These days, it’s hard to get news without bias or agenda. Almost every news outlet is pushing some kind of angle. Some are better than others, but there are many that push blatant media lies.
The Source of All Information
One of the easiest ways to debunk an article is to check it’s sources. A majority of the content online today has no source, a less-than-reliable source, or completely misrepresents the information in their source to support their own opinions.
There’s a running joke among sports fans about NBA analysts who constantly quote mysterious “sources” or “insiders” as a way to basically make things up. Not naming your sources protects the sources themselves, of course. But it can quickly get out of control when you’re dealing with media organizations desperate to drum up stories and controversies.
“Sources close to Nick tell us that he is the coolest person alive”. Sound believable? It better 😉
But seriously. For all you know, my “sources” are people I paid $5 each or just completely made up.
This same shady source material extends well past sports journalism. Have you ever read an article that claims something along the lines of “____% of [insert demographic here] believe ______”? (ex. 47% of Americans believe Santa Claus is real)
They’re pretty common.
But check the source. There’s a good chance it’s a survey of 1,000 or less people.
The United States has a population of over 300 million. 1,000 people is less than .001 percent of the country’s population.
It’s either completely stupid or totally dishonest to try to represent such a large country with such a small sample of people. It makes no sense.
Not to mention how physically big the US is. New York is almost as close to Europe and South America as it is to California.
You could find 1,000 people in America who agree or disagree about pretty much anything. You could find 1,000 people who are completely different from you.
Compare a native Hawaiian to a native Alaskan to a native Texan to a native New Yorker. They’re all going to be very different people with very different beliefs and lifestyles.
I don’t want to get too carried away with this one example, but the point remains that many media outlets basically create sources out of thin air.
Anytime you’re reading an article, look for sources to their claims. And don’t just take the fact that they provided a source as proof. Look at the source itself and the information it presents. Check the source’s source if you have to.
How You Interpret the Information is as Important as the Info Itself
Even when an article uses a seemingly legitimate source, they completely misrepresent the information to fit their agenda.
In the US, there’s an ongoing debate about whether people who receive government benefits and welfare should be subject to drug testing.
Agree or disagree, the fact of the matter is that if you look at the actual programs and numbers, only about 1% of welfare applicants are actually given a drug test.
When you look at it that way, it becomes a completely different argument.
Instead of asking, should “All welfare recipients be drug tested”, the question is now “Should 1 in 100 welfare recipients, who show signs of drug use, be drug tested”.
Now, this article isn’t a chance for me to push my political views. This is just a good example of the media controlling a narrative with misinformation.
When I did the math on the stats above, I was shocked. It completely changed my perspective on the issue.
I think many people would feel the same, regardless of their political beliefs.
Run the Numbers
Of course, when you have so many groups with different views and agendas, it can be hard to find numbers that are spelled out as black and white as what I’ve done above.
In fact, the stats I quoted above were all taken from raw numbers, which I then used to calculate the percentages, etc.
Point being, you have to run the numbers yourself. You don’t have to be a math whiz to do it either.
If you want to find a percentage, simply divide the smaller number by the little number. Then take the number from the right of the decimal and subtract a decimal point.
– 10 divided by 10000 or 10/10000 = .001
– Move the decimal point two places to the right
– This leaves you .1, which is .1%
It’s not just calculating percentages either. Many times, an article will cherry pick numbers that support their point or draw false conclusions from their numbers. http://mic.com/articles/128002/wisconsin-is-moving-ahead-with-its-plan-to-drug-test-welfare-recipients#.vevu5v8Dq
It’s up to you to go back and check their math. Again, it doesn’t require calculus, just some basic arithmetic in most cases.
Spot the Buzz Words
What’s the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter?
When it comes to American media, the answer is “not much”. There are many examples from recent history where US foreign policy labeled a group rebels, then later called that same group terrorists.
In some cases, the group hadn’t actually changed at all. It was simply a rebranding.
Because those the words “terrorist” and “rebel” stir up two very different emotions.
Many groups the US considers terrorists could be called rebels, using their same standards. And vice versa: many rebel groups could actually be labeled terrorists.
Again, let’s not go too far into actual politics. The point here is that the media will use words, labels, etc. to influence your opinion.
You have to identify those words and avoid being influenced by them. Instead, look at the facts, without resorting to labels.
Many media sources are even more blatant with their use of buzz words.
You can expect a fair amount of bias from pretty much any news source. Even the non-mainstream sites tend to be biased towards their own message, in my experience.
One way to form a picture of what really happened regarding a particular news story or event is to compare articles, reports, etc. from two or more sources.
For instance, comparing a Fox News story to one from MSNBC can give you a sort of middle ground between far right and far left politics. You can examine the commonalities between both articles to find out what really happened.
Of course, with this example, they are both American mainstream media outlets, so you’ll still stick to an establishment narrative. But it can be a good way to dig through the liberal and conservative arguing.
Another way to do this is to find sources who don’t benefit from a particular narrative.
For example, if a Russian news source reports something positive about Russia, you have to take it with a grain of salt. But if an American news sources reports something positive about Russia, there’s a higher chance its true.
Not because the US outlet is more trustworthy, but simply because they have less reason to lie about something that benefits Russia. In fact, its actually in their internet to lie in that situation to harm Russia.
These days, a lot of the content you see written online does not come from someone with any particular qualifications. It doesn’t take all that much to write for sites like Huffington Post, Gawker, etc.
Yet the average reader takes many of the things written about and reported on these sites is fact.
This is obviously a mistake.
To be clear, I’m a freelancer writer myself. And you could ask, “What is my qualifications for writing this article (or any other)?”
You’d be completely fair in that assessment.
This isn’t about deciding who has the right to have an opinion on a certain subject. It’s just a warning to be aware of who wrote the information you’re reading.
What are their qualifications? Do they have a background in the field? Do they have a track record of honesty/dishonesty?
That’s not to say someone needs a Ph. D. in political science to have a valid political insight. Again, I’m just introducing another layer to the equation.
Recognize who wrote what and identify what their knowledge base or agenda is.
In my case, I’m an experienced writer, which tends to give me an insight into other people’s writing. Hopefully my advice will help you. If not, throw it out.
Get All the Facts
The main goal of most of these strategies is to gather all the facts on a given topic.
From there, you can analyze the information and draw your own conclusions, minus the spin and opinion most media outlets try to influence you with.
To recap, when assessing a piece of news, you want to:
- check sources
- verify how the information is interpreted
- fact check any statistics
- be on the lookout for buzz words and emotional language
- compare the article with ones from other news outlets
- verify the author’s/subject’s credentials