Consuming the News; a Methodological Approach
What we think we know is much less important than making sure that we have a reliable method for coming to knowledge. This idea, that there exists a method for knowing the world, is the basis for the scientific method, a concept and process which has made the world an immeasurably better place to live and which has vastly accelerated our understanding of the world. As we enter into a new era of media ubiquity, it occurs to me that it would be useful to borrow from this idea and create a codified method for knowing things when it comes to the consumption of information. We live in a new world where we are bombarded on all sides by messages of dubious provenance, and without a method of knowing how to source and evaluate information, we will find ourselves picking without a method for our choosing.
What I am proposing here is the use of a method for determining how to know if things about our world are true. This has never been more important. We live in an age where seeing may not be tantamount to believing, especially when it comes to photo and video we find online. We are at a place where we find ourselves in real peril when sources purport to offer news while instead working to further an agenda. To be responsible citizens of the world, to make rational decisions, we have to establish a method that avoids these pitfalls and which is, like the scientific method, both repeatable and reliable.
Inform yourself intentionally, never accidentally.
This is both absolutely vital, and spectacularly difficult. As we move through our digital lives, we are bombarded with messages, most of which we will not take the time to fully, critically absorb. These are the most dangerous messages that we encounter because their repetition, absent engagement with our critical faculties, leads us to believe things as more intrinsically likely before we have applied critical thinking standards to them. The antidote to this is to make it a point to only consume important information, in full form or headline, as part of your intentional news gathering process. You will have to avoid all sources where news may be part of your viewing or reading life that happens casually. This means avoiding following, liking, or subscribing to any news or people who post news on social media accounts You will need to hide people who post stories, links, and memes about politics and current events. Your friends, even your well intentioned, educated friends, who post news and current events will, by repetition and because you are sympathetic to their views, color your views and slant your worldview. Social media should be for puppy pictures, gender reveals, and braggy fitness messages; it is not a credible place to find details about what is happening in the world.
Vet your sources.
It is very challenging to know for sure what sources to trust, but there are some tests that you can apply which will weed out bad actors. For any source that you are considering for trustworthiness, that source must pass the following tests:
Do they have a physical office where employees work?
Poor sources do not spend money on office space; they are entirely digital because lies are cheap to produce.
Does the source have a revenue model that makes sense and appears sustainable?
Can you buy a physical version or digital version of their product? If you can’t buy it, beware of how they are making enough money to pay for quality reporting.
Do they have ad revenue from large companies? Large companies sponsor quality news sites because they understand that their brand reputation is linked to who they advertise with. If the ads on a page are junk, so is the reporting.
Is the site full of pop ups? If so, this is a junk site. Quality news is paid for by subscribers and ads from major Fortune 500 companies. They don’t need to spam their page with pop ups and junk from no-name companies.
Are their reporters identified and can you read about them and their credentials?
Quality news sources hire talented reporters, and like any company, their reputation is built on showcasing that talent. These reporters are identified and will yield results when you search for the author. They will have gone to school to learn their trade and they will likely have worked at other reputable companies.
Do not confuse news with opinion.
Know the difference between news and editorials, opinion, and analysis. Opinions, editorials, and analysis should not be considered news. These are a supplement to news, and should not be thought of as synonymous with news itself. Be wary of steeping yourself in analysis, opinion, or editorial pieces. A high volume of opinion journalism will color your views with other people’s thoughts rather than provide you with facts to consider on your own. No matter how satisfying it may seem to read material which analyzes the news in ways that you agree with, doing so in quantity or at the expense of consuming fact driven news will damage your ability to think critically. Do not consume analysis or opinion pieces unintentionally. Opinion or analysis pieces, even humorous ones, should be consumed only after you have identified what direction the author is taking and you have a baseline understanding of the underlying issues being discussed. Avoid any source which masquerades opinion as news, they are a blight on the information landscape.
Be extremely careful of consuming “primary sources” without a full understanding of context.
The internet is full of video that, because of editing, may lead viewers to believe something which is not functionally true. Examples include video from which important details or context have been removed, video which is mislabelled, video which is in a foreign language and which is inaccurately subtitled, and video which cannot be corroborated to be from where it purports to be sourced. Evaluating primary sources accurately is very difficult, and the internet has made it much, much harder. Do not trust your skills in evaluating primary sources if you are not trained to do so.
Watch for incendiary language
Remove sources from your trusted news provider list when that reporting is laced with unnecessary, gratuitous, or inflammatory language. Pay attention to how the source you are evaluating uses adjectives, adverbs and verbs. Are they choosing terms which seem intended to incite emotion? If so, be wary of this source. If this is a trend, that is not a credible source and should be avoided.
Look for citations
Does the source cite its own sources and do they provide names, dates, and links to relevant corroboration whenever possible? Sites of dubious intent and veracity make claims using nebulous language intentionally to avoid specificity. When news organizations are required to be specific, that means that they are making claims which can be checked by outside sources. Poor quality news sources will avoid writing with specificity and without clear sourcing because this allows them to avoid third party fact checking. While some sources may publish VERY OCCASIONAL pieces with anonymous sources or authors, those pieces should be extremely few, and the anonymity should be noted in the article and credibly explained.
The world is an increasingly complex place, and no one is educationally equipped to evaluate claims made within fields they are not personally trained in or without a formal education in that field. You will need to rely on subject matter experts to help you make sense of the world. While there is nothing wrong with this, you must have a method for determining which voices are credible. First, look for credentials specific to the source of the claims. If, for example, someone is a general practice doctor, they are not a subject matter expert on disease mitigation and public health, those are separate disciplines. Real expertise is specific. Be wary of those using tangentially related expertise to claim specific knowledge, those are not credible sources of information.
Look too for consensus when reading news about claims which have a high degree of complexity. The greater the consensus of field experts, the more likely that information is to be accurate. Similarly, be wary of experts who act as a lone voice in a sea of opposing consensus. That lone voice is not, historically speaking, likely to be correct. Always remember that you are unlikely to be an expert in this field yourself, so make sure that the expertise you rely on is credible.
Do not trust your feelings
If you avoid consuming news as an accidental process, and if you avoid confusing news with editorials, opinion pieces, and analysis, you will, over time, become less emotionally reactive to the news that you consume. You will, as a result, grow less likely to consume news in a way that serves primarily to reinforce a viewpoint, and you will become a better and more objective consumer of facts and information. It is our natural inclination to consume views and seek out facts which agree with how we see the world and which reinforces our biases. You have to be very aware of and guard against this. Most true things exist and are reported on in multiple, credible locations. Credible, honest stories will appear in many places. Anything you can only find in one location is very unlikely to be true.