The Questions To Ask About The News

On Tuesdays I write about the top voted question on Ask Berkun (see the lovely archive). This week’s question came via email from S.P.:

I often feel overwhelmed by the news I read. How can I better manage my responses?

The news is of course defined by what is new, but the implication has always been that somehow we are informed about the world by consuming “the news” and good citizens are informed ones. Yet as news shifted in the 1970s from being a public service to a business, the organizations that provide it had new preferences for what to share, and how to share it. Neil Postman wrote,  “I do not mean to imply that… news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result.”

Of course, we are more upset or fearful than entertained when we hear of another school shooting or violent crime, but the reasons why it is chosen are similar. It’s the power of drawing attention that drives media as a business and it’s easier to gain attention for negative reasons than for happier ones. For example, the top trending story will never be “mostly the world, and your neighborhood, is doing better than, or the same as it was yesterday” despite how often this is true, since it’s not a dramatic story. In a sense, it’s not considered newsworthy even if it’s more important to know than the most recent homicide (or all of the “new” things that happened that week). This alone makes news a distortion of reality that is hard for many to notice. Some news sources are more balanced than others, but the news is never neutral. News has an obsession with the immediate present and your life should not.

More profoundly, when a report of a homicide headlines the news, we tend to assume crime is worse. If the crime were in a nearby neighborhood, we might be less likely to visit wherever the crime occurred, or may even avoid going out into public at all. But in reality, the crime rate in that area might be the same as it has been for years, or even be at an all-time low, but the constant news about it shapes our perception more than the reality. Put another way, the individual incident can’t tell you anything about what the trends are. And it follows that an individual news story can’t likely tell you much about the trends either. We mostly consume microunits of news, headlines and skimmable paragraphs, free of any greater meaning or information to help us put the “news” into a coherent worldview that would actually make us more informed.

The top news event on any given day can mean one of two things:

  1. Something important and profound with lasting consequences may have happened
  2. Something that easily draws attention but has little substance on any trend changing occurred

Reporters often take the stance that they can’t know which one is right for a particular event since it just happened. They would claim that it’s only over time that hindsight lets us understand what really happened and to see which events signified real change. Sometimes that’s true, but that suggests we’d all be better off reading the news once a week, when journalists have made more sense of what happened and have a thoughtful context to offer. But we crave novelty, and media businesses thrive on providing it. Few of us have the self-control to resist the ways media tempts us to consume right now.

But even when reading breaking news, there are simple questions that, if asked, help put the top news of the day into a context that helps us be truly informed. These questions include:

  1. What is the source? Who paid for this to be written?
  2. What assumptions are you confirming are true, but aren’t in this news itself (see confirmation bias)?
  3. Why did this get your attention? What feeling did it generate? Did reading/hearing more than just the headline change that feeling?
  4. Is there another story from an equally reputable source that puts this news in a different context?
  5. How is this event any different from the last time an event like it occurred?
  6. What pattern, if any, does this event form with similar ones over the last week/month/year/decade/century?
  7. Does this event fit, or is an outlier, to the primary accepted theories for what is happening in this field/city/community/profession?
  8. What alternative explanations or meanings can this event signify (including the possibility that the event alone signifies nothing)?
  9. How many other similarly probable events occurred today? Or occur each year?

What other questions should we be asking of the news we read? Leave a comment with suggestions. Thanks.

13 Responses to “The Questions To Ask About The News”

  1. Thomas Svensen

    Thank you for an interesting question and reply!

    I see myself, and even more my younger colleagues, reading less and less news, perhaps partly because of the challenges mentioned in your text. This makes me wonder what is the result if we stop reading news? As the person asking the question says, it may be tough to read the news. So, what is the value of putting ourselves through it? Should I be ashamed if I stop reading news? Are we even more likely victims of confirmation bias if read less general news and choose to focus on a dedicated subject, e.g. the area of my work?

    1. Scott Berkun

      Great questions! I didn’t think of these sorts of ones as they’re more personal, rather than ones about the news itself.

      I definitely think about reading the news *less* and more thoughtfully. I try to read more longer pieces as the short bits are superficial – it’s like skimming across a surface of an ocean and pretending you know what’s at the bottom.

      But in thinking about your questions I realized that I use Twitter daily and often listen to PBS evening news while I’m cooking dinner. So even I have waves of headlines passing over/through me every day. It’s passive and I don’t but too much stock in it, but it’s there and how can I know how much it effects me or not. PBS certainly has it’s biases but the format of their show is often a smaller amount of longer stories, which I find more likely to allow me to raise questions.

  2. Sean Crawford

    I like how you guys read.

    When I first learned (decades ago) that more people get their news from television than from newspapers I was as annoyed as a sports fan being told that more people read the entertainment section that the sports section. Grrr! Ah, reality.

    As for reading the paper, the stories are built so that the editor, for space, can cut rom the bottom up, and so that the reader, for time, can stop any time after the first paragraph or two. Maybe part of not being overwhelmed is feeling permission not to read each story word for word.

    In my Canadian city, according to the police, you can’t get killed unless you go looking for it. (Such as being in a bar argument with a person of low self esteem at midnight) The city is safe, police say, (which matches my experience) yet polls show that people feel unsafe. I think this is less from the news, and more from TV dramas and our paranoid culture.

    Coincidently, I can’t resist saying: Last night at Toastmasters I did a speech explaining journalistic ethics, and took questions afterwards. For each (three) point I explained, I am posting a thousand words-or-more blog essay, starting today. My speech title was “Dwindling Journalistic Ethics”, because newspapers are dwindling.

    1. Dave Gordon

      Television journalism is to journalism as television personality is to personality.

      I’m sure you’ve heard the old saw that dog-bites-man is not news, but man-bites-dog is news. While the news can be a source of entertainment, especially when some man bites a dog, such incidents are a statistic with a sample size of one. Tabulated instances of dog-bites-man and related details can be statistically analyzed for correlations like breed, time of year, distance from the animal’s home, the behavior of the man immediately prior to the incident, and so on. We call this information. Good public policy is based on information, and bad public policy is based on the news.

      1. Sean Crawford

        Speaking of TV, I like how Scott linked to Neil Postman’s book—It’s so good, I have seen chapter one published as a stand-alone essay.

        I want to say that Postman also wrote How to Watch TV News.

  3. Mary Clark

    I like my middle school students to look at what else the journalist has written. Is she primarily covering national politics, but the article is on an international topic? If he’s writing about crime, how many other articles can you find by him on similar topics? Can we assume a level of expertise? Should we?

    Also, I stress finding multiple reputable sources–or even not so reputable–on the same topic. Getting students to read laterally can produce groans, but when they find that one article that covers the same event, with the same data, but with different emotionally charged words, it’s a lightbulb moment!

    1. Sean Crawford

      Lately I’ve been going on the BBC website which offers both prose articles and videos. It’s nice to get a foreign take on, for instance, U.S. guns.

      There was a prose piece with photos about a U.S. family that had two children involved in two separate school mass shootings. When I search engined the topic using the mother’s name I found only BBC sources. I hope U.S. reporters covered the story too, and I simply missed them, maybe because U.S. reporters stressed different search words.

  4. David Smith

    Firstly, based on your article, I subscribed and look forward to reading more of your work.

    Responding to how a reader can better manage their responses to the news, I admit to thinking about how they might be responding now to the news as follows:

    If you often click on emails that start with “Congratulations, Sexy or Your account,” I suggest you never click on hyperlinks, images, advertising or underlined words when reading the news. As news becomes more of a profit center, writers become more skillful at eliciting responses from readers. Anytime you click on anything you are at some risk.

    If you often blog excepts from the news to your twitter followers or facebook friends, I suggest you adopt other hobbies – learning Tai Chi, how to cook vegetarian, exercises you can do at home without weights or shampooing your cat (okay, perhaps not the cat), dog or significant other’s hair. You will earn real points.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Successfully shampooing a cat without injury would definitely make the news.

  5. Chance Cook

    I’d love to find ways to read breaking news and then be truly informed. I don’t want to be someone who just reads or watches the news and then takes it as fact. Being able to challenge what I have learned and then compare it to other news articles will help me learn the truth of the matter.

  6. Shammy Peterson

    I agree that it is important for breaking news to answer even simple questions in order for their context to be understood. My husband and I are interested in subscribing to newspapers so we could be aware of what is locally happening around us. We want to be involved and make a voice as needed for matters that affect us.


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