a while back (August, 2021) we started a series of posts on "How to find anything." This somewhat outrageous claim promised a series of posts that, when collected together, might form a kind of How-To-Search book organized by topic. That is, how to search for... something!
As part of that series, we started working on "How to find News and late breaking information." Here are links to the first 3 posts on this topic.
And then, later that month, I buried the summary of these "how to find news" in a post we wrote a while back that wasn't part of the series. Oops.
That was a tactical error: all that work, and then the summary got lost in the midst of the blog.
So I'm going to fix this accidental hiding. In this post I re-edit and re-surface that summary here, making it easier to find. Today's post is the seventh in the "How to find anything series" and number 4 in the How to Find News and Late Breaking Information--Summary miniseries.
In any case, here are the basics of what you should know when searching for reliable and credible news (aka late-breaking information).
A. When you have a strong response to a story, check it before believing it! Many stories are often written to elicit a response, especially political stories. When you find yourself being outraged, or remarkably pleased, consider yourself manipulated.
That might be okay, maybe even desirable when you're reading fiction, but when it happens in your news reading, you should pause for a moment and try to read it without the emotion-inducing material. Here's a made-up example:
I can't believe Senator Smith voted for this outrageously expensive and immoral funding bill. He should be barred from the senate for life! What an irresponsible low-life.
Now, if you read this without the over-the-top language, you get a very different read:
... Senator Smith voted for .. this.. funding bill....
The rest of that paragraph is opinion. You should form those opinions for yourself rather than just accepting the writer's point-of-view. The opinion can be useful information, but when you find yourself reacting strongly to a story, try this "affect-free reading" style and see if you come away with the same information.
B. Triangulate your sources. The same story told from different viewers can be very different. Don't make the mistake of thinking multiple sources means different reporters, different written accounts, or different points-of-view. It is, unfortunately, all too common to copy/repeat a story. (And even data sets.) ESPECIALLY on news that comes to you via social media sources. Check for duplicates.
C. Pull from different kinds of sources. Images, videos, long-form stories, news reports... they're all very different. They have different production cycles, different ways of being edited, and very different impacts on the reader. A nice article as seen in hardcopy newsprint media is rather different than a 10-second video summary of the news. Short videos are intentionally punchy, even if they have to distort a few things to get your clicks.
D. Cultivate a set of sources that you trust. You really should get to know more than your one most-trusted source. For instance, I tend to listen to and trust NPR radio for accurate reporting. But I also know about the BBC (in the UK) and other news outlets in the US, each with their own point-of-view. You really should be able to quickly get to the top 4 or 5 sources that you really trust... and be able to say why you trust them.
E. Cultivate a set of sources that give you another perspective that you don't agree with. Filter bubbles are real, but they're mostly bubbles that we create for ourselves. Don't be a bubblehead! Think about the set of resources you read all the time and make sure you vary your diet. (I subscribe to a couple of very conservative news feeds that put articles in my email every day. It's useful to see how other people think and what they find valuable / believable.)
F. Understand the background and point-of-view of the source you're reading. This is true no matter what your source. Realize that (for instance) the Wall Street Journal tends to be more conservative in their reporting than the New York Times. Realize also that any good source typically has a suite of different viewpoints within it. (Beware of any source that doesn't have some built-in diversity--that suggests they're perilously close to having a party line in their reporting.)
G. Look for reporting that originates close to the story. Several people have pointed out that reporting on stories with local reporters can be incredibly valuable. Beware of stories that are filed remotely, without any reportage from the story location. It's too easy for people to write about what they're told, rather than what they've experience. When in doubt, go for direct experience.
H. Look for an author who has expertise in the subject matter. Look at the writer's back catalog of stories--have they done this kind of thing before? What have they done to give you a sense that they know what they're talking about? (I'm very skeptical of writers who claim to understand the subtle and complex issues of the Middle East if they haven't spent substantial time there.)
I. Do your own background fact checking. You'll develop a sixth sense about this over time--you start to understand what basic facts to check in order to credibility-check an article. If they don't get the basic facts right, then the rest of the article is dubious. (Example: Check the numbers on a story--did they get those right? When a place name is mentioned, check it out--does the image of the place agree with what's written about it?)
J. Do things fit together? That is, does what you're reading in an article fit with things you've learned before. If this is a new topic area for you, this might be hard to evaluate. But the more you learn about a topic, the better you'll be able to make these evaluations. (And when you're stuck, spend a little time learning about the topic... it will make you a better judge of what you're reading.)
REALISTICALLY... what will you do?
I don't know about you, but I'm pretty busy. I don't really have the time and energy to check every single story I read. You probably don't either. In truth, almost nobody does. So, what should you do at minimum?
Typically, I do these four things for every story:
1. Pay attention to the emotional level of the story. If it's hot, I'll re-scan it by doing the "affect removal reading" trick of above. Still interesting?
2. Do a quick Google search to check on some basic element of the story. If it doesn't check out, I'm done. And don't just do the easy things, but check on the slightly harder things to look up. You're a SearchRearcher! Prove it!
3. If I don't know the author and/or the network (channel, publication), I'll do a quick search on them (often using the -site: trick to exclude their own self-serving articles). This will sometimes show up a low-quality site pretty quickly, and if it's a high quality channel, that usually shows up as well.
4. Browse and read laterally. That is, don't JUST read the news story and the links they provide--the authors have heavy motivation to give you just corroborating connections. Instead, don’t spend a lot of time on the page or site until you've first gotten your bearings by looking at what other sites and resources say about the source you're reading at the moment.
This list looks long, but it's usually a pretty quick set of things to do. Pay attention; check a fact or two; check the publication source; make sure all parts of the story are coherent; read laterally. I can do this (and you can too!) in less than 1 minute.
There are obviously a lot more things one can do. But I hope you'll make these fairly straightforward steps a regular part of the way you search for (and read!) news.
As always, Search On!