Using Google News to Verify Claims

When you’re confronted with a news claim you want to verify, you have a lot of options. Generally, the first move of our four move method is to look for previous work. Find a fact-check or a reliable article from a local or well-resourced publication that’s already done the verification for you.

The easiest way to do that, especially with breaking news, is to use the select and search browser option. Select relevant text, right-click (or command-click) to get a context menu, and then select the “search” option.

When the search opens in a new tab, choose the news tab (available in both Google and Bing). This gives you a curated stream of news to choose from, and provides some markers of credibility as well, showing you what a local source is and marking in-depth treatments. Here’s a screencast to show how its done:

There are things to watch here. Google News provides a much higher quality set of news sources than general search, but not everything in Google News is trustworthy. Google News still indexes conspiracy sites such as World Net Daily, for instance. Additionally, when foreign newspapers report American stories (or when American papers report foreign stories) special care should be taken: cultural notions sometimes don’t transfer, and foreign press often misunderstand hoax sites as true American news, as in this case where an Indian newspaper repeats a hoax debunked by Snopes months ago:

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Users also have to be careful of opinion columns on traditional news sites. There are many reliable reporting sources that have opinion pages with little to no verification process in place. Here’s an example of what to be careful of:

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There’s two New York Times items here, but they are completely different in type, and for all intents and purposes from two different sources. The first one is an opinion column, and the second is a straight news item. In Google they look exactly the same. If you’re used to this stuff, you can get a good idea from the tone of the snippet which is which, but if you’re new to this you probably have to click through.

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A good traditional news source — such as the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post — will make clear which items are opinion and which are reporting. Many non-traditional sources will not (one benefit of using traditional sources for verification is the hard line they draw between editorial and news reporting).

All of these caveats might sound a bit distressing, but even with these caveats, using Google News to check news claims is going to filter out 95% of the junk. For many verification tasks it’s the best first move.

Using Google News to Verify Older Claims

Google News is a good place to verify older claims as well, or claims where you are unsure of the relevant time-frame.

As an example, here’s an item that floated into my Pinterest feed today:

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Is this true? Is it new?

If you go to Google, type in Katee Sackhoff, search then and hit the news tab, you’ll find out that it is at least true that Sackhoff *said* this in 2013:

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You can actually scan enough snippets here to get an idea of what happened. Reliable sources say Sackhoff said she lost half her followers, less reliable sources such as WorldNetDaily and Guns.com validate the “half” claim directly in their headlines, without stating Sackhoff was the source of the claim and the claim was not verified.

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This is why it’s still important to choose sources from the feed wisely, read the keyword-in-context snippets when available, and if necessary click through to the article.

In this particular case, the precision of words turns out to be important, since as Reason.com notes in an update to their erroneous story that Sackhoff appears to have been making a joke and did not lose many followers at all:

UPDATE: Looks like Sackhoff was kidding when she said she lost half her followers. Twitter stats show she didn’t take a net hit. She’s actually up a few followers today. A Sackhoff fan emails to say “Katee jokes a lot.”

(As a side note, one indicator of source reliability is whether they issue corrections after claims they made are discovered to be false. Seeing which outlets bothered to correct this story and which didn’t might make a good class activity.)

Using Google News to Verify a Source as “Real”

As noted, Google News contains some dubious sources, and a lot of unverified or weakly verified content in the form of opinion columns and slanted news. In Google News, you will find some conspiracy sites, many opinion columns, and lots of headlines that outright lie.  Google News does not, however, contain a lot of hoax sites; you won’t find a source claiming to be a local paper that isn’t, or publications making up stories out of nothing.

As such, You can use a Google News search for a baseline check on whether a publication is “real” or “fake”.

I show two examples of this in the video below:

Again, this is a quick and dirty check. A more detailed check might involve searching Snopes, following the story to the source, or looking up the publication in Wikipedia.

A Note on the Two Faces of Google News

The desktop version of Google news has two interfaces: an older “News Archives” version and a newer “Breaking News” interface. Here’s what they look like.

The “News Archive” view:

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The new “Reader” view, rolled out in July 2017:

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The big differences are the reduction is clutter, the use of a card-based interface, the better highlighting of local and in-depth coverage, and better paths to related content, whether through fact-checks or topical tags. For people browsing the news, the new interface does a better job of flagging expertise and exposing people to diverse perspectives.

While the “reader” interface provides a better reading and browsing experience it provides a bad experience for verification. There are no snippets of keywords in context, there’s no access to date filters, and old content is not available through the interface.

Here, for example, is what we get when we search for the DART officer story in the “News Reader” interface:

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This is because the event, which happened two weeks ago, is already is already too old for the “reader” view. If you click the Google News Archive link, it will take you to both the older interface and the older news articles.

The reader view also is missing a number of important tools for verification that we’ll talk about using later, like full date range filtering and keyword in context.

If you use the select-and-right-click method we show here, you should end up at the “news archive” view which is what you want. If you end up in the news reader by mistake, your best move is to go to google.com, make your search, and click the news tab. In general use the reader view for browsing recent news, but avoid it when using Google News for verification purposes.

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The Web Is Abundant. Find Another Source.

 

I do a lot of work that I don’t cover here — in particular, I’m slowly putting together curriculum for the American Democracy Project on what the Stanford History Education Group calls Civic Online Reasoning. (I don’t show a lot of this work here because anything I publish on this blog alters the search results for the exercises and makes them less authentic.)

But as I’ve put together the exercises and tried to refine the UbD-style understandings I’m trying to hit, I keep finding one of the biggest understandings is what I call the “Abundant Web” assumption. Put simply, the web is qualitatively different than most information environments because of its abundance, but our processes still tend to economize as if information on the web was scarce.

What do I mean by this? Look at something that came to me today via a Twitter link.

It shows a unique sort of sun halo that supposedly appeared in Sweden. People are filming it — at least it looks like they are. So it probably isn’t just some sort of fake produced by a weird filter, right?

So how do you check this? Your first thought might be “Who is Massimo?” Or maybe you click the link and trace it up to Facebook where you find it was posted on a page called Severe Weather Europe, and we should look into them. They credit the video to a Twitter user named @vemdalen, which is a design company in Sweden. Who is this vemdalen, and what do they…

But I actually don’t do any of this. I follow the first rule of our Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers, and I check for previous work:

And I find an article in the Independent about it. The Independent is not the best newspaper anymore — it’s been severely degraded with clickbait over the years. But it’s still a newspaper, and when we go there we find that they are reporting this as fact and that they have linked an article explaining the phenomenon from a science website.

If we were a reporter, and this was a story we were working on, this probably wouldn’t be enough for us. But for a citizen trying to not retweet lies, it’s enough. And we get there in 90 seconds partially because we assume that on an abundant web if this thing really happened someone somewhere probably already looked into it.

There’s also the question of how we choose the Independent as our source. I know the Independent because over time I’ve seen it as a source for things and built up a mental model of what it does well and what it does poorly. Eventually all students should start to know a few resources like this — dry land that they can swim to when looking for a source. (Or in the case of the Independent a moderately squishy bog).

But you don’t have to know the source to do this. One of the prime techniques I use is searching for stories in Google News versus general Google search. Why? Because Google News is curated — sources are selected based on qualifying as real news sites. So what we’re doing when we search on Vemdalen, Sweden and click on Google News is we’re saying “Let’s start over on this, and try to get a news source that has at least a modicum of vetting applied to it.” It’s not going to be perfect: Google News makes mistakes. Sometimes news publications also have non-news content (promos, editorials) which are not held to the same standard as the rest of the source. And some of the sources they include just plain shouldn’t be included. But it filters out 98% of the junk for us on a task like this.

Again, not the level of precision we’d want as a reporter or scholar. But for a citizen, it’s probably good enough, as long as they are taught to use it correctly.

And that’s the other side of “The Web Is Abundant”.  In a world with 100s of possible sources, so much of what you do is less about finding coverage than about limiting it through filters. Here we limit it by use of a curated news site. But because of the principle of abundance, we could be picky in other ways if we were looking at a different sort of story — we could filter by location, looking for local coverage. We could filter by date, either looking for the most recent developments, or the earliest possible reporting.

All of this is markedly different than what we tell students in our world of print scarcity. With print, there are few sources directly available to us, and to find and acquire new resources takes at least minutes and sometimes weeks. When you have a source in front of you you don’t throw it out, you interrogate it. The economics of this are different on the web, where lack of commitment to a source is a virtue, and we get to the truth more quickly by always assuming there’s a better source out there. We trade one resource for another without even bothering to read the first one. We need a media literacy that makes a virtue of this lack of commitment to initial resources rather than a fetish of investigative persistence with them.