A good starting rule to follow is to consider the source of the information. Larger news networks tend to be credible more often, while groups that have been wrong before or that obviously are biased are much less reliable. While CNN, for example, doesn’t get everything they report on right, I’d be more willing to trust a report they write regarding cattle than a similar report presented by PETA.
If there’s any question, there are numerous sites--Snopes.com, for example—that one can use to fact check information. The worst thing one can do in a case where the evidence or information is in doubt is simply regurgitate the headline.
The other rule to follow is to use common sense. If the information itself or the headline sounds like it was designed to be inflammatory, chances are it was. Even when information described is statistically accurate, the way that it’s presented can be really misleading. Take, for example, the recent headline iterations of the statement “38% of Americans won’t drink Corona because of the coronavirus” used by CNN, CBS, and FOX. These are all generally reputable news sources, yet they all reported on the same technically correct information in an extremely misleading way.
The poll these organizations reference only surveyed 737 American beer drinkers over twenty one, and 5WPR, the public relations committee that released the poll data, has not provided a complete list of questions and responses despite numerous requests to do so. Furthermore, the numbers are not being communicated accurately: 38% of Americans said that they would not purchase Corona now, but that survey question includes Americans who would not normally choose Corona at all. According to 5WPR, only 4% of respondents who would typically drink Corona would not purchase it because of the Coronavirus. That’s a difference of at least a hundred million Americans.
Finding out that the poll was unreliable and inaccurately represented by 5WPR only took a few minutes of information gathering, but it’s not always that easy.
The messy truth is, many current important issues don’t have the benefit of being fully resolved or completely understood. That seems to lead toward a paradox: in order to be a good citizen, one should be aware of and vocal about current and controversial issues, yet often those issues are the ones most mired in misinformation, so complex that it’s almost impossible to be fully and well informed.
So what is one to do? My advice is this: pursue the truth unfailingly, always seek to learn as much as possible, and be humble enough to change course if it becomes necessary.