“He who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.” – Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Norvell, Jun. 11, 1807
We’re supposed to use the news to understand the world beyond our direct experience. That simple purpose is often neglected, as people unconsciously take stories for granted. I’m often asked by my audience where I find the time to discover such great information. My secret has nothing to do with spending more time than them. It has to do with leveraging self-awareness, analytical thinking, memory enhancement, simple technologies, wise friends, and valuable sources. Increasing cognitive skills, and developing a beneficial social network will take patience and devotion. Developing technology skills and finding better news sources can be achieved in one weekend. The following practices comprise my formula for success.
Self-Awareness & Analytical Thinking
We must be aware of our own bias, and then seek out sources that support and oppose it. The reason we are spending time on the news is to gain an accurate understanding of the world beyond our direct experience. We need diversity in our news diet. Feeding from one kind of source will leave our minds malnourished and increase our bias. If we approach the news to serve our feelings, ego, and entertainment then we will not get much out of the experience. We’ll become our own worst enemies, and our understanding will be less accurate.
We have to divorce our identity from the stories we hear. If we mingle our own ego with the events in the world around us, we will feel as if conflicting information is a personal attack. When that happens, we have no chance of being reasonable and fair. Our prospects of accurately understanding the situation can go to zero very quickly without self-control. It is a great challenge to regulate our feelings and distance ourselves from the story, but we must always do our best.
We need to know ourselves. We need to identify our dispositions on politics, religion, culture, and class. What political parties do we vote for most of the time? What news sources do we typically access? What are our familial and cultural backgrounds? What are our religions, philosophies, morals, and worldviews? What kind of financial and class backgrounds do we have? Once we know our leanings, we can select a diverse array of sources for news. For instance, it would be benefit an atheist to follow a Christian news source and try to see things from their perspective.
We must be rational when we consume news. If there is information that makes us uncomfortable or angry, we must be patient and logical. It helps to discern the reasons for our anger before we get trapped in an irrational conflict. Consider the source. How was the information obtained? Is it hard evidence, or just hearsay? Is it a video that has been truncated? Be wary of incomplete information, as it could be an indicator of half-truth propaganda. The smallest omission can change an entire story. One way that a news organization can produce false perception is to simply not report important facts. This is why it is wise to check more than one source on stories we wish to deeply understand.
We must study common fallacies and propaganda techniques so that we can identify them in practice. In my experience, every ten minutes of news presents at least a few fallacies or propaganda tactics. A journalist does not have to deliberately make those mistakes. The sensational nature of commercial news encourages a certain level of fallacy and propaganda. Rivalries and conflicts drive ratings and revenues.
Finally, we must put case studies and personal interest stories in their proper place. We often listen to stories about people, incidents, and special events, and then make generalizations based on the dramatized narratives. For instance, we may hear a dozen stories about murders in our metropolis and come to a false conclusion that we live in a very dangerous place. Yet the murder rate is very low, and we are not likely to be in a scenario that would even expose us to such dangers. If we hold generalized beliefs, they must be justified with generalized evidence. An array of stories can toy with our emotions and beliefs, and create unjustified stereotypes in our minds. At the same time, generalized evidence like statistics can be erroneously constructed. When reviewing statistics, we have to question how they were made.
Centralize Your News with News Aggregators
You can spend a lot of time waiting for web pages to load, or fishing through printed pages. If you’re not using a News Aggregator you’re spending too much time on the news. These apps go to the websites that you want to read and extract the content from them for you to browse. Not only are they faster than browsing the web, they also collect the latest articles from all of your websites in one location.
If you have Microsoft Outlook, then you already have one of the best News Aggregators. It will download your articles automatically if you tell it to. Your database can be enormous, and you will be able to search through articles in the same way you search through emails. If you load feeds from multiple websites, you can read the same stories from different sources to help eliminate spin and bias. Learning how to use this feature of Microsoft Outlook is very easy.
If you do not have Microsoft Outlook, there are many free News Aggregators for any device. Some software like FeedReader allows you to set up SmartFeeds that automatically pull articles from your sources with keywords. If you are following a certain story, they can do the leg work for you.
Create Your Own Digital Archive
The web can be fickle. Valuable information can disappear overnight, even from major sources like CNN. If you hope to recall notable articles later, especially for research, you’ll need to make copies of the articles on your local computer or personal cloud. The best technology for this is Microsoft OneNote. It allows you to copy and paste text and images from web pages, and it will automatically insert the original link. It will also give you the ability to take screen clippings for content that is harder to extract.
Once you have your own digital archive, you’ll be able to organize it, search through it, and access your sources with ease and confidence. Think of it as a huge filing cabinet filled with organized notebooks, and compacted to a small spot on your personal computer.
You can follow people that you trust on Twitter. Facebook allows for a more personalized interaction between trusted friends. Choose your sources wisely. Social networks are not substitutions for publications. Academic, government, think tank, and news organizations spend a lot of time and money to deliver information. The social network only acts as a filter and lead generator amongst your trusted friends. If you know that a certain friend is tracking particular issues, be sure to share related content with them. They will appreciate it and return the favor. If you’ve already created your own digital archive as previously described, you can even search for older gems related to your friends’ interests, and help them out by pointing them to older items of value.
Always Write Digitally
Always keep a local copy of your own writings, and create them digitally. When they are digital, they are searchable, easy to share and edit, and you can back them up for security.
Develop a network of friends who have different political, religious, cultural, and economic experiences. People from different walks of life can be very helpful to you. Don’t dismiss a friend’s opinion because they disagree with you. You should however, keep news-friends who think critically and are rational, intellectually honest, and fair. Everyone suffers from fallacies, and propagandistic thinking from time to time. Help your friends to avoid these mistakes by advising them when you see flawed thinking. Be willing to tolerate different ideas and agree to disagree. If you grow comfortable with your own flawed thinking habits, then you will only attract people who agree with you. You could find yourself in a hollow echo chamber. The value we seek is information exchange. If your end of the exchange is not logical, accurate, deep, and mature, it will not be valuable to people who differ from you.
Lastly, don’t be intimidated by deceptive and dysfunctional people who might wander into your circle. There are many bad actors who will spoil the pot, attack you personally, and try to discourage you. It’s unlikely that you’ll change them, so never forget that you’re exchanging information – not recruiting tribal members. The only thing you can directly control is your pattern of thoughts and actions. Confront bad actors with dignity, conviction, zeal, and honesty.
Not all sources are equal in value or purpose. You should follow more than just raw news sources like Reuters, CNN, Fox News, or the New York Times. Add some collegiate journals, think tanks, government sources, and trusted public figures to your News Aggregator. Be open minded to new sources and test them out. You never know what value you might find. The feeds listed at the end of this post will get you started.
Memory Enhancement & Happy Discovering!
In the 20th century, false beliefs about memory were popularized by D. G. Treichler, Edgar Dale, Paul John Phillips, and many professors. They claimed that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, 50% of what they see and hear, 70% of what they collaborate upon, 80% of what they do, and 90% of what they teach. There is no empirical evidence to support these ideas. Empirical evidence has shown that stress is correlated with memory. That means the more pressure that you put upon yourself, or that others put upon you, the more likely you are to remember something. If you are apathetic, you won’t remember very well. If you are enthused about a topic, you’ll do better.
Because pressure aids memorization, stress can lock horrible experiences in your memory. Ironically, extreme stress and trauma has a tendency to make your memories less accurate but more vivid. Eustress (positive stress) can act as a poison as well. If you’re listening to a comedy news show, and receiving shallow, inaccurate messages, the positive stress is going to do a better job at locking the falsehoods into your head.
Remember that the purpose of spending your time on the news isn’t to entertain yourself, gratify your feelings, or to get a comedic experience. Those motivations will dumb-down your news and decrease the accuracy of your understanding. If you want to be entertained, spending your time on a stand-up comedian or watching a movie will do a better job. Investing time in news consumption should pay off by giving you an accurate understanding of the world that is beyond your direct reach. Anything that decreases accuracy is going to hamper your understanding – including fallacy, propaganda, distractions, entertainment, or your own biased interpretations. Take Thomas Jefferson’s advice and concern yourself with truth and accuracy. Happy discovering!