Almost without any real effort on their part, ordinary individuals of the information age are exposed daily to a sheer wealth of information. It is a huge task to separate valid facts from speculative or downright false information. The Internet, around-the-clock cable television, newspapers and mobile communications combined offer so many avenues for disseminating of information that often news is spread wide and across, before it has even been properly verified.

Although journalists are expected to ensure a higher standard of authenticity than an over-avid SMS user, who forwards any rumours he/she comes across as potential health and security warnings, even the news media often sidesteps important journalistic protocols to cash in on sensational angles or breaking news value. Not only do such practices compromise important journalistic ethics but, more crucially, in a country like Pakistan, where the majority of the viewers and readers comprise less educated, gullible audiences, they mislead people and start a vicious cycle of utterly baseless rumours and gossip mongering, which ultimately becomes so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to separate the facts from the fiction.

A brilliant recent example was the mobile virus hoax propagated in 2007. The mystery virus could allegedly do anything from simply messing up your phone device to downright killing you! What started off as a relatively harmless chain email and SMS message, which originated out of a practical joke, eventually ended up as breaking news health warning on certain news channels. It was only days later, after a full blown education campaign by the telecom regulators, that all needless hysteria finally subsided. Thus, ordinary news watchers cannot trust the news providers to give them the correct information.

A fair deal of the responsibility lies on us to confirm any news we hear or read. It is not only a common sense practice but also a religious obligation, as described in Surah Hujurat: “O you who believe! If a rebellious evil person comes to you with a news, verify it, lest you harm people in ignorance, and afterwards you become regretful to what you have done.” (49:6) Although this verse refers specifically to news brought by a rebellious and evil person, scholars suggest that believers should verify any news brought to them by any source, before believing it and passing it on to others. Here are the top three questions to ask ourselves, whenever we read or hear a news story:

Source: Where is this news coming from? It is vital to determine the authenticity of the source of any news. We shouldn’t just assume that because a certain report is appearing on TV or in a newspaper it will necessarily be correct. We should further check to see, if it’s an original report or news syndicated from another source. If it is an original report, do a background check on the reporter or correspondent breaking the story. In case of a syndicated story, check if it comes from well known news agency. Some newspapers and channels do have a reputation of being more sensationalist than others, and almost every news source has certain inherent predispositions (a liberal or conservative slant, for instance), which should also be kept in mind, when ascertaining the credibility of any source.

Balance: Is the news too one-sided? Every news story has two sides, and any news story that gives you just one side is not balanced. So if you’re tuning in to watch election coverage, and the state television is showing you one government official after another testifying to the fairness and transparency of the balloting process, but does not include any opposition members, let alone their views, you know something’s fishy. Balance is particularly important in news stories about crime and politics. View with suspicion a report, which logs only one aggrieved party’s grievances. Watch out for the bias that editors and producers sometimes deliberately create via selecting and emphasizing some facts and figures over others, strategically placing certain news in headline or front pages and by using specific tones or names to refer to certain incidents or people (for instance, a new report that describes a staunch scholar as a ‘radical cleric’).

Accuracy: Are the facts in this report logically consistent? Make use of your common sense to read and watch between and beyond the lines and tapes. If a news channels is broadcasting something it claims was shot in the Northern Areas, but appears like it could easily have been taped elsewhere in the country, view it with skepticism. A good way to determine the credibility of a report is the amount of citations it has – the more experts or other credible sources it quotes, the higher is the likelihood of accuracy.

By following this simple guide, we can ensure that we are not misled ourselves and prevent the propagation of false or speculative news to others.