November 2, 2020

You might have heard — unless you’ve been trying to avoid the news over the past two weeks, which would be understandable — about this big New York Post exclusive story about Hunter Biden’s laptop allegedly containing emails pointing to shady dealings between his dad, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, and Ukraine.

Some are calling the story this election season’s “October surprise” — it’s gone viral on many social platforms and been banned on others, received cheers on a few cable TV networks and been criticized heavily on others.

Should you believe this story? That’s up to you, but there are a number of tools and questions you can ask so you can decide for yourself.

The election is tomorrow. If you haven’t voted already and are considering letting this story impact your vote, you really need to do some homework — especially with any big bombshell story like this, no matter who it is about. A few quick warnings and first steps to figuring this out for yourself.

Read the story! Avoid snap judgments based on headlines

The first step is to read the story. Yes, actually read it. The whole thing. Don’t rely solely on the headline to determine whether or not you find this story to be accurate.

The information up top doesn’t tell you the whole story — on this article or any article. You skip context and nuance when you make judgments based on headlines, context and nuance that are essential.

If you want to form opinions about what’s going on and let those opinions affect how you act — or vote — you should know what you’re talking about. That means reading before praising or criticizing.

Start researching

Then, keep going. Start researching when you finish the article. Just like headlines don’t tell a whole story, one article alone doesn’t paint the full picture of an event. The U.S. is lucky to have so many news outlets to choose from and you should take advantage of all of the reporting and information out there. It is essential to give controversial claims a thorough investigation before you make up your mind and share your thoughts with others.

This is the foundation for a healthy news diet and a good rule of thumb to avoid spreading misinformation, in general, so keep these tips in mind for whatever you read in the future too, especially with a story of this magnitude.

OK, so research — where should you start? These three questions can help guide you:

  • Who is behind the information?
  • What is the evidence? 
  • What are other sources saying?

The Stanford History Education Group crafted this handy list of questions while observing professional fact-checkers, and they are the foundation of Poynter’s MediaWise project, a digital media literacy initiative.

Who is behind the information?

Looking at the source of information can help you understand what biases or possible motives may seep into it. Let’s start with the New York Post, which published this piece. A clear follow-up question here is: Is the New York Post reliable? (Disclosure: Katy Byron, one of the writers of this article, interned for the New York Post, and her father once had a column there.)

One way to better understand journalism outlets is to look at media bias charts that use transparent and rigorous methodologies to assess political bent in publications.

AllSides’s media bias chart rates the New York Post’s news section as “Lean Right.” Ad Fontes Media, which rates both bias and reliability, puts the New York Post in the “Mixed Reliability” range and near “Skews Right” for bias. So, the New York Post might bring a right-leaning bias into this reporting, and doesn’t seem to be among the most reliable news sources.

It’s also worth checking out the paper’s Wikipedia page. The first line describes the New York Post as a “daily tabloid newspaper,” so that’s worth noting. However, this is not a locked Wikipedia page and therefore anyone can edit it.

Looking at the New York Post website, there is no general “About” page for readers to learn about the paper’s mission or funding sources and no published editorial and ethical standards policy readers could easily find and review on their own. These are both red flags. There is a way, however, to reach out to the newsroom with questions here, which is a good sign of reliability.

News organizations that publish editorial standards are generally more reliable. Publishing editorial standards shows that newsroom leaders are willing to be transparent about how their journalism is done. Fact-checking organizations who are verified signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network (which also has a home at Poynter) are required to publish their editorial standards, including a corrections policy, in order to become a member. Other outlets that publish their editorial standards online include The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, Gannett, The Star Tribune and ProPublica.

It’s also worth looking at the reporter who wrote the story to get even deeper into answering that key question: “Who is behind the information?” Their reputations and experiences may offer insight into how they approached reporting the story. One of the two reporters with bylines on this story, Emma-Jo Morris, recently worked as a producer for Fox News’s Sean Hannity — a conservative commentator who has a cozy relationship with President Donald Trump — according to a LinkedIn account that surfaced during a simple web search of her name.

A web search for “NY Post Hunter Biden author” also surfaced an article from The New York Times that said Bruce Golding, a veteran New York Post reporter, refused to have his byline on the original Hunter Biden story, even though he wrote large parts of it, because of concerns over the article’s credibility. If that’s true, that’s a major red flag. Reporters should be able to confidently stand by the credibility of their work.

It’s worth noting, however, that the Times’ sources were anonymous (they didn’t want their names included in the article). Clearly The New York Times trusted these sources enough to publish what they had to say without including their names, but reporting that is based on anonymous sources is not as strong as reporting that includes sources who go on the record with their names (New York Magazine’s The Intelligencer published a similar report citing unnamed sources as well). This is all important context to take into account as well when you’re making your own judgments about the reliability of the New York Post report.

Also behind the information, as reported in the story: President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. The article states Bannon “told The Post about the hard drive in late September and Giuliani provided The Post with a copy of it on Sunday.” One major possible motive for these two sticks out. As close advisors to the president, they want him to win reelection and have something to gain by damaging Biden’s reputation.

What’s the evidence for their claims?

After checking sources’ biases and interests, take a hard look at their proof.

The Post’s story hinges on a hard drive that they say shows data from Hunter Biden’s laptop. The article includes pictures of Hunter Biden and the Biden family, as well as photos that are said to depict emails to and from Hunter Biden and prove the hard drive exists.

Check to see if other outlets can corroborate evidence. In this case, no other outlets have reported receiving the hard drive, making it impossible for them to independently confirm that it exists and shows what the Post claims it shows.

The key pieces of evidence for this story are the laptop and comments from Giuliani and Bannon. Consider how the evidence was obtained, if information available to you or other trusted news outlets can prove the evidence’s reliability and what it would mean if the evidence were reliable. Because evidence not available to the public is so crucial to this story, it should be particularly important to you that other outlets confirm the New York Post’s reporting.

What are other sources saying?

Coverage from other news outlets can add important details and context critical to effectively understanding a story like this.

A quick keyword search through your favorite search engine, and browsing the search results under the Google News tab and sorting by date (if you can), can lead you to articles like this from CBS News: “What we know — and don’t know — about Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop.”

It can be overwhelming to sift through the hundreds of stories published on this subject.

Explainer articles are a good place to start. Stories like this from Politico, this from The Washington Post and this from The Associated Press can help you get caught up. It’s good to use one of those media bias charts as a very rough guide and read reporting from multiple outlets across the political spectrum as well.

Fact-checking organizations can be a good source, too. Trust ones that lay out evidence you can follow. While fact-checkers haven’t taken a conclusive stance on the overall validity of the Post story, sources like PolitiFact (which is also part of the Poynter Institute), USA Today and FactCheck.org have stories worth reading on this.

One key thing you’ll notice in your research is that many news outlets have decided not to directly cover the Post’s claims about Hunter Biden because they cannot independently verify the allegations without access to the hard drive they are said to come from. Some have focused on covering the way tech companies handled the article, and others, such as NPR, have opted to intentionally focus on other events.

Let’s take a pause from your fact-checking for a second and share a little background on how newsrooms operate when it comes to exclusive reports.

When a news outlet lands an exclusive story, that means it got the scoop and that no other outlets have it — or at least, they got it first and it was exclusive at that time. But it’s important in these cases to see how other outlets report on another outlet’s exclusive story — if they choose to rely on the reporting of a competitor, or if they wait to corroborate the story independently before reporting the news themselves.

This dynamic has changed due to the rise of social media. Here’s an  example:

Outlet A publishes an exclusive story. Other news outlets “chase” the story — they wait to publish their own reports until they can confirm the story themselves. So Outlet A’s audience is the only one seeing the report. Sometimes, other outlets choose to report the story without independent confirmation (this is rare) and cite the work of Outlet A, weighing a number of pros and cons of keeping possibly very important information from their audience and having confidence in the reporting of Outlet A based on what they know to be true. This is the old way.

In today’s world, Outlet A’s story can go beyond its core audience through the power of social media algorithm amplification. It can get reshared by millions of individuals, or even a select few with millions of followers, and be seen by many, many people, even if it hasn’t been corroborated by other news outlets.

So today, many news outlets feel forced to put something out about Outlet A’s story, even if they may not have a decade ago.

This is why it really is so important to see what other outlets are saying about this New York Post story. Reading what your friends and family are saying about it on social media does not cut it.

A case study in social media platforms taking action

If you haven’t decided how you feel about this New York Post story based on all of this meaty, fact-checker-like research, there is one more thing to consider: the platforms.

This New York Post story will likely be studied by journalism classrooms across America for a long time and discussed by voters for years to come.

What’s also being discussed widely is how the various tech platforms reacted when it went viral in their online communities. As an information consumer, it’s good to follow and watch how the platforms react to stories like this — and on this one, they were all over the map.

Facebook limited the article’s reach because of the suspected possibility of false information in the story. Twitter blocked users from tweeting and messaging the link to the story (and then later reversed the decision). YouTube left a video from the New York Post about the Biden laptop story up on the platform, unrestricted.

Whether you agree with these moves or not, they’re another type of signal to look out for. If a major technology platform is taking action regarding a single story, that should tell you something and should give you pause.

Most major tech platforms created plans for handling misinformation and other controversial content ahead of the election, as PolitiFact’s Daniel Funke reported. Generally, when these organizations apply their misinformation rules, that should be a red flag alerting you to give something another look.

For stories that involve U.S. intelligence agencies, look to see what intelligence experts are saying, too. Experts have spoken out on both sides of this story. Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, a Trump appointee, said the set of published emails “is not part of some Russian disinformation campaign.” However, dozens of former intelligence officials have pushed back to suggest it is.

Approach every controversial story you see — Hunter Biden and beyond — with these media literacy tips. These tools work well beyond this New York Post article. When you take the time to be critical of controversial content, you’ll be more prepared to make an informed decision and avoid sharing bad information with people you care about.

This is a digital media literacy analysis piece written for Poynter by the MediaWise team, to help the public learn how to sort fact from fiction online using fact-checking skills. For more media literacy tips, follow @MediaWise across social media including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube and visit poynter.org/mediawise.

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Katy Byron is the editor and program manager of Poynter’s MediaWise, a non-profit project teaching millions of Americans how to sort fact from fiction online.…
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