Recently I was listening to a panel discussion on writing young adult nonfiction. Participants were asked about doing research in the age of fake news. I literally laughed out loud when I heard that phrase. Clearly the moderator thought of fake news as a contemporary problem. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sefton Delmer was a British journalist who created fake radio news broadcasts to demoralize loyal Nazis. His work is considered fake news vs. espionage because he didn't work for the military or government. Read his story here in the Smithsonian magazine.
During the Civil War, the New York Herald reported that George Washington's remains had been removed from Mt. Vernon. The paper was forced, by the Mount Vernon Association, to print a retraction. You can read that story, on the Mount Vernon web site, here.
In 1835, The New York Sun even published a story about the discovery of life on the moon. There were even illustrations of humanoids with bat like wings. See that story that includes this fake news account as well as nine more at the Social Historian.
My point is that we treat fake news like it is something new, an Internet phenomenon. Rumors and lies are just as easy to find in print, both contemporary and historic, as they are to find online. That is why it is so important to learn to do solid research. Here are four tips to help you find more accurate material.
1. Pay attention to your sources. The Smithsonian is going to be a more reliable source than The Enquirer. That's an extreme dichotomy but I hope you see what I mean. A publisher or publication with a reputation for accurate work is going to work to maintain that reputation.
2. Pat attention to your authors. An anonymous piece is going to be less trustworthy than something by a noteworthy journalist for the same reason that a reliable publisher is more accurate. Also pay attention to the author’s expertise. A historian will likely know more about history than economics unless they are an economic historian.
3. Multiple sources. Look for multiple sources on your topic. This isn't full proof because ten sources that all get an incorrect fact from the same place will still be wrong even if they agree. That's why it is important to look for different types of and even competing sources. When you can find competing press that agrees about something, it is more likely to be fact.
4. Recent sources. A retraction or correction will be more recent. So try to find materials produced over a period of time including those created more recently. Recent scientific findings can also make a big difference even if your topic is history. Genetics are making a big impact in a wide variety of fields.
Good research takes a lot of work. As you do your research, remember that biased sources have always been a problem. The more research you do, the more likely you are to have an accurate picture of an event, person or topic even if your topic is fake news.
To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey. Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins September 23rd, 2019.