Little of what I write about on this blog is based on first-hand knowledge. It is what the philosopher Bertrand Russell called knowledge by description rather than knowledge by acquaintance.
I write about foreign countries I’ve never visited, whose language I do not speak and whose people I’ve never spoken to. I write about politicians I’ve never interviewed.
I know from 40 years experience on newspapers that it is hard to be well-informed on a topic, even if you have time to study the subject, and in fact are being paid to be well-informed.
It is even, as now, I depend on second-hand information. It is easy to be misled and hard to sift the real from the fake. Here are filters I use to separate news from fake news.
- Who says so? How do they know? Is a source of information given for every assertion? Is the source of the information a person in a position to know? Is the person trustworthy? Is the source of the information anonymous? If so, do they have a good reason for being anonymous?
- Click on the links. If the source of information is a link on the Internet, follow links as far as you can to the original source, and see whether it supports what is asserted.
- Does the claim make sense? Does the news item make sense as something somebody could do? Does it make sense in terms of something somebody would do? Is it consistent with what else you know? Is it consistent with itself.
- Does the writer engage in mind-reading? Other people’s’ motives are unknowable. You can know what somebody does. You can’t really know why they do it, and the “why”
- Compare and contrast diverse sources. If you have time.
- Carry on imaginary conversations in your head. If you are a progressive, imagine a conservative making their best arguments (or vice versa). How would you answer? Could you answer?
- Distrust emotion, but not too much. Emotion can blind you to facts and logic, but the fact that somebody feels strongly about something doesn’t mean they’re wrong. There’s nothing wrong with expressing anger, admiration, pity, gratitude or any other normal human emotion; what you should ask is whether the emotion is appropriate to the actual facts.
- Use fact checkers, but skeptically. Snopes.com and Factcheck.org are useful, but make up your own mind.
- Arithmetic can be your friend. If the news item is based on statistics, go to the original source, if you can. Do the calculations yourself. Always distrust any claim that is based on percentage differences or changes unless the underlying number also is given. Don’t jump to conclusions about the significance of any number unless there is another number you can meaningfully compare it with.
- Three things to watch out for. Old news packaged to look like it’s current. “Sponsored content” packaged to look like journalism. Satire that isn’t labeled as satire.
- Suspend judgment if you’re not sure. Better to admit you don’t know something than to think you do when you don’t.
- Admit mistakes, at least to yourself. It just means you are wiser today than you were yesterday.
Another bit of advice: Do as I say, don’t do as I do. I’ve been guilty many time of jumping to conclusions and failing to think critically, both as a reporter and in this web log.
My own sources of news are (1) the Democrat and Chronicle, my local daily newspaper, and City Newspaper, my local alternative weekly, (2) magazines and books and (3) the blogs and web sites with links on my Blogs I Like and Resources pages.
I think reporters for both the Democrat and Chronicle and City Newspaper are highly professional, but, for reasons outside their control, they are stretched thin. They do a good job of what they do, but the amount they are able do is limited.
I used to watch television regularly. I’d devote Friday evenings to watching the McNeil-Lehrer Report (now the News Hour), Washington Week, the Bill Moyers show and the McLaughlin Group on PBS. I hardly ever watch TV or listen to radio news any more—not because there’s nothing worth listening to, but because, as I get older, my memory and attention span grow worse.
My favorite on-line source of news is naked capitalism, both because of the depth of its commentary and because its editors mostly see the world the same way I do. When I can, I check out its 7 a.m. headline service every day and its 2 p.m. headline service every weekday.
Doug Muder’s Weekly Sift is a well-written, well-researched weekly news summary from the standpoint of a center-left Democrat. If you have limited time and are sympathetic to that point of view, I recommend checking him out each Monday afternoon. I read his posts faithfully myself.
Rod Dreher is a sincere and thoughtful Christian and social conservative whose views I always find interesting.
Tyler Cowen on MARGINAL Revolution is an economic conservative who is also one of the most erudite commentators I’ve ever come across.
Counterpunch is a forum for hard-core left-wing radicals, to whom I’m also growing more sympathetic as I grow older.
I hope and believe nobody regards Phil Ebersole’s Blog as a primary source of news. I’m pleased if you find it interesting, but I’m not an authority on anything—just a retiree who enjoys reading, writing and conversation, and sharing information and ideas.
How to Fine Tune Your B.S. Detector by Warren Berger for Co.Design.
Can’t Judge Fake News in the Dark by Peter Van Buren for We Meant Well.
Illustration via Maryvale High School, Phoenix, Arizona.