The Active Citizen: How to Read the News

September 1, 2018

From infotainment to fake news, Americans live in an increasingly complicated, confusing, and sometimes ill-intentioned media world. A recent survey by Pew Research Center sought to determine just how well Americans are navigating it, asking more than 5,000 people to distinguish between fact and opinion in a series of statements. The good news: a majority of participants correctly identified at least three of five statements in each set. The not-so-good news: that’s only slightly better than if those participants had chosen statements at random.

Far fewer people correctly identified all five statements of fact, and those who did had a few things in common, says Pew: “Those with high political awareness, those who are very digitally savvy and those who place high levels of trust in the news media are better able than others to accurately identify news-related statements as factual or opinion.”

Reading the news today is anything but simple. Technology has transformed the way we consume news, and as a result, news organizations have fundamentally changed their business models. The last decade has seen a boom in online news outlets of every size and shape, and readers can’t always rely on the usual clues to separate quality journalism from everything else.

At the same time, social media has aided and abetted the spread of fake, slanted, out-of-context and even out-of-date news, while mashing the opinions of reasonable thinkers up against unreasonable commentary sensationalized for clicks and often disguised as facts.

Amy Mitchell, who directs journalism research at Pew says that “Americans need to quickly decide how to understand news-related statements that can come in snippets or with little or no context.” Fortunately, a number of media literacy resources offer guidelines for anyone who wants to read the news critically. Here are a few.

Read Beyond the Headline, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, has several tips for avoiding fake news. For starters, double-check the url when an article seems fishy. is the website of a major, reliable news organization, but if you’ve wound up at, you’re looking at a fraud. FactCheck also urges readers to think about timelines when reading splashy stories. At a glance on social media, a story entitled “Ford shifts truck production from Mexico to Ohio” might sound like recent victory for US trade policy — even though the piece was published in 2015..

Understand Motivations
The advice from Common Sense Media may be intended for kids, but it’s a great place to start for adults, too. The organization urges people to understand the motivations behind what they’re reading or watching by asking questions like: Who created this? Why did they make it? Who is the message for? What techniques are being used to make this message credible or believable? What details were left out, and why? How did the message make you feel?

Vet Your Sources
The American Press Institute is a crucial resource for news organizations seeking to revive the oft-neglected practice of fact-checking. Its executive director, a veteran journalist himself, offers his own set of questions for the reader ready to go deeper into the news: Who and what are the sources cited and why should I believe them? What’s the evidence and how was it vetted? Is the main point of the piece proven by the evidence? What’s missing?

Think Like a Fact-Checker
To help college students (and the rest of us) sift through the glut of information online, Mike Caulfield of Washington State University wrote a book on how to get to the truth quickly. He recommends that readers first consult fact-checking sites like Snopes and Politifact to see whether someone reliable has already done the heavy lifting of determining fact from fiction (more fact-checking sites are listed here). If not, he suggests going “upstream” to find the original source of information, and reading “laterally” to understand what others are saying about a particular source.

Even a savvy consumer of news can find it baffling — how did Buzzfeed, a site popular for articles like 41 WTF Cat Pictures That Will Make You Laugh Every Time, also publish the Steele Dossier? — but learning to put information in context is one of our greatest responsibilities as citizens and voters.

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This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2018 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.

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