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How To Read (And Watch) The News

2016 November 16
by Greg Satell

Since Donald Trump’s election, the media has been pilloried for bad coverage, with good reason. While there was extensive coverage of salacious scandals, there was little coverage of issues of governance, such as foreign policy, the federal budget and the environment. Actual policies were rarely compared side by side.

This is largely deserved. Cable news shows favor ratings over reporting. Online news outlets chase clicks over substance. Leaks and innuendo are routinely passed on without confirmation. As James Poniewozik, put it in the New York Times, “only one candidate was treated like she might be elected, set policy and make appointments.”

Yet still, while the media has a responsibility to report news fairly and accurately, we citizens have a responsibility to interpret it, separate fact from opinion and evaluate sources. This goes far beyond simple partisanship, even reputable and balanced reports can get it wrong, but requires us to think critically about what we see and hear. Our democracy depends on it.

Know The Difference Between Pundits And Reporters

Not all reports are equal. Some articles are written by pundits who are valued for their opinions for one reason or another. Sometimes, pundits are former government officials, other times they come from think tanks and often, they have no particular qualifications at all, but are able to attract an audience anyway. Whatever their qualifications, a pundit’s job is to give an opinion.

A reporter’s job is to uncover facts. They cultivate sources, read through documents and report what they see. They are held to a higher standard than pundits, (for instance, they are supposed to corroborate sources) and are generally not supposed to share their opinions. Like anyone, they have their own biases, but try their best to maintain objectivity.

In print or online, punditry is supposed to be clearly marked as “opinion,” “commentary,” or “editorial.” On TV, reporters are the ones that you see with a microphone, interviewing sources. For the most part, the people in the studio are pundits who are there to offer their own perspective, not to report the facts.

To be clear, I am a pundit and not a reporter. Although I often use sources and do my best to ensure that I have my facts right, I do not always corroborate them. Often, I am interviewing people, such as scientists, who have very specific areas of expertise. If I am unsure whether to trust a source, I do not use it and if I can’t find a reliable source I do not write the article.

On my Forbes byline, just under my name it says, “Opinions expressed by Forbes Contributors are their own.” This article is my opinion and you should evaluate it on that basis.

The Importance Of Beats

The line between punditry and reporting seems like it should be a clear one, but it is often not. For example, as noted above, while I mostly do punditry, I also do some reporting. I mainly write about technology and ask experts in the field to explain things to me. In those cases, I am reporting the opinions of those experts. I am not so much seeking truth, but understanding.

Many reporters also editorialize, which can be a problem if we do not evaluate the context. For example, Mark Halperin and John Heilman of Bloomberg are excellent political reporters, who have spent decades cultivating sources among operatives in Washington and beyond. They are excellent sources if you want to know what’s going on behind the scenes in a political campaign.

David Ignatius is also a longtime Washington reporter, but his beat is mostly foreign affairs. He has travelled the world for decades, building up sources in the State Department, the intelligence community and in places like the Middle East. If you want to know the inside story of any major event out in the world, Ignatius is the man to read.

These are all wonderful sources within their beats, but we should look at them more critically when they are commenting on events outside their primary area of expertise. Halperin and Heilman, for example, might be able to give insight into what political insiders are saying about a particular issue, but would not be excellent sources for what’s going on in foreign capitals.

Not All Sources Are Equal

Reporters often use anonymous sources. Sometimes, there are good reasons to do so, because people close to the news often are not authorized to speak on their organization’s behalf. So reporters agree to keep their names out of the article in order to get first person perspective on an issue when no one will speak to them on the record.

However, these sources are often leaks designed to to influence the news, which is why we should always be suspicious of anonymous sources. Other times, junior staffers like to give the impression that they are closer to the action than they actually are. These sources, often referred to as “an official close to the matter,” should not be considered reliable.

Make no mistake, the best sources go on the record. They have clear credentials in their field of expertise and have professional reputations to protect. They also offer context, acknowledge other points of view and rarely speak in absolutes. In my experience, the best sources tend to be cautious, because their reputations depend on them giving accurate information.

To see what good reporting looks like, take this column by David Ignatius about the Clinton email scandal. He is clearly identified as an “opinion writer” and is commenting on a subject somewhat outside his beat, but names his sources and offers context. You can agree or disagree with him, but it’s clear exactly where his opinion — as well as his information — is coming from.

Do A Reality Check

Interpreting the news can be difficult, not only because there are so many people trying to persuade us to support their point of view, but also because reputable and well intentioned people can have honest disagreements about important issues. Facts, especially in the heat of the moment, can be unclear. Historical accounts commonly contradict reporting at the time.

However, we can understand the news better by asking simple questions. Take assertions that Hillary Clinton was getting a “pass” on her emails. How were similar situations, such as Colin Powell, who used a private account or the Bush White House, which used a private server at the Republican National committee for official business?

Of course, no situation is exactly the same, but ask yourself how they were different. Are those differences substantial? If so, why? Another thing you might want to ask is if anybody else should be investigated or charged with a crime. Unless Clinton was sending emails to herself, others were involved. Should they be prosecuted? Why or why not?

None of this is easy. We all have our own biases and are affected by the opinions of others. In fact, studies have shown that we will conform to the opinions of those around us even if they are obviously wrong. We humans are tribal creatures and we don’t like to change our opinions once they are formed.

However, it is our responsibility as citizens to do more than just follow our tribe and believe anything that reinforces our prior beliefs. We need to question the barrage of information being thrown at us and make sure we are getting the story right.

– Greg

3 Responses leave one →
  1. Robin Solis permalink
    November 18, 2016

    I just wanted to say that Trump is himself, and also used, nothing but demagoguery and bravado about hot button problems to grab our attention meanwhile offering over the top, schoolboy-type fantasy solutions that, to the enlightened among us, sounded downright comical.

    We all may laugh and clap to encourage the class clown to perform for our amusement but do we elect him class president? Normally, no. Unless there is some sort of outside forces stoking the situation along. It had to be some kind of mass hysteria or collective, national brainwashing that could influence such knee-jerkery political blindness. And that is, I guess, is where the fear-based, hate-mongering media really did it’s job. Or should I say, did a job…on us.

    And gerrymandering State voting boundaries really backfired on the Good Old Boys.

    I hope when all the weak and fearful souls wake up to the con job they just purchased with their votes, that no new damage has been done and we are able to take swift action to alleviate the situation.

    Prove me wrong. Please! I beg you.

  2. Michael Breeden permalink
    November 20, 2016

    I think this article is quite correct, but I don’t think it goes far enough or is specific enough.
    There has always been bias in the news, but now it seems to have increased. It’s not reporting and it’s not just punditry, it is agenda and manipulation. You’re talking about propagandists. We jumped from dishonesty in news though to a related or unrelated industry of fake news. Whoa! Differentiating truth, even for someone trying to avoid their own bias and tribalism, becomes difficult. Filtering out the trash and lies is tough. Per your comment, a person is going to have to find the experts they trust and follow them. Of course, you then risk missing stuff outside, but we are only human.
    One problem I have that I have mentioned here before is that literature naturally teaches the skills that make up Critical Thinking, that is using reason and logic in the context of language to discern truth. Electronic media does not teach that.
    ———–So why do I read this nonsense from you Greg? 🙂

  3. November 21, 2016

    It’s a fair point. There’s nothing wrong with punditry, as long as we’re being clear that’s what it is. When I offer my opinions, I try my best to make clear that they are opinions. When I use facts to back up those opinions, I make a real effort to show where they come from and link to good sources. I write with a critical reader in mind.

    So I think you hit the nail on the head with your point about critical thinking. We need to be rigorous about how we take in information. What is the source? Does that source have an agenda? Are multiple perspectives examined? Are there other facts in evidence that are being ignored?

    – Greg

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