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Fact checking Breaking Stories

The topic of discussion is the report of a Pentagon explosion that Reuters fact checked. On the morning of May 22, 2023, a verified Twitter account tweeted out a picture purportedly showing a huge plume of smoke located right next to the Pentagon with the caption “BREAKING: Explosion near Pentagon.” The internet ran with the story to the point that even the stock market took a sharp dip for a short period. What tips can we learn from Reuters’ research on how to fact check a story?

  1. Build context.  The Reuters team took the time to scale the internet to see if there was any other independent footage of the incident in question as well. When fact checking, it is necessary to look at subsequent media. If this explosion had taken place, there would have been documentation somewhere else in the form of security cameras, cell phones, satellites etc. There is so much surveillance and media connectedness in our world, that it is highly suspicious to only have one photo of an incident of this magnitude.
  2. Locate primary sources. Reuters then contrasted the initial Twitter post to the statements of authorities. Reuters got a statement from a DoD spokesperson calling the reports false. The team also reviewed the statement the local fire department put out as well.  When doing your own research, it is helpful to compare statements authorities put out about an incident to what has been shared.
  3. Corroborate imagery. Next, Reuters observed the work an investigator took to debunk the photo noting many of the discrepancies. When an expert takes the time to review a story and produces credible evidence, it can help bring a lot of clarity to the situation. It is important to note though that an expert’s opinion alone is not enough to validate or disapprove a story.
  4. Make the report clear and concise. With all their research done to compare statements, images, and footage of the area in question, Reuters was able to definitively state that the Pentagon explosion was false. The information was presented in an easy-to-read report to ensure no one would misunderstand the information.

I see NBC’s coverage as a news story based on the specificity of the information they obtained by doing ample research and getting the statements of reliable sources, which follows a slow news approach. There was much research done to identify many of the early Twitter accounts that put out the false information. NBC was able to talk to an investigator (also covered in the Reuter article) and get a firsthand account on the possibly AI-generated image. The local fire department’s statement was also noted as evidence that the incident was indeed fake. As The Star put it, news is “verified information based in the impartial reporting of facts.” This whole article was focused on getting the factual evidence that the photo was spread as well as the response from the authorities and experts on why this incident never took place.

The Washington Post article also covered the facts of the story but also infuses opinion into the narrative with the topic of AI. The Star has defined opinion as “articles based on personal interpretation and judgment of facts.” Verifiable news is presented throughout the article with the added opinionated subject of the effects of AI with misinformation being peppered throughout. The authors make the point across from the statements of authorities that misinformation can be spread by AI and real people as well, and that media users need to take the time to fact check and discern what they see online.  

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