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Tweaking your truth detector for college

A young woman looks at her laptop and smiles

Jason Keller
March 05, 2019

Learning how to research — and vet your online sources properly — is especially important in college. High quality information is out there, but in the cloudy digital landscape, telling fact from fiction can be its own struggle.

Most publications follow AP Style, or Associated Press Style. Be wary of publications that deviate away from AP Style too heavily without looking like reputable sources.

“If you have a computer, you can publish something,” says Lynn Klyde-Allaman, a UNC associate professor of Journalism. As a former copy editor, she’s got a few secrets to help students critically read and judge a piece of content — the mistakes that BS stories, as opposed to stories that have been through careful fact-checking and editing, make, can help you tell fact from fiction.

Watch for these tell-tale signs of unedited sources

  • See if numbers smaller than 10 are spelled out

    Most recognizable news sources follow a certain style for writing numbers: one, two, nine, 10, 13, 256, etc.

    The AP Style Rules state that all numbers under 10 are usually spelled out, unless they appear at the beginning of a sentence.

  • Make sure their sources are authentic

    When someone writes “they say” or “people say," ask yourself: Who is the author referring to?

  • Watch the pronouns

    News is largely written in third person. First and second person is typically reserved for opinion pieces. "They" is an emerging pronoun being used in the case of ambigious or unknown genders. Not all publications use it yet, though The Washington Post has some good discussions on the topic.

  • Check the quotes

    Copy and paste suspicious quotes into a search engine and see if other publications have the source quoted the same way.

  • Ask if the news comes first (literally)

    Most news is written in inverted pyramid style, meaning the most important information is at the very start of the story.

    Inverted Pyramid

  • Test the headline
    News headlines often follow the noun-verb style (though this can vary) and are usually written with only the first letter capitalized.
  • Check spelling and grammar
    Be wary of a piece that has spelling or grammar mistakes. Has it been looked at properly by an editor?