JUST THE FACTS: Everyone plays a role in stopping the spread of false information

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Congress can make no law censoring a free press is among the first guarantees spelled out by our nation's founders, along with the right to free speech, free exercise of religion and the right to assemble. Just like free speech and the right to worship, the free press has inspired plenty of disagreement.
But perhaps, never with so many criticizing it, including the President of the United States.

Given the times we live in, veteran journalist Al Tompkins says you, the news consumer, need to guard yourself against bad information.

"It's on us to make good judgments based on those four questions," Tompkins explained.  "What do I know? What do I need to know? How do I actually know that? Is there any other way to look at that?"

What is 'fake news?' 

"One, it's not just something you wish hadn't happened," Tompkins explained. "Two, it's often motivated by money or power, sometimes by politics. Fake news to me has an intent, I intend to mislead you. Or, I intend to cause chaos so that you're not paying attention to something else that's going on."

How can I guard against it?

With reports of Russian bots targeting interest groups across the political spectrum, intending to rile them up with false information, what can the average citizen do? Because the truth is, you, the viewer, play a crucial role in stopping the spread of false information.

"When you watch the news, ask yourself, 'How do they know that,' Tompkins advised. "What are their sources of information? Are their sources reliable? Would those sources have a reason to say what they're saying? What's there past reliability? What's their motivation?"

A key way to guard against 'fake news' is recognizing what's real.

"We believe in the ultimate wisdom of the people to be able to hear evidence and make decisions," Tompkins said. "That relies on the free flow of information. Information you might agree with, information you might disagree with. We lay it to you to be able to weigh that out and say what of this do I believe?"

Can someone go to jail because of what they said or wrote?

It's happened before in a politically charged climate.

"The sedition act of 1918 was repealed, was found to be unconstitutional by the supreme court two years later but by then, some people had been in prison for almost two years," Tompkins said. "You could also be fined a huge amount of money just for criticizing the government of the United States."

So, things could be worse. Still, each of us has a right to free information and the power to use it for good.

Poynter Media Trust Survey

According to a 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey, more than 75% of people across the political spectrum have either a 'great deal' or 'fair amount' of trust in local TV news.

Poynter interviewed more than 2,000 people across the country in July. More than 60% of people polled say journalists 'keep political leaders from doing things that shouldn't be done.'