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Editorial: Prioritize truth over convenience

Facts matter — facts that reporters work to confirm before stories are published.

It’s why Salisbury Post reporter Natalie Anderson spent hours last week working to confirm whether the proper procedure was followed for a “no wake” zone on Panther Creek, off of High Rock Lake, and why accuracy is more important than speed in reporting news. It’s why news outlets must correct mistakes when they happen, too.

But in too many cases, convenience has become more important than truth.

That’s proven by the fact that Facebook pages like North Carolina Breaking News amassed more than 50,000 followers and nearly the same number of “likes” before the social media website said it would take the page down. All the while, the page was posting actual “fake news” about the Winston-Salem Police Department and other things that were obviously wrong, including that the governor was encouraging people to vote Republican to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The second item, by the way, featured a picture of Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, rather than N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper. The page posted items entirely in Russian, too, only lending more credence to the fact that it could have been propaganda.

There have been some small efforts by social media giants, but it still can be hard to tell what’s real when scrolling through our feeds. Social media, particularly Facebook, serves as an accelerant for misinformation, which has become much easier to spread on the internet than decades ago.

The News Media Alliance, which represents outlets across the U.S., is pushing for changes to federal laws that currently allow social media sites like Facebook to avoid liability for what’s posted on their sites. The current rule has allowed the internet to flourish; it’s also resulted in the spread of false information with little to no consequences.

But the responsibility for limiting the spread of false information and prioritizing truth over convenience ultimately falls to the readers.

Items to look for include:

• Sourcing in news articles. For crime stories, that means looking for who brought the charges and where the narrative behind the charges came from — a police officer, warrant or court documents, for example.

• Bylines on articles or names of those behind the social media page. Some websites, including the Salisbury Post, use “staff reports” or generic usernames like “Post education” for smaller news items, but something may be amiss if a website has no reference to who’s responsible for the article. Check also that the person or username has published other stories.

• Contact information like addresses or phone numbers for the organization on its website or page.

That Facebook took down the North Carolina Breaking News page is good, but many more will pop up, especially as the 2020 election draws closer. Readers must be vigilant about where they are getting news.

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