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September 15, 2012 / Sandy Asher

REALLY READING THE NEWS

Democracy requires concerned, thoughtful citizens and well-informed voters.  Yet media bombard us with indiscriminate information, producing a feeling of being hurtled forward helplessly without rhyme or reason.  Readers, viewers, and surfers need to separate truth from chaff. 

Here’s a quick guide to really “reading” the news:

1. Be aware that most oddball stories serve primarily to entertain or shock. They’re marketing tools.  Events of long-term significance remain in the headlines for weeks, not days.  

2. Be cautious of generalizations or assertions that defy logic. Proponents of the Vietnam War warned if we didn’t defeat the enemy on his turf, we’d have to do it on ours.  What were the odds of the miniscule North Vietnamese navy or air force transporting its army to our shores? 

3. Be alert to ideological bias and objectives — to proselytize, defend the status quo, gain political office, cover up mistakes, and/or denigrate individuals or groups. Was the agenda offered up by a liberal, a conservative, a libertarian, a feminist or a misogynist, or on Fox or MSNBC?  Easiest to recognize are blatantly one-sided polemics, especially when they use inflammatory language to stir emotions and inspire fear.

4. Be certain that the best way to assess a news story’s content is to consult different reputable sources on the same topic – on TV, on-line, AND in print.

5. Be skeptical of expert predictions.  In his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment:  How Good Is It?  How Can We Know?, Philip E.Tetlock showed that when experts were asked to pick one of three options about the probabilities of the United States going to war in the Persian Gulf, they “performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes.” 

6. Be careful about accepting statistics at face value or as irrefutable proof. Mark Twain in his inimitable fashion reminds us: “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” A Gallup Poll taken March 20-26 showed a 9% shift toward Obama among women 18 to 49. A second Gallup Poll taken at roughly the same time reported Obama’s favorability numbers for the same group fell by 4%. At best, statistics provide a still life of what the subjects thought at the moment. At worst, they frame questions to get the answers desired. 

7. Be ready to decode agendas concealed by language, such as the phrase “the American people believe.” “The American people” refers to a non-existent, like-minded group.  The phrase avoids serious discussion of disagreements.  Individuals “believe,” “understand,” and “demand.”  The American people rarely even “agree.”

8. Be wary of linguistic minefieldsMconsisting of wishes and opinions stated as fact.  Look for words such as would, should, ought and must; phrases and sentences beginning with the likes of it is our duty or our national interest requires; as well as adjectives, adverbs, and especially superlatives.  “Ours is the greatest country on earth” is an opinion.  “Ours is a country on earth” is a fact.

9. Be tuned to the mindset of those who cite small flaws in a policy to challenge all aspects of that policy. Mistakes made, say, in health care reform must be weighed against the alternative of doing nothing.  Mistakes can be corrected.  Throwing out the baby with the bathwater is reckless.

10. Be on guard for scapegoating, as when, for example, individuals or groups criticize the federal government non-stop for doing too much or too little, too late or too inefficiently, and/or single out government as responsible for all the country’s problems. Finding a scapegoat assures that the real problem will not be addressed.

11. Be dubious of those who claim that, left to their own devices, people will do the right thing for themselves, their neighbors, and the nation. This outlook perilously ignores American history and all literature on the dynamics of human behavior. 

12.  Be assured that simplistically diagnosed problems guarantee simplistic solutions.  Simplicity may score political points with frustrated constituents, but quick fixes make less urgent the need – and the willingness — to search for more comprehensive and lasting solutions.

13. Be patient with those whose opinions differ from your own, even when what they have to say is upsetting.  Pause.  Reset.  Listen.  As has been said about all conversation, the purpose is not to win but to understand. 

Thoughtful analysis of the news enables us all to fight the right battles for the right reasons.  Well-informed citizens are not swayed by their emotions – or by anyone else’s attempts to manipulate them.   They’re too busy really reading the news.

 

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10 Comments

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  1. JulesPaige / Sep 16 2012 6:03 pm

    I’ve never met a news report or reporter that wasn’t bias. The point is the informed citizen is also bias. For example I fully espouse that religious opinion should be left out of the regular editorial pages of my local paper – to me there is no place for a holy attitude that tells me I am going to hell if I don’t agree with their view. And frankly it is hard to continually be bombarded with politics that use statistics to spin their stories. To view the masses as David willing to slay Goliath is not an easy thing to do when one is worrying about paying bills, surviving cancer or old age, when your dream has disappeared and your retirement hopes have been ‘flushed’ by a government you thought you could trust. But someone has to do it…Frankly I’m not sure who that is.

    Ours is a divided political household. That doesn’t help either. At least we can agree to disagree, which is more that what our government parties can do. How about sending your article to your local paper? Unfortunately, while the advice is good, it might be to long and offensive to the Editors. After all they are ‘New-folk’ who make their living selling sensationalism.

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 17 2012 12:07 pm

      Thank you for your comments. We seem to be in agreement on many points. As for the newspaper, we’re fortunate here in having one that features editorials that reflect the full spectrum of viewpoints.

    • Rhonwyyn / Oct 1 2012 6:50 pm

      I find it interesting that JulesPaige used a biblical reference while complaining about religious opinion. Anyone else notice that? Historically and personally, religious beliefs (whether Christian or otherwise) make an impact on individual and collective thoughts and actions. It is disingenuous to attempt to remove religion from the conversation.

      • Harvey Asher / Oct 3 2012 12:22 am

        There’s much more to religion than discussion about an afterlife. Fortunately, we live in a country where people are allowed to speak their minds on all sides of an issue. We can each evaluate comments (according to the suggestions cited in my post), and we’re all free to ignore, respond, agree or criticize.

  2. tedewatt@comcast.net / Sep 17 2012 6:39 pm

    Harvey,

    Sound and sage advice in this hysteric election season.

    As President Reagan said “Trust but verify.”.

    Ted

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 18 2012 1:47 pm

      Thanks, Ted. I’d go with “Trust less, verify more.”

  3. Meryl Baer / Sep 18 2012 2:34 am

    One of the wonders of the Internet is the ability to easily check out additional views and news sources. I like to check out the BBC and Financial Times, for example, for insight into how the rest of the world views news stories.

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 18 2012 1:48 pm

      Good advice, Meryl. It’s always good to get perspective from abroad. As Sandy’s mother used to say, “If only you could see yourself as others see you.”

  4. Herman J / Sep 18 2012 5:57 pm

    Good one, Harvey. I’d love to see a poll checking how many times polls are misleading or inaccurate. Oh, wait, that’d be most of the time…I’m no mathematician (though I’ve played one on stage) and there is this thing called ‘law of large numbers’ and when these quick polls make bold, broad assertions based on polling 500 or 1,000 people I think they are abusing that law.

    • Harvey Asher / Sep 21 2012 4:46 pm

      Right you are, Herman. Plus the questions asked need to be carefully scrutinized because they can mislead and simplify complexities.

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