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Fake or Credible? Navigating the News

A guide to responsible news consumption, created and updated by Stevens librarians


Basic Facts: The basic information--who, what, when, where, why & how--is clear within the first few sentences, is supported with evidence, and can be confirmed in other news outlets.

But be careful! That brief introduction is also designed to "hook" you into reading the rest of the story; be aware that you are being manipulated.

Detail from "The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor" by Fredrick Opper, 1894. Source


Here are the first 5 sentences of the WSJ earthquake article:

SAN FRANCISCO -- For years, scientists believed the mighty San Andreas -- the 800-mile-long fault running the length of California where the Pacific and North American plates meet -- could rupture only in isolated sections.

But a 2014 study by federal, state and academic researchers showed that much of the fault could unzip all at once, unleashing a rare, singular catastrophe. Now, a firm has used that research to come up with a new analysis of the damage that could be caused by statewide break of the San Andreas.

The analysis, by CoreLogic Inc., a real-estate analytics firm in Irvine, Calif., lays out an alarming scenario of destruction. As many as 3.5 million homes could be damaged in an 8.3-magnitude quake along a roughly 500-mile portion of the fault -- compared with 1.6 million homes damaged if only the northern part of the fault were to break, or 2.3 million if the southern piece ruptured.

In just 5 sentences and about 150 words, we know:

  • who: federal, state, and academic researchers and a firm named CoreLogic, Inc.
  • what: the San Andreas Fault and 1.6 - 3.5 million homes
  • where: California
  • when: 2014 (and the unspecified future)
  • how: "much of the fault could unzip all at once"

The only thing we don't know is how the reports changed the scientists' minds; presumably, the rest of the article will tell us. 

Of the following, which detail did you find most memorable in those 5 sentences?
CoreLogic, Inc.: 4 votes (6.15%)
3.5 million homes could be damaged: 25 votes (38.46%)
The San Andreas could "unzip all at once": 26 votes (40%)
2014 study by state, academic, and federal researchers: 4 votes (6.15%)
800 mile long fault: 4 votes (6.15%)
Something else: 2 votes (3.08%)
Total Votes: 65


Though the opening of an article introduces the facts of the subject, it also ties the facts together with a story, and uses language that appeals to the reader's concerns and interests. Journalists call this opening a lead (known as a "lede" in journalism). All articles have them.

Consider the following phrases:

  • "running the length of California"
  • "unzip all at once"
  • "unleashing a rare, singular catastrophe"
  • "alarming scenario of destruction"

News articles are stories. Which means there are characters:

Scientists,  the firm CoreLogic, homes (with people in them), and the star: the evil and powerful San Andreas Fault

And there is a conflict that drives a plot:

The San Andreas will cause a "catastrophe" for homes (and their occupants) unless the scientists and CoreLogic can convince us all to make plans to minimize the "alarming scenario of destruction."

And this one has a metaphor: "unzip all at once."

As you proceed further into the article, the language gets less literary and more fact-based, but still fits within the frame of that narrative lead.

Good journalism both tells a gripping story and provides accurate details. Note how many facts are embedded in those first 5 sentences, but also note that you are likely to be drawn in (and potentially swayed) by the emotional language. This is one way bias creeps into journalism: in the lead.


Guide adapted from News Know-How by Steve Runge at Boston College, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Creative Commons License