1. What Caught My Eye
Above: Screenshot of photo and blurb for Daily Kos piece with headline: “Watch a GOP Congressman and supporters scatter when constitutents find him at a ‘canceled’ town hall” and blurb “Congressman Mo Brooks returned to Alabama where he planned to have a town hall meeting in Huntsville. But, a funny thing happened to Mo Brooks. Like all republicans…”
2. My First Reaction
There I was, scrolling through Facebook and seeing what my friends had chosen to share today, when I ran across this story. Since part of my personal activism has included trying to get my own local elected officials to hold town halls and hear constituents, and since millions of people nationwide are doing the same, a story about whether or not an elected official may be blowing off constituents is immediately relevant to my interests.
But that doesn’t mean I can just hit share, even though I had an emotional response. In fact, that emotional response? It’s how I know it’s time to engage the engines of critical thinking and analysis. Here’s how I fire them up.
3. Step 1: Run My Own Mental Filters
Questions I ask myself: is the phrasing of the text neutral, or does it appear to have a bias? In this case, yes; the writer does not appear to have a high opinion of Republicans. So I also look at the source — in this case, Daily Kos, a political blogosphere generally classified as “socially progressive.”
4. Who, What, When, Where, How, and Why
I need to know these things to have confidence in the information I’m getting. Who wants me to know this? What do they want me to know about it? When did this happen, and where? How did the source I’m looking at get this information? Why do they care if I know whatever they’re telling me? In the course of asking these questions, I also usually find out if a story is true or not.
5. Step 2: Ask Google If It’s A Thing
Okay, so this is definitely a thing. I don’t know yet if it’s a TRUE thing, but it is a thing that is being reported. To get a sense of what is being reported, I’m going to read some, if not all, of these search results. And while I do it, I’m going to have that mental filter from step 1 in place, so I’m asking who says what, why they want me to know that, when and where this all went down (is there context that some articles mention while others don’t?), and how they know whatever it is they’re telling me.
PROTIP: Checking dates can save you a lot of time. For instance, there were results about this event that were a week or so old. I might read those for background, but wouldn’t expect them to contain current information.
6. Step 3: Reading Articles
Who says this happened? Well, this is an article by an author who I can email, or follow on Twitter, which was published by alabama.com, which is a group of newspapers, including the Birmingham News and the Huntsville Times, which are owned by Advance Media. I determined this by reading the “about” section in the footer of the page (that means “at the bottom”). If I want to, I can now research the article’s author, the newspapers in question, and the media company, to find out whether or not I think there’s likelihood of bias.
7. Most of what a reputable news organization wants to sell you is simply this: the service of having vetted your news before you hear it.
How do they know this happened? Well, it looks like they spoke with some people who attended the event — and at least two of them gave their names. This reporter associates them with the Madison County Democratic Party. So I can also dig further into those people and organizations if I want to. Of course, in theory (and typically in practice as well), a newspaper reporter has already done that. Why? Because they don’t want to be barraged (like in email, or on twitter) with complaints that they just gave air time to someone who isn’t believable or credible, for starters. But basically, because that’s their job — that’s what they get paid to do.
8. Make a note of the answers to those who-what-where-when-how-why questions!
As you’re reading through other coverage (or watching videos, or TV, or listening to the radio or a podcast, or seeing someone’s live cameraphone video, or whatever), you can compare what pieces of information are the same, and what pieces are not. The piece screenshotted above is from WHNT, a TV station in Huntsville, Alabama, who report that Congressman Brooks said “there was no effort to dodge constituents [and that] there was a miscommunication between the [Huntsville Tea Party] event organizers and his office” as to the type of event and whether or not it was open to the public.
PROTIP: if you’ve got sources where you find the story looks different from one perspective or another, but they agree on one specific piece of information? You’re probably looking at a fact — not editorial, analysis, or falsehood. That’s the single biggest reason why I always look for 3-5 sources on a news story before I believe it entirely, and definitely before I share it. Like, if “Liberal Elite Journal” and “White Working Class News” both report that a thing happened, it probably did, in fact, happen — even if they don’t agree what it means.
9. So this is real news, then?
Right; we know this is a thing that really happened. We know it involved Mo Brooks, and that he is, in fact, the elected representative for Alabama’s 5th Congressional district. We also know that there are at least 3 perspectives on what led up to it happening, exactly how it all went down, and what it means. There are lots of questions we can ask (and answer with a quick googlin’ more often than not), and actions we can take (like looking up Madison County Democratic Party on social media, seeing what they’ve said about this, and comparing to what Mo Brooks and staff are saying), to get more information and figure out if we want to pass this story along in our own social networks.
10. Step 4: Ask Myself Why I Want To Share This
Yeah, that’s the real kicker, isn’t it? Was there something beyond that first emotional rush that made me think I wanted to share this article? What was it? Who do I think I’m going to share it to, who needs to see it? Why do I think they need to see it? What do I want them to know? Why do I care if they know it? When is this from and is it topical if I share it? And here’s the real kicker about going through that whole who-what-where-when-why-how thing again, running it against my own urges: Who wants me to share this?
11. Who Wants Me To Share This?
And, do I really know who they are? Do I want to promote their agenda? In this case, for instance, I don’t actually want to promote clickbait news (she says, writing a piece to be posted at Buzzfeed Community), or inflammatory word choices, so the Daily Kos story probably isn’t going to get my share — Daily Kos may have a political bent that often agrees with my own, but I want my news not to be any more button-pushing than it has to be, and I also know there are plenty of people out there who’ll ignore anything on the grounds that it came from Daily Kos (or Breitbart, or any number of more overtly partisan sources).
While less outrageous in tone, the WHMT piece skews apologist for whatever’s going on that resulted in the cancellation of the event in question.
In contrast, the Advance Media piece is more rigorous in its efforts to use a neutral tone, make their sources clear, and provide more than one perspective on the incident. So of the three, it would be my first choice to share if neutrality is my objective.
PROTIP: Did you notice I picked sources geographically close to the incident? No coincidence — you’ll almost always find more detail and concrete reporting in the most local news source you check on a story, although some folks feel strongly that there’s also more risk of bias in sources that are closest to the story.
12. Just One Last Thing
…did you remember to read this piece of mine with those Step 1 filters in place? If you did, you may have noticed that even though I talked openly about my own biases, and called myself out on a few things, I probably have some kind of agenda in writing this. And it’s true. I absolutely do. And I want to call your attention to it, so here’s a picture of some well-known, polarizing, and bearded 20th century radicals to make you look at the end of this wall of text. NB: use of this image is not intended to endorse Che or Fidel.
What is my agenda? I sincerely believe everything in life is better when you understand it better, and when you’re surrounded by people who also like understanding and thinking and stuff. I had the great good fortune of being born to intellectual privilege, and I think “intellectual privilege” is a bullshit thing to exist. So I want you to have the same tools I do when it comes to sorting through the huge amount of information, misinformation, and disinformation out there in the Information Age — because when people don’t have those tools, we get played by vicious authoritarians and that sucks for everyone.
But at the same time, if I were truly trying for the greatest level of neutrality ever in an article, I wouldn’t have used a story about a Republican representative blowing off his constituents as my example; and if I were trying to be the fairest, kindest person I could be towards Mo Brooks, I wouldn’t have chosen a screenshot from his web page that shows where he stands on a Supreme Court nomination, because those could (and should) be construed as evidence of my bias.
Have something to say? Let’s hear it!
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