006 to 2017. To determine whether stories were true or false, the MIT team used the assessments of six fact-checking organizations (,,,,, and, whose judgments overlapped more than 95 percent of the time.

When you hear a questionable message, examine its source, motivation, evidence, and conclusions:

  1. Is the source of the message
    • firsthand or from trustworthy informants?
    • independent, free of conflicts of interest?
    • expert, experienced, or proven reliable in the topic?
    • transparently clear?
  2. Consider the messenger’s motivation:
    • Are they selling something, someone, or a point of view?
      • Check the politics/background of whoever owns the radio, television, print, web site, or other media.
      • On all media, beware the following warning signs (red-flag phrases) for an agenda that may unexpectedly depart from the host media:
        • “From around the web” links
        • Sponsored Links
        • “Sponsored Content”
        • Advertisement
        • “501 (c) (4) American tax-exempt nonprofit organization”
        • “Opinion or Editorial”
    • If the motivation is persuasion, be skeptical.
      • Persuaders such as lawyers, publicists, and campaigning politicians often omit relevant contrary information.
      • The more you feel urged towards a particular point of view, be especially doubtful.
      • A more-reliable source may have a tone which is unemotional and informative, and carefully quotes and attributes other proven sources.
  3. Examine the evidence and conclusions drawn.
    • Extreme claims require rigorous proof. The more consequential the claim, the more evidence is required.
    • Is the evidence logical?
      • A heartfelt story is just one data point.
      • Correlation doesn’t imply causation.
      • Be wary of simple solutions, as most issues have multiple factors.
      • Ask if alternate explanations are equally compelling.
    • Is a relevant fact or context left out?
      • Are all stakeholders given say?
      • Look for the inconvenient truth.
      • Consider other contexts that may change the meaning: research how other sources have covered the same topic.
    • Is the evidence reproducible or proven from direct observation?

Caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) also applies to consuming information and voting. Read more in the book, Don’t Be Fooled: A Citizen’s Guide to News and Information in the Digital Age (2012) by John McManus, a communication professor and longtime journalist.

Recommended mind-expanding books

All purchases on the above Amazon links directly support my site. Thank you! — Tom Dempsey

Photography is communication

At, I carefully check all facts quoted in my photo captions and articles, especially for social and environmental issues, such as:

Hidden agendas can threaten democracy − a personal anecdote

A dog peers through a window in a white fence at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, USA.
A dog peers through a window in a white fence at historical Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, USA.

As a provider of photographs to commercial interests, non-profit organizations, and individuals, I prefer my images to be used in socially positive ways. But in August 2013, I learned to ask more questions before donating images:

A phone caller asked me to donate a photo to his “501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit” website which advocated home schooling. But after exchanging a few emails, I learned that the site promoted a far-right Christian Bible-based agenda of anti-scientific thought. (I instead favor empirical and scientific methods to determine the facts of the world.) The author later password-protected his controversial blog articles, including his weird discussion of the supposed “science bias” (an oxymoron) taught in public schools.

In a democracy, corporations shouldn’t have the rights to freedom of speech and religion like individuals.

On a national scale, some extreme political, religious, and anti-scientific organizations are now hiding their big contributions to political campaigns under umbrella organizations sanctioned by the IRS tax code, 501 (c) (4): 

  • 501 (c) (4) American tax-exempt nonprofit organizations
    • are designed for Civic LeaguesSocial Welfare Organizations, and Local Associations of Employees reputedly for the common good and general welfare of their community;
    • are allowed to address controversial topics; and
    • are not required to disclose their donors publicly.

In 2013, the 501(c)(4) “dark money” spending on political TV ads exceeded spending from Super PACs, both of which undermine democracy.

  • Super PACs, or “independent-expenditure only committees,
    • may not contribute to candidate campaigns or parties, but may otherwise spend unlimited amounts of money for promoting political agendas;
    • were made possible by two judicial decisions in 2010: “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission” and “ v. FEC”; and
    • can raise unlimited funds from corporations, unions, other groups, and individuals.

The voices of powerful corporations and the rich shouldn’t be allowed to secretly bias political dialogue with money laundered through Super PACs and 501 (c) (4) organizations. Corporate hierarchy gives employees (and stockholders) little voice over donation decisions by the CEO or Board of Directors. To best serve public interest, corporations should be governed by certain social responsibilities and rights that should be distinct from those of individuals.

To improve the democratic system, the trail of all large political donations should be tracked by named source and publicly reported by law. Voters and consumers deserve to know who is behind political and commercial messages. We shouldn’t tolerate anonymous or hidden power brokers gaming the system. Read more at:

Joe Friday, the fictional Dragnet TV series detective, famously said “All we want are the facts, ma’am” (on radio and later television from 1949–1959 and 1967–1970). Popular culture now restates this more succinctly as “Just the facts, ma’am.”

Regarding smartphones — with great power comes great responsibility (as says the Greek “Sword of Damocles” anecdote, and more recently, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man). Sadly, monetized social media has often enabled extreme memes to shout-down both civility and reality itself. To my relief, Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker restores our faith in the triumph of public good in his important books:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *