Can You Believe Anything You Read?

I just finished reading Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload  and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a topic that I’ve often pondered as I’ve watched the shift from traditional news coverage to the rapid expansion of information sources that allow literally anyone to have a “voice.” But how can we as consumers–or as journalists, which is a hat I often wear–separate fact from fiction from self-promotion.

The book offers some very in-depth insights and examples which I found fascinating–and helpful. In brief, the authors outline a process that involves asking the following questions:

  1. What kind of content am I encountering?
  2. Is the information complete; and if not, what is missing?
  3. Who or what are the sources, and why should I believe them?
  4. What evidence is presented and how was it tested or vetted?
  5. What might be an alternative explanation or understanding?
  6. Am I learning what I need to?

I’m, by nature, somewhat of a skeptic so I already practice much of this process, although not in as rigorous a way as the book suggests. There’s value in doing so, I think, whether consuming information for personal or professional reasons.

As the authors say in the book: “In the wilderness of an open and mixed media culture, the labels on information are often there to deceive rather than to illuminate.” I love that line! Consider some recent reports of inaccurate reports in the news media:

While it’s concerning enough that even the big media outlets “get it wrong” sometimes (and, sadly, with increasing frequency), more concerning is how quickly news–and misinformation–can spread and become “truth.”  (Another great book is Getting it Wrong by W. Joseph Campbell, about 10 of the greatest misreported stories in American journalism.)

It has always been important to be an informed consumer of information. But, as communication channels–and voices–proliferate, it is more important than ever before. Don’t believe everything you read. Don’t believe everything you hear. Be a critical consumer of information.

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