How to Read the News
Keeping Up With the News You Need, Not Just the News You Want
The news is absolutely insane right now! It’s coming at us from every angle, every minute of every day. The drama is extreme, the cast is ever-expanding, and it’s hard to know what to make of it.
Even if you’ve found a reliable source with credible information, it can be difficult to decipher what that information means. Without expansive context, how could you be expected to do so? Plus there’s, you know, work, your family, and the rest of your life. It’s almost too much to bear.
As an avid consumer of the news, I wanted to help others solve this problem. While I won’t pretend to be able to give you a comprehensive breakdown of what’s going on, I can give you a few tips for researching, finding the facts, and cutting through the hysteria. Here’s how you keep up without going crazy.
Find Multiple Reliable Sources
While every news source is guilty of some level of bias, not all sources are created equal. Many organizations lean hard one way or the other and do little to fact check any bit of information that agrees with their point of view.
This isn’t to say that you should completely avoid any media company with a point of view. Some organizations with bias present stories in ways that could certainly expand your mind and perspective. Watching Fox News or reading HuffPost isn’t going to seal you up in the conservative or liberal bubble, provided of course that you balance out that intake with other sources.
Reading the New York Times, Politico, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, or other relatively center, more cerebral publications will serve you well. Their longer form will help to balance out the more sensational headlines you’ll find on television, Twitter, or websites that host a more extreme perspective.
Personally, I’ve found Axios to be a real treasure, though their commitment to brevity can sometimes leave readers who are just getting started with serious news lacking important context. You’ll need to find the sources that are right for you.
The key here is to intake information from multiple sources. This will give you a more comprehensive view of the issues and help you to avoid extreme bias, misinformation, or outright lies. Remember, if information seems too good, too convenient, too sensational, or too extreme to be true, it probably is. This isn’t always the case, sometimes the news is a trip, but it is a good rule of thumb.
Read Beyond the Headline, Watch Beyond the Teaser
This is probably the most important advice I can give. Headlines are meant to draw you in. Teasers for an upcoming segment are meant to prevent you from changing the channel during the commercials. Sometimes teasers last for an entire show and eventually only serve to hurt the credibility of the host.
Once you dive into the content, though, you might often find a serious lack of substance. Headlines and teasers can be highly suggestive, but in the midst of a full article or extended segment it becomes quite clear what kind of evidence actually exists. When you’re reading or watching a full piece, you gain context. You begin to see the sources the material is drawing from, you begin to discover the purpose of the article, you see if those it focuses on have commented on the subject, and you gain some sense of the history surrounding the issue.
This also serves as another credibility check. Shorter articles, pieces with very few sources or small, chopped up quotes, or pieces that are very self-referential probably aren’t as reliable.
A Difference of Opinion
Keep in mind that opinion pieces are just that, opinions. They are not to be treated as news, but rather an individualized perspective on the news. While this is common on newspapers, blogs, and websites, the principle carries over into television.
Fox News, for example, has often commented to critics that shows like “Hannity” are to be viewed as entertainment, not news. Hannity himself has plainly stated “I’m not a journalist”. Viewers are welcome to watch these products, of course, but they should consider Maddow, Hannity, and Tucker Carlson to be on the same level as John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Bill Maher. They’re talking about current events, sure, but they’re not bound by the burden of proof or objectivity in the same way that journalists are.
Taking in material like this can do a great deal to educate viewers, help them build context, and serve as the spoon full of sugar accompaniment to the often-bitter pill of the news. Still, they should be just that, an accompaniment, and not the main course.
Consume with Consistency
The most difficult part of being well-informed is dealing with the massive amount of new information that becomes available each day. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with every new development, read every article, process every tweet-storm, and watch every interview.
The good news is that you don’t need to do that. It’s not necessary to keep track of everything that’s happening, even within a particular story. However, it is extremely beneficial for consumers to keep up in a relatively consistent fashion.
There will always be a new development, but going through a complete rundown once or twice a week will actually create more harmony than it disturbs. Once you begin to understand that each new revelation does not necessarily change everything immediately, you start to see the news as a longer thread. You begin to understand that you can leave it alone for some time without worrying you’ll miss something.
As a result of the fact that we’re able to constantly connect to everything, we sometimes feel that we have to do so, lest we miss out. Gaining a broader understanding of developments allows for more nuanced opinions and less extremism. This practice will serve to improve your understanding more than anything else.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask questions. This seems truly simple, but it’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that you need to have an immediate opinion on everything that’s happening. That is, obviously, impossible and ill-advised.
Instead, don’t be afraid to reach out to others who might be able to explain things you don’t really understand. Talk to friends who have expertise, tweet or email the author of something you’ve read to inquire about a detail, or ask your parents what it all means. Not only will it help you on your own quest for knowledge, it might inspire others to go on their own.