Between the Lines
A basic guide to reading the news with a critical eye
With the General Election a mere three weeks away, we're all wading through more than the usual levels of media overload. If we thought it was shouty when the referendum happened, escalating to ruckus when Trump was elected, it's nothing short of a jet engine scream now. If your policy is to avoid discussions about politics, you may as well crawl into a bunker for the foreseeable future, because that's likely the only place you can avoid it. And frankly, a bunker would be tempting, if only so we can all catch our breath!
So what am I wading in for? Well, I'm not about to tell you who I think you should vote for. But I am going to try and suggest some basic guidelines for critically engaging with the news in the run up to June 8th (and in general). Because if there's one thing I'm good at, it's asking questions - a LOT of questions. University for me was three years of asking questions, so I'm hoping there's something helpful in here!
Both do and don't judge a book by its cover
A lot of headlines are basically clickbait these days, and for good reason - the media is a money making industry, after all. Clicks = prizes (for them, not us, I'm afraid). This isn't the case for all media outlets - the BBC for example - but most newspapers and their websites are largely advertising-funded. They want you on their site so their sponsors get their content seen. And sometimes that content looks like news, but it will usually say 'sponsored' somewhere obvious.
But I digress. Headlines are designed to get your attention, and there's nowt wrong with that in principle. What often happens though is that we can see the headline as the whole story, and it's only when you dig deeper - read it critically - that you find out whether it's accurate or not. That's why I say both do and don't judge a book by its cover - we can't expect the headline to tell us everything, but we can expect it to have an agenda.
This is what I like to do:
1. Take note of the implications of the headline, and then read the article. Do they add up? Is the headline fully factual? Does it focus on a specific part of the story that isn't actually the whole story? Why might that be?
2. What language is being used? Is the headline sensational/accusatory/designed to shock? Is that justified by the facts in the article? Does the article separate fact from opinion?
3. Where does the information come from? I am always suspicious of news that doesn't quote its sources, or that seems to give facts which actually turn out to be someone's interpretation of events. Often those people being quoted have a vested interest one way or the other in what they're talking about - it's important to know this, so we can judge the information for ourselves.
A political game of slaps
My first ever blog post back in 2010 was about the General Election. I likened the way election campaigns are fought to a game of slaps (showing my age here because that probably got banned a long time ago). Basically it feels like one politician or party slaps another, and they slap back harder, so the first slapper slaps back again, and so on ad infinitum. And this becomes our news: insults, cheap shots, catchphrases.
The old saying tells us there's no smoke without a fire, but they didn't have vaping back in the day. If a politician or analyst or presenter is criticising a person or policy, that doesn't mean everything out of their mouth is gospel truth. I know you already know this and I'm not trying to be patronising - I just think under the circumstances it's worth reiterating, because emotions run high when there's a lot at stake and it's easy to get carried away.
The joy of the internet is that, while there's a lot of crap to wade through, we also have access to more information than ever before. So we can read manifestos and policy documents; we can check MPs voting records; we can find out what's been said in Parliament. Lack of information is rarely the problem any more - knowing where to find it, and being able to analyse it, can be.
When is the news not the news?
With all this fake news, 'post-truth' shiznit doing the rounds, I am in favour of being EXTRA SCEPTICAL. Sometimes (a lot of times lately), the news is not the news.
If you use Facebook then you've probably received the same email that I did with guidelines for spotting fake news. A lot of them are common sense but easy to overlook when you're just scrolling through your timeline and it's only the headline that hits you. I have a general policy that I never share or comment on a link if I haven't read the article and verified the source. If I can't, I don't engage with it.
Some easy steps (with help from Facebook) to identifying fake or misleading stories masquerading as news:
1. the headline makes an outrageous statement or claim that immediately causes you to think 'no way!/that can't be true!' or similar. Sensational headlines are often markers of just that - sensation, not news. Of course, this isn't always the case - but it's often the first sign.
2. The URL looks dodgy. Maybe it looks like a normal news site, but with a slightly different name. It shouldn't be hard to run a quick search in a different tab to see if the site you're on is a copy or imitation of another, verifiable news site.
3. There are inconsistencies or errors through the text. Maybe the dates don't add up or the news looks really old, or it has the appearance of being typed in a hurry.
4. What's going on with the photos? Do they fit the story; could they have been manipulated or taken out of context?
5. Is anyone else reporting this news? If it's not being reported anywhere else, that rings some alarm bells.
Go to the source
When it comes to making your mind up about politics, there's really no substitute for getting the facts at root. So much news is opinion that we really have to sift it for the tools to make informed decisions. Knowledge is power - is that power properly used?
I'm not an expert, but these are my thoughts and I hope they are helpful! Feel free to add your own suggestions for critically engaging with the news in the comments below.