Updated: Jul 24, 2020
written by Eric Prince
After releasing these two posts, I decided to address the dual issues of Skepticism and Bias in our modern culture. These two posts sought to explain why so many people aren’t very skilled at evaluating the validity of news sources.
I wholeheartedly believe that these issues will become THE defining issues of our modern information age.
ALL of these issues arise from the ways many of us are raised. The ways we are taught to think and approach our world. The ways we use creative and abstract thought processes. The ways we view systems of authority and even authority itself.
Unfortunately, it’s too late for most of us to go back in time and change our mindsets (if you’ve figured out how to time travel, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Fortunately, I've identified some useful techniques for identifying bullshit articles and fake news that may help to alleviate the issue. I’ve taken the time to narrow these techniques down to five essential steps.
First, a couple of disclaimers before we begin.
Disclaimer One: These five steps are useful no matter where your political or personal values lie. It doesn’t matter if you believe the market should be completely deregulated or if you believe that we need to adopt a system of monarchy. Either way, you want trustworthy sources, right?
Disclaimer Two: These five steps I’m about to discuss ARE NOT foolproof. Bogus news sources will ALWAYS slip through the cracks (hell, I still fall for fake news ALL the time). Thankfully, these five steps WILL help limit the number of news sources that DO fall through the cracks.
So, without further ado, here are the 5 Easy Steps for identifying dumb, stupid, no-good news sources.
Step One: Figure out your own beliefs first!
First and foremost, you need to figure out what YOU believe. Close your eyes and ask yourself what YOU believe. Not what Republicans believe. Not what Democrats believe. Not what liberals or conservatives believe. Ask yourself what YOU believe.
Once you stop and think about this, you’ll realize that even the terms liberal and conservative are meaningless. Let’s look at the free market philosophy as an example. Is market freedom a liberal or conservative belief?
Trick question: it’s both.
A free market (or deregulated market) can also be known as a liberalized market. And it’s called a liberalized market because, until the middle of the 19th century, it WAS a liberal belief. Now, it's a staple belief of conservatives everywhere (although recently it appears to be swinging back to the left).
Long story short: the line between liberals and conservatives is a little more blurred than many of us are led to believe.
Here are some useful questions you can ask yourself to get this experiment going:
What is your opinion on government oversight? Do you believe that a central federal government or state governments deserve more power? Which types of laws should the federal government oversee? Which types of laws should local governments oversee?
What is your opinion on economic regulation? Do you support tariffs on other countries? Are you against them? Why do you feel this way? Would you support tariffs if you knew that it was costings American an additional $57 billion per year? Are you only against tariffs because Trump supports tariffs?
It is VERY important to fully form your own personal views. A lot of the media preys on people who haven’t made up their mind. Media sources like CNN and Fox News want to tell you how to feel. They want to turn political opinions into a team sport. Us vs. them.
Only when you have decided what YOU believe can you EVER stand a chance against predatory media sources.
Step Two: Determine the quality of the media source.
Before you even read an article, you need to determine some basic information. You can’t just click go clicking on everything you see. That’s absolute nonsense.
And don’t worry, determining some basic information shouldn't take long at all. Here are a few questions to help you get started:
What is the general quality of the news source?
If a website looks like it was created in the 1990s (hello flash-effects!) or has formatting errors, then be wary. I’m not saying the information isn’t trustworthy, but it’s a safe bet that if someone can’t properly format a website, then they probably also struggle with valid research techniques.
For example, this is a high-quality news source:
And this is a low-quality news source:
How long has the source been around?
Again, this isn’t foolproof, but if a news source has only been around for six months (like howwegottonow.com), you should be wary of the information you find inside. There IS something to be said for a well-established media source. Well-established media sources typically have employees dedicated entirely to fact-checking and establishing proper journalistic integrity. A smaller media source doesn’t always have that.
For example, this is a well-established news source:
And this is recently-created news source:
Does the source feel biased?
Even if a source has been around for a long time (CNN), it can STILL be untrustworthy. Determining the age of a media source only solves part of the issue. The other part of the issue is a little trickier to pin down since it requires more of a gut feeling. If it feels like the media source is picking sides without discussing a specific policy or social issue, then be wary! If you see things like “Republicans say (fill-in-the-blank-here)” or “Liberals believe (fill-in-the-blank-here)”, then stay away. You’re reading sports news disguised as politics.
This is an example of a normal news source:
And this is an example of a biased news source:
How does the source make you feel?
ALL headlines are designed to make you click on them. And the easiest way to get clicks is to elicit some sort of emotional response. But there IS a limit to normal emotionally-based headlines. If you find yourself ENRAGED instead of INFORMED, you should be worried.
This is an example of normal headlines:
And this is an example of an emotionally-manipulative headlines:
Step Three: Determine if the source is party-based or ideology-based.
Repeat the following sentence with me: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS NON-BIAS.
EVERY news source is biased. If it’s not biased by inclusion, then it’s biased by exclusion. Someone decides what to include in the news cycle, and someone decides what to exclude in the news cycle.
For example, someone decides NOT to cover Joey Koep’s third-grade book report at Carver Elementary School (sorry Joey, it was a great report). Someone also decides TO cover “goat in the water”, a fake news story from the mockumentary series Nathan For You that many people thought was real. Seriously. Look it up. The video's got 10.3 MILLION views.
Most of this bias isn’t even conscious bias. It’s really just based on the media’s geographic location and the social bubble it finds itself in (both online and offline). A media source headquartered in Los Angeles isn’t going to be able to cover local news along the Amazon River. And a media source headquartered in Brazil isn’t going to be able to cover a new construction project near the Hollywood Hills (sorry, Lauren Conrad).
It’s important that you're conscious of this every time you visit your favorite news source.
In addition, you will NEVER find a news source that covers all views PERFECTLY. It’s important to understand this as well. News sources are imperfect creatures, just like you and me.
However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t trust ANY source. The solution is to find media sources that places its bias in ideology rather than party.
In Step One I said that the most important part of this entire post is to decide what YOUR ideologies are. Well, the same goes for media sources. Media sources MUST decide what THEIR ideologies are as well.
If a media sources DOESN’T have an ideology, BE CAREFUL. Because they’re most likely a party-based media source.
Here’s why: having a specific and transparent ideology incentivizes a news source to separate itself from a specific party-based allegiance.
When a media source builds an ideological view into its mission, it ties them to their mission. It pushes the media source to value all news stories against whatever view they believe in.
Let’s look at an example. A particular news source states in their mission that one of its views is to lower inequality. At one point the news source covers a Democratic politician who supports a policy they claim will lower inequality. Unfortunately, research has shown that this policy actually increases inequality. But since the news source has dedicated itself to lowering inequality, it will evaluate the policy instead of blindly supporting the politician.
If a news source does NOT make their ideologies clear, it will become susceptible to sliding into party-based territory. In a party-based situation, it will support the Democrat politician just BECAUSE they're a Democrat.
And yes, even a moderate ideology (a balance of free market and government oversight) is a valid ideology. But don't mistake equal coverage for a moderate belief system. Make sure that a source's moderate beliefs are BUILT into its mission.
Step Four: Determine if the source is willing to criticize all aspects of the political world.
Step Four is very similar to Step Three, but it takes it one step further. Because even if a news source ties itself to a specific ideology, there is STILL the chance that the news source will avoid criticizing particular institutions or politicians.
Therefore, you MUST make sure that the source is willing to criticize ALL aspects of politics.
If a news source NEVER criticizes a particular politician or social movement, you should be VERY skeptical.
Step 4 is MUCH harder to identify because it requires one of the following when reading an article: a familiarity with the specific issues or politicians discussed in the article.
If you AREN’T familiar with the specific issues or the politicians discussed in the article, then it is VERY difficult to identify which details are left out!
Like I said, there will ALWAYS be things that slide through the cracks – and the contents of Step Four are the MOST likely to slide through these cracks. So be careful here.
Because of this, I've identified two ways to determine if a news source is leaving something out (or if they are reluctant to criticize a particular politician).
First, pick one of the news sources you currently use and find a topic you are somewhat familiar with. Read through a couple articles and think about what they’re leaving out. If you find yourself thinking, “Why aren’t they talking about (fill-in-the-blank-here)?, this should be a red flag for you. They SHOULD be talking about (fill-in-blank-here) in at least ONE of the articles!!
Second, pick a handful of politicians you like and support. I don’t care who they are. Chances are they pop up in many of the articles you will read. However, if the news sources you read NEVER criticize the handful of politicians you’ve chosen, this should ALSO be a red flag for you. If the news sources DO criticize the handful of politicians you support, then ding-ding-ding, you’ve got yourself a winner!
Step Five: Think DATA DATA DATA
Let me repeat: DATA DATA DATA!!!
Data is at the crux of everything we do in our modern information age. Data informs almost EVERYTHING we do (or at least, it SHOULD).
BUT (and there’s always a BUT), you HAVE TO make sure the data is trustworthy.
I know we’re all busy and don’t really have time to evaluate EVERY primary data source of EVERY news article we read. I also understand that not everyone is a statistician.
But I urge you to take some time every once-in-a-while and evaluate a FEW primary data sources. I promise it’ll help you in the long run and make your life muuuuuch, much easier.
You can find primary data sources where an article says things like, “According to (fill-in-the-blank-here)" or “A study from (fill-in-the-blank-here)". Go ahead, click on one of these links.
Once you clink on one of these links, it should take you to a primary data source (and if it doesn't, that's ANOTHER red flag). Make sure the primary data sources is from a research agency, an academic journal, a university, a nonpartisan think-tank, or an international agency. You know, something that’s legitimate and nonpartisan. NOT something that is a PROUD liberal or conservative think-tank.
If the data is from a partisan think-tank or from a group that is interpreting existing data, then the information is ALREADY skewed, and you’ve lost the battle. Throw the source away.
AND you MUST measure the news article AGAINST the source they pull the data from. Don’t forget this part.
If a news article says that a tax increase CAUSES more private investment, but the study that the news pulls the data from only notes the CORRELATION between a tax increase and private investment, then DO NOT TRUST THE NEWS SOURCE. They are drawing FALSE conclusions. Because is the MOST important part of Step 5: Correlation does NOT equal causation.
Let me repeat: CORRELATION DOES NOT EQUAL CAUSATION
Just because something goes UP when something else goes UP, it does not mean one causes the other. And if the primary data source that gathered the data does NOT draw a conclusion with the data THEY gathered, then the news source should NOT either.
With all that said, there ARE some caveats to Step Five.
First, not everything can be quantified. So be careful when a source tries to quantify everything. Sometimes you just have to trust your gut when it comes to certain issues...like social issues, for example. Does it feel wrong? Then it probably is. You don’t need numbers to tell you this (humans have a built-in moral system for a reason...)!
Second, be aware of what a primary data source might be leaving out of their analysis (remember, THEY'RE imperfect creatures too). Additionally, you should ALSO be aware of how they define certain variables.
For example, a primary data source states that police kill more white people than black people. Some alarms should be going off here.
How does the primary data source define the variable "killing"? Is it only when it is recorded as such by the police officers? Perhaps the "killing" variable only captures instances where a death is recorded as such. This might mean that any death imputed as "accidental" may not be captured here (even if it wasn't actually accidental).
Additionally, is the primary data source measuring apples-to-apples or apples-to-oranges? If they're comparing the total number of deaths, then OF COURSE more white people will be killed. Black people only make up, like, 13% of the total US population. In order for the comparison to be even semi-accurate, we'll need to measure the PROPORTION of death, aka the fraction of black people killed with respect to the total black population (and then do the same for white people).
And even when you DO account for population differences, the data should STILL be taken with a grain of salt. There are SO MANY THINGS that effect statistical analyses (For example, did the study compare people in the same socio-economic group? How about the same geographic areas? Or the different types of situations these killings might happen in?).
Perhaps most of the killings associated with white people took place in situations where the white person was actively shooting at police. Perhaps many of the killings associated with black people took place in situations where the black person was unarmed.
Long story short: you should ALWAYS wonder what information a primary data source has left out or failed to account for.
Okay, phew. That was a lot of information. Let’s summarize.
Step One: Form your own opinions BEFORE reading the news.
Step Two: Make sure the news source is of HIGH QUALITY.
Step Three: Make sure the news source is NOT attached to a political party.
Step Four: Make sure the news source is willing to criticize ALL politicians, political parties, and points-of-view.
Step Five: Always think DATA DATA DATA (and always wonder what data might be left out).
As I stated in the introduction, these five steps will NOT solve all of the issues we have with our modern news industry. These issues deeply imbedded within our culture. It’s going to take some ENORMOUS changes to fix these issues.
But I do urge you to TRY to incorporate these Five Steps until they become habit. I promise it'll get easier as you get more comfortable with asking the RIGHT questions. Hell, try it right now with this post. If some of it seems like bullshit to you, then congratulations: you’re on the right path.
I want to leave you with one, final caveat on everything we've discussed today: should a news source pass all five steps and you STILL disagree with certain ideas, then you might want to consider changing your political views.
There is a time and place to stick to your beliefs, and there is a time and place to be flexible with your beliefs. And if everything you read disagrees with some of your beliefs, then you should consider changing them.
And yes, I realize that this is a bit backwards from the point I was trying to make in Step One. But if we can't be flexible with our views then how can we ever hope to achieve a better world? It's a two-way street: if you expect others to change their views, then you should be willing to change yours as well. That’s how we grow and develop as individuals and as a society.
Thanks for reading.
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