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I've railed against politics questions on this site in the past. I ran for moderator partly on the promise to address the issues with politics specifically. Mostly, my ire is toward the answers, that is, answers that just flip with a "fact check" and disregard the truth. If I'm honest, the "fact checkers" among various news sources are part of our broader societal problem with overall untrustworthy news media. Just doing what they're doing, parroting the equivocations, isn't making the Internet better.

Based partly on this NPR article, here are some tips to train your skeptics mind while reading news media.

  1. Outrageous claims shouldn't be quickly believed. This should be a no brainer, but it's actually pretty easy to fall into habits that make you believe some things, or things from certain sources, etc. Be mindful about how quickly you're ready to abandon your skepticism, and eventually train yourself to never really let it go.

  2. Stories will sometimes work on your existing beliefs, hoping to piggyback on them. You might already believe points one through four, making a fifth point easier to swallow. Similarly, if the story perfectly confirms your worst suspicions, look for more information. There's a lot of hack pieces published these days that only exist to harm someone's or something's reputation.

  3. Headlines are liars. Read the article. Keep a mental tally on which sources like to bait-and-switch you.

  4. Check if you're reading the original source. So many news outlets just ripoff their stories from reporters that actually did the work. They usually have a line in the beginning of the article like "as reported by [news outlet, not us]". Consider the limited reasons a news outlet would do this, which are few, mostly about clicks. When it's not clicks, it's to frame it differently. Follow to the original source. Usually the copycats get stuff wrong, like a game of telephone, and occasionally they just want to reframe it (ie mislead).

  5. Short quotes can be very misleading. Check on the full quote and consider its context. Keep another mental tally of the sources that like to play word games with short quotes.

  6. Suspicion, forecasting, and musing are all not facts nor are they truth. They can certainly be based in fact, but they are, by definition, unproven and/or not yet passed.

  7. Generalized subjects is a strong indication of false claims. "Washington this" and "Trump supporters that" are gross generalizations that intentionally try to play off your existing beliefs. Real news tells who, along with what, when, and where.

  8. There rarely is a "smoking gun". A single factoid should not linchpin an entire story. When you see this, remind yourself of all the times when it looked one way at first, then became something else as all the information came out. A skeptical mind is imaginative. Work out other possible explanations in your mind. Keep a third mental tally on the sources that continually show you "smoking guns". They're usually the worst of them.

  9. Look for signs of impartiality. Impartial stories explain opposite viewpoints. Strongly opinionated interviewees should be countered by interviewees with the an opposing view. Stories casting suspicions on a subject should give that subject opportunity to respond.

  10. Some falsehoods are sincerely believed. Not every "untruth" is a deliberate lie. First, on a personal level, have empathy for others, then help guide them in a skeptical approach. Second, on assessing news media, you can't depend on the prose and earnestness of a story alone.

Keeping these tips in mind when answering Skeptics SE questions will go a long way in meeting our site mission, which is to debunk falsities and illuminate the truth. It's not enough to debunk the false. Show the truth too. Good answers are accurate (which debunks), but truth often requires thoroughness. Explore the context, imagine other explanations, follow up on where that leads you. And finally, corroborate your answers with solid sources. Accurate, thorough, corroborated.


Naturally, all replies are welcome, but additional tips and maybe specific applications to our answers would be awesome. I really would like to see this develop into an enforceable guideline.

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    (3) is a particularly important one for askers as well, with a relatively easy solution: read the article. Not just on this site, but on other SE sites like MedicalSciences.SE and Biology.SE we get a fair number of questions that boil down to "is this headline true?!?" when the article itself already answers that question as clearly "no" or "kind of yes, but...". I feel like this is an incredibly low-effort way to ask questions. Aug 9 at 16:05
  • Ha. "Thorough" is one thing to keep in mind when user complain in comments about 'length'. There is indeed some fluff in As (mine not excluded…) but sheer length has a hard limit at 30k chars. What counts is adequate length. So, I propose to establish a policy to enforce: comments lamenting sheer length must either come with an edit suggestion, concrete, concise, nudge the post to conciseness—or get a very low threshold to be deleted swiftly, especially if flagged as NLN. Aug 11 at 10:17
  • Since this is about 'source monitoring': I think we miight benefit from a similar post that details how to treat claimants? It's a bit too often for my tastes that answers (and stylistically also Qs) dwell their arguments too much on 'this person (or group) is a quack selling woo' and similar attributions. While that is sometimes or even often a quite valid aspect to include, some posts (especially comments) seem to rely mainly on such classifications? So, can we dissect how to write posts that include valid & relevant ad hominem vs just piling up fallacious material as the main focus? Aug 11 at 10:22
  • And as I suggest this post above to be included in the site FAQ: Yet another 2 posts that 'Q-asker is not the claimant—vote, comment, answer accordingly', and the classic 'don't just copy 2nd or 3rd hand material, go to the sources yourself' (It's bad to rely on 'Wikipedia says', or 'this was already 'fact-checked' elsewhere, read about it after you click this link'…) Aug 11 at 10:26
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    @LangLangC With regards to 'source monitoring', I feel like that should never be the crux of an answer. Cranks aren't necessarily wrong. A good answer would say why a claim from a well-known crank is false, and then at the end point out that they have a history of stretching the truth. Just like in a murder trial, past criminal history isn't proof the accused committed the murder.
    – Ryan_L
    Aug 12 at 1:10

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