Look for clues to spot fake news

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Websites publishing fake news articles, often with fabricated facts, fooled a lot of people leading up to the election. Real news media have responded by publishing lists to help readers spot bogus news sites. And, in keeping with this column’s theme of grammar and editing, I’d like to help.

Editing can be a clue about the quality of the information you’re reading. The best news agencies usually splurge on skilled copy editors. The scammers and hacks often don’t. Here are some clues that this copy editor sees while skimming fake news sites listed in a recent Los Angeles Times article.

At the Jones Report on a recent Wednesday, the first headline was “Will It Be A Happy New Year For the Global Resistance Against the New World Order?” Right underneath was “What Kind Of Mood Are The American People In As We Enter 2011?”

After the anachronism, the first thing I noticed was the capitalization. The top headline lowercased “the,” but it uppercased “A.” The third headline uppercased “the” twice. On real news sites, headline capitalization is consistent and logical.

At USA Supreme I saw this headline: “Watch Lou Dobbs Warns Trump Compares Paul Ryan To An Ungrateful Snake(video).” There was no colon after “watch.” So “Watch Lou Dobbs Warns” becomes an egregious subject-verb agreement error. There was no comma after “Trump,” so the three verbs make a mess of the main clause: Watch Dobbs warns Trump compares Ryan.

Over at Conscious Life News, a story about a Nov. 13 New Zealand earthquake warned of a possible tsunami with “waves up to two meters (6 feet).” A lot of real news sites have number-writing policies that might appear inconsistent: “Serves six to 12 people.” But that’s because they spell out numbers less than 10. You might also see on a top news site something like “Six children ages 6 and older.” That’s not an error either. Some, including the Associated Press, have different rules for writing ages, distances, measurements and ratios. But there’s no logic to the way Conscious Life News spelled out “two” but used a numeral for “6” – a clue they’re not minding their p’s and q’s.

Also, real news agencies usually don’t translate meters into feet or vice-versa. They pick a measurement system and stick with it.

The same article had the following sentence: “Some injuries had been reported but there no immediate reports of deaths.”

Note the missing verb.

One bogus news site made real news headlines when an article claimed PepsiCo stock was plummeting after CEO Indra Nooyi supposedly told Donald Trump supporters to “take their business elsewhere.” If only TruthFeed readers took a cue from text on the site like, “Get Our Top Stories Delivered to you Daily.” Illogical capitalization is the tip-off that TruthFeed has been feeding them untruths.

Over at fake news site RedFlag, the first thing that caught my eye was a story headlined, “The Country Is Divided, Says The Media.” Real news media don’t usually attribute statements to “the media.” And if they did, about 99% of copy editors wouldn’t have paired “media” with the plural verb “say.” True, in some contexts copy editors treat “media” as a singular noun. But this copy editor is betting most of her colleagues would opt for “say the media” in this context.

RedFlag also reported that “At least 79 anti-Donald Trump demonstrators who were arrested in Portland, Oregon after protests turned violent did not vote in the presidential election.”  

Pros know that a state after a city name takes one comma before it and another comma after it. Amateurs often leave out the second comma. And this copy editor would revise the sentence structure, too. “Turned violent” could at first be construed to refer to the demonstrators. Only when you get to the verb “vote” can you be sure that “protests” was the subject of that verb.

Credible sites sometimes make the same mistakes. And there’s no reason a fake news site can’t have a great copy editor. But if we pay attention to bad editing, we’ll be better equipped to spot bad information.

– June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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