Readers and listeners have told us that they appreciate our bits of advice including “be your own editor” and “wait for it.” But they also have asked us, “Ok, but can you tell me how to do that?”
Here’s a four-step, mental checklist to place you actively and efficiently in control of your own news consumption. We call it “Chase It Down.” It’s as much a series of looping steps as it is a way of thinking about how you interact with the news. Those steps are: Headline, Source, Report and Cross-check.
The wording of a headline will tell you what the story is about and whether or not you should spend your time on it. This is especially true for social media which often is worded to get you to react. Keeping this in mind will help you avoid wasting time on stories that are not very important, accurate or informative.
Also watch for differences between headlines on news stories and those on opinion or editorial pieces. If you’re not sure then look to see if the article is labeled as opinion or appearing in a news or opinion section.
If a headline seems worth checking you next look to see which media organization is publishing the story. Checking the media source before you click helps you identify the ones that deserve your attention first. Use the mainstream media first. They’re not always right and some are better than others, but they are better at it then most of us. Advocacy and other sites are good for getting different perspectives on the news but your first and main job as a news user is to determine the facts as well as you can.
You might prefer some mainstream sources over others but avoid dismissing any just because you don’t like their editorial pages. Go by the quality of the reporting (and go buy the quality of the reporting if you like it and subscribe!).
Now it’s time to report. Start by giving the news site a quick once-over to set your reading, viewing or listening priorities. A good rule of thumb is to scan the first few paragraphs of a story to determine if you want to read the whole thing now, later or not at all. Also note the reporter’s byline. You’ll develop familiarity with and confidence in a specific beat reporter’s work. That’s important on major national and local news coverage.
Look to see which officials or individual sources are cited in the story as well as their credentials and background. Make a mental note to see if statements in the story are supported with more detail.
Pay attention to the questions that naturally arise in your head as you go through a story and make sure they’ve been answered by the end. That sets up the fourth step of the Chase It Down process.
Continue to “Chase It Down” by reading stories about the same subjects in other media sources. The idea is to get a broader sense of what’s going on and become more resistant to news bubbles and to the inherent distorting effects of social media.
For example, do the facts of a New York Times story on the federal budget, a tax proposal or another issue align with what and how the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Reuters, Fox News or others have? If there are differences what are they? Are specific elements of a story factually in agreement but placed in a different context? Who is quoted in those stories? This is fundamental cross-checking. You can do it with as few as two media sources. But you can’t do it if you’re only getting your news from one source.
The internet makes that very easy. You can at least look at a few articles on another site in any part of the country before hitting a paywall if there is one.
You’re In Charge
Use the four steps as shortcuts to help you figure out what news to consume and how to do it efficiently. You’ll naturally develop more fluency the more you do it and can modify the process to suit your needs and preferences. But however you do it you start with the mindset and intention to “Chase It Down.”
Let us know how “Chase It Down” works for you. We’d love to get your feedback and suggestions.