How to Read the News

It's harder than you think

Americans don’t like to eat their vegetables. It’s easy not to when cheap, deliciously engineered alternatives bombard us with bright colors and tempting packages. As our taste buds become accustomed to overpowering flavors designed to make us want to eat more, we lose our taste for the complex dishes that take time, special preparation, and higher quality ingredients to make.

…wait …weren’t we talking about the news?

The paradigm of news consumerism has shifted drastically, and no one’s quite sure how to deal with it. With aggregator sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, and the rise of “clickbait” stories, getting massive amounts of web traffic, funding for content creators has taken a massive hit. Today, most US newspapers, sites, and channels strive to be instantaneous, but this desire can compromise quality.

The “veggies” of the news industry are the stories we don’t always want to read: the deep-think pieces that involve months of on-the-ground reporting, written with the views of both sides taken into consideration, and that forgo simplistic conclusions in favor of a more complex picture. If web statistics are any measure, we’d all rather see “12 photos that prove ISIS hates dogs” and not think about the effect young populations, high youth unemployment, effective propaganda, and drone strikes have had on the recruitment tactics of terrorist organizations in the Middle East.

It is much easier to accept someone else’s opinion, or the conclusions you’ve been led to in a biased article than it is to formulate your own opinion based on evidence. Part of the solution is to read a breadth of books and articles by different authors, each trying to prove something different. Another part is to make a commitment to travel. It’s true that we can’t all go to different parts of the world any time we want to know more about the Middle East, but a visit to another country can make all the difference in the way you consume news. Being on the ground gives you a feel for which sources have hands-on experience, and which have an academic knowledge. Plus, it’s an adventure!

Reading the news is only the first step. Events and facts need to be digested, considered rationally from multiple angles, and that takes time. Most mass media is constructed to get you, the user, to click on as many different shiny stories as possible. There are no reliable metrics to tell how long individual users spend reading a story, so the aim of web content producers is not to get you to spend your time with one article, but with many. This glut of information makes staying informed a Sisyphean task. Being informed is not the same as being able to regurgitate trivia, haphazardly culled from the Internet. To be truly informed is to recognize the limits of the information provided to you, and to challenge the conclusions to which you’ve been lead by the author.

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