Getting Quality News and Information
Citizens need information to be effective politically. On this page you’ll learn how to find news and other information that is reliable.
Right now you need to make a decision that you will feel good about. To be a well-informed citizen, you need to regularly take in political news (not just any news). However, if you don’t currently spend any time on news, or if your life is too busy, this may feel like an overwhelming commitment.
Before we talk about how to choose good information sources, let’s look at five “mental blocks” that different people may have regarding news.
Five “mental blocks” that some people have regarding the news
Problem 1: You avoid the news because it’s mostly bad news that makes you feel depressed or anxious.
Problem 2: You avoid political news because all the complexity is overwhelming.
Problem 3: You avoid political news because you don’t believe it’s the whole story. (There’s too much deception, lies, and “spin.”)
Problem 4: You avoid the news because you feel that you can’t do anything about it.
Problem 5: You avoid political news because it’s too repetitive.
If you don’t have any of these blocks, you can skip down to main section of this page by clicking here.
Problem 1: The news is too negative. It depresses you, or it makes you angry.
If you pick up the newspaper, you usually read about mostly bad news. If you watch TV, you are often treated to images of bad situations: wars, environmental destruction, evidence of crimes committed. Some news makes you angry. Other news is depressing. What could possibly make it easier to endure all this misery?
First, it helps to realize that, on average, things are not as bad they seem. There is a bias in the news toward negative things. Think about this: In nature, most things grow and then decay. When things are being built up, the process is slow. But when things fall apart, the process is faster. Imagine a forest: When a tree grows, it is silent and slow. But when a tree falls down, it makes a strong impression and a loud noise. The same is true for human events: growth and building are slower processes. They don’t make the headlines as often as when something falls apart.
A second reason for bias toward the negative is that when things are working as planned it’s not news. Things are expected to run smoothly, but when they stop working, it becomes news. Something similar happens in families and our personal relationships. When people do what’s expected, we often don’t notice or don’t talk about it. But when people misbehave, then it becomes an event. For instance, if a husband puts the toilet seat down, his wife won’t have to think about it and won’t remember, but as soon as he leaves it up, it becomes newsworthy.
Problem 2: The complexity of the political news is overwhelming. There are too many issues to keep track of.
There are some basic rules for handling complexity that we will remind you of: one basic rule is to prioritize issues and focus on the most important one or two issues. It’s important to remember that, even as a well-informed and up-to-date citizen, it’s impossible to know and understand everything. Division of labor is another rule. PTTN asks our members to choose a few issues that are a high priority for them. If everyone becomes educated and active on a few issues we believe that there will be sufficient “critical mass” to cause positive change on most issues.
Problem 3: There is too much lying and too much deception in the news.
First, you have to accept that almost everyone slants the truth in their favor. (You probably do some of this, too.) Second, we can show you how to get news with less spin. In fact, by simply reading enough from both sides of an issue, the spins tend to cancel each other out–if you are trying to find the truth and not just pick the side you like. Third, a little “detective work” will help you be more certain that you are getting more of the real story. There are fact-checking websites, and paying closer attention to how stories are written will often help you figure out if they are all drawing from the same source.
Problem 4: You can’t do anything about the news, so why bother?
A problem with most TV and newspaper news is that you are usually learning about a situation after it’s too late for you to have an impact. For instance, in the paper you might read that Congress already voted against an environmental bill. Two weeks ago you could have helped the environmental bill pass, but now it’s too late.
If you want to get news on a regular basis that you can do something about, all you need do is sign up for advocacy updates from advocacy groups that support your views. If watching the “bad guys” win makes you angry, then you will value those updates. Each email you send to Congress, or each letter that you write to some decision-maker (in government, industry, the media, or elsewhere) can give you a bit of satisfaction. You are helping to create a force that can slow down or stop the “bad guys.” (Once again, you need only trust in the power of small things to add up.)
By the way, you can usually read an action alert and write an email or letter about it in 15-20 minutes or less with practice.
A second way to make news easier to take is to remind yourself that you have real power to help create news. Our statement that “raindrops make rivers and rivers move mountains” can be seen as inspirational, but we prefer to see it as a statement about reality, about the way things are. You, along with others, can really make a significant contribution. It often looks like your contribution is just a drop in the ocean, but it’s still true that the whole ocean is made of droplets. In other words, even modest efforts can contribute to real change.
Problem 5: The news, especially political news, is too repetitive.
For some people, the news repeats itself too much. This is a side effect of the “24-hour news cycle,” especially as it relates to cable television news. If you get the majority of your information from cable television, you’re going to get inundated with people trying to fill air time by talking about the same news story, repeating the same political talking points, and having the same surface-level political debate over and over again.
The simplest solution is to stop watching so much television news. One of the best things about getting your news online is that you can bypass all the repetition and find information about the things fewer people are talking about or noticing. With just a little bit of digging, you can come across stories that you think should be front page news but have gotten ignored by mainstream media outlets.
Overview of the rest of this webpage
First we will remind you of what PTTN asks its members regarding news intake. Then we will present several tips for choosing high quality news and information sources. Then we’ll mention the five kinds of information that citizen’s need to be informed.
After that, we’ll walk you through a process: First you will assess your current situation regarding political news. Then you will decide what your goals are for political news. Finally we’ll have you create a plan to find, evaluate and add the kinds of news and information sources you think you ought to regularly follow.
What PTTN asks its members to do
We ask people to take in 60-90 minutes a week of political news for most of the year. Before the primary and general election, we ask members to study the candidates and any issues that will be voted on. We think this is a minimal amount. But although we believe that many people take in much more political news, we suspect that many of them take in news only from the political sources that closely agree with their values. A stretch for many members will be to find and regularly follow news sources that conflict with some of their closely held political values and assumptions.
Since we ask members to do two hours a month on issues of concern to them, there is also some news intake and evaluation that happens in the advocacy process.
As mentioned in an earlier chapter, we encourage the FITA model for efficient political engagement. We imagine that even people who don’t like politics will appreciate FITA because they can spend a minimal amount of time and still have a considerable impact.
The ABC-QRS method for evaluating news and information sources
Accuracy / Bias / Credibility – Quality / Reasonableness / Support
When you encounter an unfamiliar source of information, whether an internet website, some written literature like a flyer or brochure, or an internet video, you may automatically be sensing whether it’s a “good” or “bad” source. But these six sets of questions can help you.
Is the information accurate as far as you can tell? Is it up-to-date? If it’s internet news is there a date on the webpage? Can you check some of the facts elsewhere?
Is there an obvious political bias? Is there language that seems meant to get you emotional, perhaps angry or fearful? Does the website or author describe the goals and/or purpose of the website or material? Are any personal attacks or disparaging remarks made? Does the material present a balanced view with pros and cons or is it committed to one side? (Commitment to one side doesn’t necessarily make it bad, but it’s likely incomplete.)
Is the information from a recognized, well-known source, such as a branch of the government or a well known institution such as a university? Does the material have an author listed? Is his or her credentials and contact information listed? If the material is associated with an organization, does it have any credibility or reputation? Does the website seem to be trying to sell anything or make too many requests for donations? If a website, are there links to credible websites or unfamiliar websites? Or are all links internal?
Is the writing free of grammatical errors? Is the style engaging, well-written? Is it so entertaining that you could be manipulated? How is the visual quality of related graphics? Are there frequent formatting errors, indicating a lack of attention to detail? Is an issue presented in adequate depth, or is it oversimplified? Is the material presented in an organized way? Does it seem complete, or does it seem fragmented and spotty?
Are any wild or hard-to-believe claims made? Are sweeping statements made? Does the writing seem moderate — or egocentric? Are the deductive arguments presented sound? Are the inductive arguments weak or strong? Does the material stick to one category so as to maintain its integrity? — In other words, if it’s labeled as news, are “contaminating” opinions and new analysis inserted? Is the information internally consistent? Does the writer seem open-minded — or driven to defend one point of view?
Are sources given for data or statistics? (It’s especially important that statistics that are crucial to an argument be sourced, otherwise they just could be made up.) Are sources given for facts? Are there any third-party endorsements of the website?
Citizens need five kinds of news and information to be effective
1. General Knowledge. For instance, if there’s news about China, it helps to know something about the geography, population, and culture of the country. It also helps to know a little about its recent history. You can get general knowledge through news sources that are aimed at people who don’t know a lot, or you’ll be able to find background information in encyclopedias (such as Wikipedia), almanacs, and web searches.
2. General News.This is usually headline news about current events. News stories are about something that happened. Whether in the paper or on TV, these stories focus on who, what, where, and when.
3. News analysis and opinion. News analysis answers questions like: Why did this happen? What led up to it? What does this mean for you? What is likely to happen next, and what might that mean to you? How important is this event? What should be done now? News analysis and opinion can be found in several places: news analysis stories, political columns, editorials, letters to the editor and op-ed pieces. In many ways, analysis and opinion is easier to find than straightforward general news.
4. Information on upcoming bills and existing laws. Existing law information can be found on Congressional and state web sites. Upcoming bill information can also be gotten from many advocacy organizations and websites.
Steps to Find and Regularly Use Better Information Sources
A. Assess your current information sources
1. What regular political news and information sources do you use? (Newspapers, internet news sites, blogs, social media sites, news analysis, action alerts, activist friends who email you regularly, radio news, podcasts, news parody, TV news, broadcasts of local, state or national legislative sessions, magazines, etc.)
2. About how much time a week do you dedicate to political news intake on average?
3. Which news and information sources seem high-quality and productive? Which seem low quality, either because of bias, emotional manipulation, too many commercials, too much opinion, misplaced priorities or some other factors? — In general, we believe news sources where you actively read or search out the information are better than sources where you passively watch news. Activity on your part helps retention; also, you can usually get information and analysis faster through high-quality written sources.
B. Decide your goals – What information will you need?
1. In the next six months to a year, what issues are of greatest concern to you? Prioritize at least the top three or four. [You might say to yourself, for example, I want to especially follow news on these four issues, A B C and D, and each month I will take action on the most urgent issue that month, depending on developments.]
2. How much time and money do you want to expend on news and information intake? (Money is mentioned because you might want access to a news or magazine website.)
3. Looking back at 1, what kinds of information are you lacking on your issues of choice? (Sources from the a less favored part of the political spectrum? Sources on more local issues? Background information? Action alerts? Legislative updates? Stance of particular candidates on these issues?)
C. Explore to find better sources — and eliminate low-quality sources
1. If you think a friend or acquaintance is very much in the know, ask them about their news intake.
2. Do Internet searches for good sources. Use the ABC-QRS model described above.
3. When you find a better source than what you have, unsubscribe from the lower quality source. (You’ll appreciate the break from the “noise!”) If an acquaintance is “bombarding” you with news, you might take the opportunity to offer them the higher-quality resource.
D. Develop good information habits
1. Think about how you could regularly work in news or information, for instance:
__ Listen to radio while commuting
__ Listen to downloaded news on a smart device while commuting
__ Listen to radio/Internet radio/podcasts while exercising
__ Listen to radio/Internet radio/podcasts while eating (breakfast, lunch, or dinner)
__ Read newspaper/Internet while eating
__ Read newspaper/Internet in evening
__ Read newspaper/Internet on weekend at a certain time
__ Watch Internet video/TV news during a meal
__ Watch Internet video/TV news in evening
__ Watch Internet video/TV news on weekend at a certain time
__ Right before or after reading your morning e-mail
__ Other time. Be specific _________________
2. Pick news sources based on your exploration. Also ask yourself if these sources are interesting enough and enjoyable enough to keep you engaged for the long term. There should be some positive enjoyment or aesthetics. If it’s a chore, you probably won’t continue.
3. Decide on some reminder that will help get you into the habit. Here are some ideas:
__ Program your computer or phone to issue a daily reminder.
__ Ask your Support Buddy for a daily reminder for 14 days.
__ Put your radio or smart device next to your walking shoes or exercise clothes.
__ Put your newspaper or news magazine on the breakfast table, or in your backpack for lunch.
__ Put a small American flag or other patriotic reminder at the point in your daily path where it will remind you to take in your new news source.
Sources for this page:
Robert Harris, VirtualSalt.Com, Evaluating Internet Research Sources
Version Date: November 6, 2013
The ABC-QRS model was developed by us.