Five Tips on Responsible News Reading
It’s not as if newspapers haven’t always had a bias, you know. Haven’t you ever read articles from the Revolutionary or Civil War periods? Scathing editorials, name calling — those papers were rich with bias. The idea of fake news is so shocking to our day not because it’s new, but because for decades, news services pretended to be objective. It was all bogus, but most people played along.
Now that fake news is (ironically) in the news, the question becomes what to do about it. Charlotte Mason’s advice is to read both sides:
We must read our newspaper, of course — newspapers on both sides… (Ourselves, p. 74)
But check out what immediately follows:
but he who founds upon his newspaper is an ignorant patriot and an illiberal citizen.
We don’t depend upon newspapers. In Towards a Philosophy of Education, Miss Mason says:
Every person has many opinions whether his own honestly thought out, or notions picked up from his pet newspaper or his companions. (p. 61)
See what she did there? Picking up your opinion from your favorite newspaper is different from having one that is honestly thought out.
Why? Newspapers just don’t do what better (and wider) reading does:
A daily newspaper is not on a level with Plutarch’s Lives, nor with Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece, though possibly the same class of incidents may appear in both. The boy, or girl, aged from ten to twelve, who is intimate with a dozen or so of Plutarch’s Lives, so intimate that they influence his thought and conduct, has learned to put his country first and to see individuals only as they serve or dis-serve the State. Thus he gets his first lesson in the science of proportion. (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 187)
But it’s not like she wanted students to ignore the newspapers. In fact, she’s very clear:
When he is old enough, the object-lessons of the newspapers should be brought before him. (Parents and Children, p. 266)
Forms V and VI are expected to keep up with the newspapers and know something about places and regions coming most into note in the current term. (Towards a Philosophy of Education, p. 230)
So the news outlets aren’t the primary means of educating our future citizenry, but they are important, and teens especially should know what’s going on in the world around them. This means we need to figure out how to get news responsibly — and teach our children to do the same.
It wasn’t until about a year ago (when my oldest was a freshman) that I really began to consider my news-gathering and what that modeled for my children. Before that, I took the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Here are five tips for upping your news-gathering game. But first, caveat: You can’t follow every story. That was true even before the World Wide Web came into being. If there is one thing we need to teach our kids, it’s that they can’t keep up with ALL the news. It’s okay to stop reading and walk away.
1. Use multiple sources.
Once you find yourself following a story, make sure you’re reading more than one source. In comparing a handful of articles on the same subject, we see what the articles have in common, and where they diverge.
Use a search engine and pull up some alternate articles when possible. This doesn’t need to take a lot of time.
Don’t just read these articles — compare them. This article said no one died in the accident, but that article said two people died. Well, how do we know which is true — or are they both wrong? We can check the time stamps. Maybe one was written earlier than another. We can search further to see which is correct. This activity helps build habits of thinking while reading the news.
Using multiple sources also helps you with my second tip…
2. Identify opinion content.
It’s easy to let opinion embedded in a “factual” news story slip by. It’s a good mental exercise to try and identify it. For example, I read this article on the CNN website last week:
CNN articles are perfect for the activities I’m proposing in this post. (By the way, I don’t recommend doing this often — it’s just a good occasional lesson.)
Print out an article — almost any article will do — and then work your way through it with your child, highlighting anything that might be opinion content. (After you’ve done this once or twice, see if your child can do it without your help.) Talk about why it’s an opinion instead of a fact.
Now, obviously, when an article is quoting a source, they will present that source’s opinion. The exercise needs to go beyond that and find opinion throughout the article.
One example in the article linked above:
the President has signaled that he is inclined to release the memo, as part of an effort to undercut the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation
This is not a quote from a source — but it is the opinion of the journalist writing the article. This is an example of presuming unstated motives, and it is always a sign of opinion. We can’t know what is going on inside of the heads of others. When I see presumed motives, I like to challenge my students to think of another reasonable explanation for the same action (before reminding them they aren’t mind readers and neither is anyone else).
Another technique is to watch the adjectives. If the journalist likes what he’s talking about, he’ll use adjectives that show this (“popular,” “welcome”), but if he doesn’t approve, he’ll use negative adjectives like “controversial” and “turbulent.” Have your student highlight all the adjectives in the piece. Discuss how changing the adjectives would change the tone of the article.
A final activity is to read through the article without any of the opinion — no adjectives, no commentary. You will laugh at how short some articles end up! Turns out, many journalists write more smoke than substance.
3. Identify the sources used.
Have your students go through an article and highlight from whom the journalist got his information. In the CNN article above, we can notice two things:
- Why there are no named sources: “Multiple White House officials declined to comment. The FBI declined to comment.”
- Every source quoted is unnamed: “Top White House aides,” “one source familiar with the matter,” “one person briefed on the matter,” “other officials,” “another person familiar with discussions about the memo,” etc.
Why is a lack of unnamed sources a problem? While anonymous sources have been historically important to journalism, journalists have also been known to invent sources and quotes wholesale. Quoting unnamed sources doesn’t mean that something is untrue, but it should be a red flag, especially when an article doesn’t also include named sources. The reality is that we can’t fact-check unnamed sources.
Watch for named sources and organizations. If your students are especially interested, they can learn to vet a journalist’s sources through online searching. It doesn’t prove that the quote isn’t invented, but it’s a good sign if you find out the source is real.
This exercise isn’t intended to “prove” to our students that something is fake news, but only to help them build the habits of a discerning reader.
4. Use primary sources.
This isn’t always possible, but if an article discusses a law, regulation, court case, Executive Order, or, yes, a declassified memo detailing an illegal conspiracy at the highest levels of government on a scale larger than Watergate, hunt down the original and read it. This is the age of the internet, folks. You do not need a journalist (or blogger or YouTuber) to tell you what something says; you can read it for yourself.
Here are some places to look for primary sources (if you aren’t in the US, I am sure you can find the equivalent in your home country):
- The White House. Look here for formal presidential statements, the full text of Executive Orders, information about official presidential proclamations, and more.
- The Department of Justice. Of particular interest to me has been the availability of the full text of prepared speeches by government officials. Watching the press releases is also interesting, especially when indictments are unsealed.
- The United States Supreme Court. This one is my favorite. In my teen years, I read a number of USSC decisions, and I have relished a good court case ever since. On this website you can find the court proceedings that might be of interest — arguments transcripts, opinions of the Court, etc.
I won’t list more, but suffice it to say that much of what journalists are talking about when reporting on government and politics is best explored through primary sources. After that, you can come back and read articles to find what people are saying about those primary sources, giving you and your students something very rare: an informed perspective.
This is the most important thing: talk with your students about the news, about what’s going on in the world.
On Friday, I printed out the FISA Memo. We went out for Mexican food and discussion.
It was great!
Learning to handle news well is like any other habit — you build it by modeling it over time.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.