Paul Wesslund

Four ways to make yourself smarter by managing the information avalanche

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

How do you get your news?

          ___ Cable or broadcast TV
          ___ Newspaper or magazine
          ___ Social media
          ___ Podcast or radio
          ___ From a friend
          ___ Other
          ___ All of the above
          ___ Is this a trick question?

Well, yes it is a trick question, because here’s the more important one:

          When was the last time you fact-checked a detail
          from your favorite news source?___________

If that sounds like another trick question, it’s not. Fact checking is something you ought to do, and it’s something you can do.

Getting information isn’t a problem these days; we all know we’re drowning in it. Few of us have figured out how to manage it though.`

Managing the information avalanche does take effort and expertise. But there is a solution, and it’s an old one. It’s called an editor–someone trained for the specific job of managing information. And I have a recommendation for how you can get one for yourself.

But first a few words about why you should care about about managing your news.

The things we learn every day affect pretty much everything. They’re as close to us as how we relate to friends and family. They’re as big as how we influence our democracy. They’re as basic as knowing what to buy from the grocery store or the car dealer.

How the news is like a lawnmower

So it makes sense to be at least as careful about researching your news sources as you would be about, say, which new lawnmower to buy or where to go out to dinner tonight.

Every morning I walk down the driveway and pull the local print newspaper out of its box. I read two more newspapers online. I look at news roundups through my e-mail from both industry and general interest sources, as well as my local public radio station.

Don’t copy me. I’m a news junkie. Since 3rd grade cranking out newspapers on my toy printing press through a career in writing and communications, I’ve been paying attention to information is delivered and received. So I’ll save you some time and effort and summarize a few tips I’ve picked up for getting good news.

1. Use the internet, but don’t believe it

There’s a lot of good stuff on the internet. Cell phone videos have proved a valuable tool for holding people accountable and have even played a huge part in the current racial justice activism. Wikipedia is a credible source of information on just about anything. On the other hand, there’s a dark side. With digitally altered “deep fake” videos, seeing can no longer be believing. And whole industries exist specifically to show you things that aren’t true.

In 2014 The Washington Post started a column called “What Was Fake” to correct internet misinformation, like absurd names for babies. But by the end of 2015 the column was discontinued because internet falsehoods were no longer jokes, but business too big and too many to police with a few corrective words from a columnist. The falsehoods weren’t even mistakes, but deliberate deception as a business model. In her final column, Caitlin Dewey wrote that grand-scale falsehoods flourished because, “If you’re a hoaxer, it’s more profitable. Since early 2014, a series of Internet entrepreneurs have realized that not much drives traffic as effectively as stories that vindicate and/or inflame the biases of their readers.”

2. Slow down and listen to your common sense

You’re never going to know all the information available, so don’t race through a feed or thread trying to see it all. Take the time to make sure the information you do get is quality. Read and listen carefully. Don’t ever share a post or tweet without reading the original source material. If something seems too wild to be believed, listen to your skepticism and act on it—check out the info. On the other side, if you see something that makes you mad because you just know it has to be true, check that out too—you could be getting played. snopes.com offers reliable background especially on the conspiracy theory of the moment (Here’s the lead scopes item that popped up as I wrote this: “Did ‘The Simpsons’ Predict George Floyd’s Death?”) A simple Google search can also help you find what’s true.

3. Be a purposeful consumer of information

Know what you want from each information source. Facebook is a bad place for news but a great way to keep up with friends and family—stick to what it does well. Twitter can give you a news flash but always follow the links to the source of the information. Choose a preferred source for national news, another for local news. Stick with them so you get to know what they’re good at, and what you need to be skeptical of.

4. Subscribe

Several paragraphs ago I promised to tell you how to get your own editor and this is it: pay for at least one news source.

Managing information is a time-proven specialty that in my career is called an editor. It costs money. My recommendation is to choose a name, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, your local newspaper. The reason they are known names is that they have credibility that comes from a strong system of editing that makes sure that what they print is not only clear, but correct in fact and nuance. Some of the best information sources have fact checkers—people whose job it is to call up sources after the story is written and before it’s published, read a fact or their quotation back to them then ask, “Is this correct? Did we get it right?” You can support news sources with that kind of integrity and forthrightness by subscribing to them. You’ll also be doing yourself a favor—it will make you smarter.

There’s a movie moment that shows how editing professionalism works at the established news sources. The 2017 film The Post, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, tells the story of the agonizing journey of The Washington Post’s work in 1971 to print the Pentagon Papers, which was a secret behind-the-scenes account of the Vietnam War. Near the end, after vicious legal battles, and racing to avoid getting scooped, the reporter finally passes off the story typed on several sheets of paper, which gets held up in triumph and taken to, no, not the printing press, but a copy editor. “You’ve got a half an hour,” he’s told. He calmly sits down to do his job, grabbing a pencil he uses to start crossing out unnecessary words and correcting grammar.

That’s the kind of quality you want to support.

Whether you get your news folded up in a newspaper box or off the internet, it’s actually fairly easy to be a smart consumer of information. Subscribe.

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