Reading the News Well

Woman's hands holding mobile phone, reading the news.

First, a disclaimer: The topic of today’s post has NOTHING to do with my usual topic, church leadership resources and advice. I felt compelled to write this brief post because I read a news article online and realized that it lacked some essential information. As a writer, I knew what was missing and wanted to provide some help to readers. The information in the article was interesting, but I found the article itself inadequate.

The article I read was:

Why do tech leaders speak out against Trump so much? https://www.cnet.com/news/tech-speaks-out-president-trump-daca-zuckerberg-apple-facebook/

The problem I had with the article is that the headline asks “Why” but the article never answers the question. The closest it comes to providing an answer is found in just two sentences:

  1. “Whether Washington likes it or not, Silicon Valley is emerging as a political power center.”

This doesn’t explain “why”; it just states a simple fact. And why is Silicon Valley becoming a political power center? Because tech leaders are speaking out on a range of political issues.

This seems like circular reasoning to me: Silicon Valley is becoming a political power center because people are speaking out on political issues. But why are they speaking out? Because Silicon Valley is becoming a political power center.

  1. “[Tech] Executives … universally disagreed with the [first travel ban] and encouraged Trump to reconsider.”

This provides a little more context for one specific executive order but still doesn’t answer the original question, Why are tech leaders speaking out against Trump more and more.

Neither of theses two sentences provide what the headline promises. The article does a good job of listing several of President Trump’s actions and the tech executives’ responses. But a list is not an explanation or an answer to “why.”

It appears the author who wrote the article for cnet.com needs a refresher course in basic journalism. According to Marvin Olasky, editor in chief of WORLD News Group:

U.S. newspapers in the 20th century had a simple formula: Reporters should answer six questions, 5 W’s and an H—who, what, when, where, why, and how—as close as possible to the beginning of the article.

Journalism teachers called it the “inverted pyramid,” with the wider part at the top showing graphically that the most important material should be in the first paragraph, followed by less important, and an eventual trickling out at story’s end.

(I’d encourage anyone interested in reading, writing, or even editing to read Olasky’s article, A View from the Editor’s Chair, at https://world.wng.org/content/a_view_from_the_editor_s_chair.)

Next time you’re reading a news article, how do you know if it’s good? Not by whether or not your views align with those of the author, but rather, were your questions answered? As a reader, you might find the cnet.com article interesting, but like me, you’ll likely close your browser unsatisfied. So how should you think about the news you read?

Again, Marvin Olasky: “The 5W1H format is also useful as a logical exercise in thinking about news.” Work your way through a checklist of the six questions to see if they were all answered.

Even though journalism has changed with the move toward digital and video-based news, Olasky wrote “The 5W1H structure is still appropriate when reporting hard news (emphasis mine).” If the six key journalism questions are answered (who, what, when, where, why, and how?) the journalist has done his or her job – barely. Of course, just answering the six questions doesn’t guarantee that the article is well-written or memorable, but at least your questions will have been answered; the news will have been reported.

Another tip for readers is found in a final quote from Marvin Olasky: “Writers speak of scattering gold coins throughout a story, so readers who find several will keep on reading for more.”

Look for those gold coins, those treasures – a memorable image or a certain turn of a phrase. Did it make you smile? Did a tear make its way down your cheek? When you find one of those coins, pause, mull it over in your mind, and ask yourself why you paused. Ask why it meant so much to you – what made it different from the sentence before?

Reading the news isn’t the time to turn off your brain. Reading critically is a part of thinking critically. Unfortunately, according to a recent study, many colleges fail to improve critical-thinking skills. According to the Wall Street Journal’s analysis of the study, many students don’t significantly improve their critical thinking skills over their four years in college.

Don’t be like so many students, who never learned (or lost the ability) to think critically. In today’s environment of harsh words and bitter resentment from both left and right, it’s more important than ever to think well, read thoroughly, and analyze what’s really being said.

 

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