How to Read the News
A brief guide on how to sort through the noise and find what you're looking for without losing your humanity — or your mind.
Note: As I wrote earlier this week, I’m shifting this newsletter to Ghost. That process will take time as I figure out the new site and migrate. Also, I turn 40 this month and I’ll be away for two weeks to mark/celebrate/process that. I’m aiming to migrante in mid-February. Until then, I’ll post here. The migration doesn’t require any effort on your part. Pretty much everything except aesthetics will remain the same for readers. Thanks your support! Now on to business.
As a politics writer, reading the news is a big part of my job. Most of us here are going to be news readers. In November, I argued that we should read less news, but I still believe each of us ought to be dialed into what’s happening at home and around the world. But how?
That may seem like a silly question. Reading the news is like whistling, right? You just put your lips together and…blow. You just open the site or the physical magazine or paper and you read. You click around. You click a link from a social media site. You click a link from your in-box, a newsletter that’s found its way through the spam filters and your strained attention. You read, maybe you scan the piece quickly for interesting bits, and you move on with your life.
You can read the news however you want. Obviously. But if your goal is to come away from the news informed, critically armed to sort through the noise and understand the world, and not lose your mind, there are better and worse ways to approach navigating the deluge.
I’ve found mixing mainstream, corporate news with independent and niche sources to be rewarding. Corporate news is a mixed bag. Editorial structures, incentives, talent, and resources vary. Some of them lead to thin pieces and subtly or deeply biased or lacking assessments. But there are strong reporters, opinion writers, and editors in the mainstream, and tonnes to learn from them. There’s no benefit to leaving that talent on the bench. The benefit — and skill — is learning who to bypass.
I balance mainstream sources with indy news to reach perspectives, issues, and data that I otherwise wouldn’t find. I won’t list all my go-to sources indy here, but, for instance, I learn a lot from the Maple, the Narhwal, Paris Marx’s Disconnect, and Emily Leedham’s Shift Work and I read them whenever I come across them.
Source variety is important because you don’t know what you don’t know. Having a mix of mainstream and indy sources and newsletters helps sort that out and over time you learn what works for you and what doesn’t. Discarding what doesn’t work for you is important. You only have so much time.
In the same spirit of a mixed mainstream and indy feed, I rely on my social media feeds for news — specifically people or organizations I trust and the stories they share. A good social media news feed is cultivated for trusted news sources, which function as heuristics, or mental shortcuts. I can’t scroll through all the news and primary sources myself, but with dozens or even hundreds of trusted people and organizations, I get a good stream of material from all around the world, which is pre-vetted — or at least pre-vetted enough that I know it’s probably worth my time to read it.
Once I have pieces I’m interested in, I either read them right away or save them to Pocket, which saves links to read later. There are lots of services like that. The service isn’t as important as having a system. Where do the links live? When will you get to them? How will you remember important bits? How will you sort them?
I keep notes and links from the news stories that capture my attention in specific files and lists related to what I want to dive deeper into or write about in the future. So, I have a handful of feeds (email, social media, and sites I browse daily) and a home for all the links I don’t read right away but want to get to later. I sub-sort these links into folders so I can access them down the road — which is to say I archive them.
When reading the stories themselves, I read with a critical eye to what’s being covered, what isn’t, who is speaking, who isn’t, what data is cited, and what isn’t. There is no such thing as objectivity in the news. Media is fundamentally subjective insofar as it’s founded on decisions about what to cover, when, in what way, who to quote, which data to cite, who gets to write the piece, which photo accompanies it, which words to use, and so on.
I pay attention to all the above considerations. If I’m keen to learn more, I’ll read pieces about the same issue from a few sources. I’ll also click on embedded links and go to source material. Often, you’ll find stories draw on primary sources like reports. Check out those sources if you can. No matter what else you do: always, always, always, consider the source. There’s always more to the story and no source is neutral.
Over time you’ll develop trust in outlets or reporters/photojournalists/opinion writers/etc. I read journalists I trust with more deference than ones I distrust or don’t know. Knowing where to look for news and who to trust helps preserve your time and energy.
These days, I limit both my news reading time and my social media time. I feel a lot better and get a lot more done this way. I read the news in the morning, going through my newsletters in my email inbox and scanning my go-to sites. Later, I check my social media feeds for any interesting stuff my trusted sources might be sharing. Later, when I’m writing or searching for something to write about, I do a deeper dive into a selected, smaller list. Beyond that, I tune out the news and get on with my day and my life. And with that strategy, I’m set to make it to 40 years old and perhaps even older.