Quick Tips for Evaluating a New Story

Since clearly a lot of people are struggling to differentiate between reliable news and bullshit, let’s talk about something called a primary source. You can think of a primary source as original documentation. So if I’m studying Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with Mary Todd, letters between them would be a primary source. A book written about their relationship which quotes those letters would be considered a secondary source. The further removed from the original documentation your information source is, the less reliable it is considered to be. (And for my friends in academia who are sputtering right now, yes this is an incredibly reductionist, simplistic explanation. Wipe up your spittle.)

The same basic idea can be applied to the information we get from the news. The closer to the actual event the report is, the more accurate it will be. For example, if you want to get a feel for what’s happening at a protest, unedited video from a facebook live feed is more trustworthy than edited video presented in a cable news story. It’s also more reliable than official police reports. If you want to know what white supremacists are saying about Donald Trump, going to their websites and reading their endorsements and statements is more reliable than reading a story which describes what they are saying. An unedited interview is better than an edited interview (although probably more boring) and an edited interview is better than a report of the interview. Reading an official statement is better than reading the story about the statement. So on and so forth.

A good news story will provide links to this sort of primary source material. Be suspicious of any news story which provides links to other stories about the material rather than to the material itself. Also pay attention to when quoted material contains elipses (” . . . “). This means that there are words which got left out and you should find the original statements before trusting what you are reading. When you do get to the source material, be sure to pay attention to how it was edited by your news source and if the source material has been accurately represented. If you take the time to do these things, that will let you know how trustworthy the information you are getting is regardless of whether the news source itself is biased one way or the other. Biased news sources are perfectly capable of reporting accurate information because facts do remains facts, regardless of the filter they are passed through.

This whole thing where people refuse to accept facts because they are being reported by what they think is a biased news source is ridiculous and making us all dumber. Stop it. You look like an idiot when you do it. And don’t watch cable news. Ever. For any reason. Not even a little. Not even with the sound turned down. Not even when you’re on the treadmill at the gym. Cable news is terrible and exists to serve the devil.

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