What news is
How to identify a signal from the noise.
“News is something somebody doesn't want printed; all else is advertising.”
― William Randolph Hearst
In the book “In Defense of Food” Micheal Pollan gives a rule-of-thumb for identifying “food” as “Nothing on the ingredients list that your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food”. The implication being that anything mass-manufactured in a large industrial facility would include ingredients with long, chemical-sounding names your grandmother wouldn’t recognize.
The notion is not that ingredients with long sciencey-names are necessarily unhealthy on their own, but that their presence on a label is a good indicator that the goals of the manufacturer were aligned with something other than your health (probably just selling more of whatever it is they’re making). In the absence of investigating every single ingredient on every single label, one can stick to Pollan’s simple rule-of-thumb and —generally speaking— rest assured they are eating healthfully.
Last week I applied a similar maxim to the modern news diet; limit consumption of “anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as news”.
Consider what our grandmothers might actually recognize news to be; it’s probably something like “I subscribe to a newspaper, wherein journalists first investigate leads, gather and organize facts, it is then fact-checked and brought to an editor, where it’s shaped into something consumable, and eventually, is printed.”
Sounds pretty good right? Not a perfect guarantee for one-hundred percent factuality, but good enough for those of us unwilling to do the investigational legwork ourselves. However, much (most) of what you’ll find online calling itself “news” doesn’t come close to meeting that definition. And there is also a world of other news-adjacent content that, while maybe not calling itself news, certainly cosplays as it.
Note: I’m not exactly going to touch on flatly fake news, or “news” outlets who’s mission is to spread propaganda. Those are obviously unhealthy places to educate oneself. I’m assuming anyone reading this is already beyond wanting their facts to be “spun” or being told only what they want to hear. Even the world of honest news can be difficult to navigate.
Facts are usually dull, even interesting ones. Good journalism is nuanced and complicated. If what you’re reading sounds too exciting to be true, it probably is. Is what you’re reading or listening to describing the events of what happened? Is it almost textbook-like? Is it treating you like this is the first time you have encountered the information? Does it provide historical context? All good signs.
Is sought out
Did you first encounter this article from the news maker directly? Or was it linked to you from elsewhere? Even if the original article is factual and from highly reputable publication, it’s unlikely that the place that served it to you was unbiased or presenting it in an environment which prioritizes factuality.
Going directly to the original source–seeking it out– is the only way to ensure that what you’re seeing is how it was originally contextualized. Even the best of us are highly susceptible to first impression bias. As with anything made by humans, a wholly unbiased presentation is impossible, but going to the source first is the best way to mitigate the effects of bias and allow you to interpret what you’re reading and how it makes you feel before hearing how it made others feel.
Is paid for by people who desire factual reporting
The calculus is simple; people who desire reliable journalism enough to pay for it are going to want their money’s worth. Therefore it is in the financial interests of the publication to provide that service. Many websites and publications that claim to be news are funded entirely by advertising. Being funded by advertising does not ensure a source cannot be trusted with facts, but paying for it -directly, and with money- drastically increases the chances that what you get is what you wanted.
Describes only the events
“Who, what, when, where, how (and sometimes why)” anything else included, including how people are feeling about it, is something to be extremely critical of. The phrases “Under fire”, “Claps back” and any assumptions about what is “good/bad for [political party]” are red flags that you’re getting more fluff than substance.
Often headlines will simply be quotes from someone who may or may not be speaking factually. By reporting the quote as news, it absolves the publication from liability yet allows them publish whatever it was that was said. “Legitimate” news does this much less often but is still something to be aware of.
Does not tell you how you should feel.
If it’s online, consider the headline and how it is phrased. Is it describing the facts, or is it a reaction to the news? If it’s on social media, you’re most likely seeing someone’s preconceived notions first before you’d even had a chance to consider for yourself. Often innocuous stories will be framed with a politically divisive bent, even if the story itself has little political impact on it’s own.
By first identifying the hallmarks of what qualifies as a balanced news diet, we can begin to have a better grasp on who it is we can trust to tell us about the broader world. Remember: “trust” in this context does not imply “always perfectly accurate all the time”, either. News is made by humans and humans are biased and fallible. In this context, “trust” only means that you believe the journalist or publication is giving their best effort to convey a fair assessment of the facts to you.
Not: “I trust this journalist to define my reality.”
But: “I trust this journalist to fairly present their reality”
Accepting human limitations is key to having a grounded worldview. The fact that one cannot expect even the most diligent news sources to be perfectly accurate all of the time does not mean a healthful solution (for you or for society) is to invite cynicism and dismiss all reporting. As with most experiences navigating the digital realm, “good enough” is usually about as good as it gets.
Further reading: Part III, What news ain’t