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If you don't like Snopes.com, you can't handle the truth


 
Posted on 8/5/2020, 2:15 PM

Now more than ever before, it's critical to analyze information presented as news stories.

Regardless of political affiliation or philosophy, there are plenty of blatantly false stories circulating at any given moment.

That's been the case for years. It's not new.

There are a lot of reasons why it happens. Some are intentional and some are not.

Just like the "gossip game" most of us played in grade school, when people repeat a simple phrase, over time it gets changed. When it's something the length of a story, details are changed, added or left out. Unfortunately, it happens.

When we write stories, we try to hold ourselves to a higher standard, but mistakes still happen. I've made plenty of them myself. I've identified someone by the wrong name. I've attributed a quote to the wrong person (which can happen when two people who sound very similar both are talking in a recorded conversation).

But, we are trained to double-check our sources.

What that means is, if I'm interviewing you for a story and you tell me you were the Harrisburg High School class president in 1944 (or any other year) I'm going to find a second source to corroborate that information. Perhaps I can find a yearbook at Harrisburg District Library which will indeed show your portrait as class president. In my story, I'll leave the detail as you describe it. "Jane Doe served as class president in 1944."

Even if I can't find proof of that claim, though, I'll attribute it to you. " ... Jane Doe, who said she served as class president in 1944 ..." and leave it at that. Most people I've met are honest.

I don't have the time, energy or interest in disproving that you, in fact, were not third assistant vice captain of the French club as you claimed. I'll just leave it out of a story.

The bigger the claim, though, the more it bears scrutiny. If you tell me you wrote a national best-selling novel, or once were the president of a major company, I'm absolutely going to check that out.

This leads me to a website I've known of and used for years called Snopes.com. It began in 1994 as the "Urban Legends Reference Pages" and poked holes in all sorts of old stories.

Each claim on the website would feature a story, as presented, and then multiple verifiable references to that story. It still does.

The difference today is that some people have the idea that Snopes takes sides. I've used the site for more than 20 years, and I don't find that to be the case.

It used to be that when someone presented a story that was biased and factually inaccurate, if I needed to pull out the big guns, I'd simply say "check out Snopes." Or, paste a link to the site in an email.

In more recent years, that includes posting a link on a wild claim on someone's social media post.

Now, though, that's apparently no longer good enough. Now, if Snopes can dispute a fallacious claim (and let's be honest, most of these "stories" really don't need someone to dispute them) the person trying to pass the false story as true simply claims Snopes is "too liberal" or "too conservative" or biased in some other intangible way. Yes, the couple who founded the site split up and messy details of their divorce were heavily documented. Yes, for a while, half of the company was owned by another media group who bought it from the ex-wife.

The fact remains, though, that if a story is featured on Snopes.com, it will have a determination of true, false, mixed or various. That means some stories are absolutely true, some are absolutely false, some are partly true and some are partly false. And some simply are unverifiable one way or the other.

That's why journalists who are interested in presenting facts attribute claims to sources and double-check those claims. Snopes does that in spades, and anyone who wants to see their source material can find it easily, because they include it with each entry.

I'm a big believer in looking up something when you don't believe it.

When you discredit Snopes.com, though, because they disagree with your false story, don't complain to me.

You simply can't handle the truth.