"Everything Causes Cancer!": Thinking More Deeply & Critically About the News

Yesterday I happened upon a website that posts the Facebook responses of people who mistake stories from The Onion as serious, legitimate news. (For those who don't know, The Onion is a popular and well-known satire news site.) While the primary purpose of the site I discovered is to poke fun at these folks, it also highlights how easily we accept "news" as factual, accurate, and credible, without questioning more deeply, and how quickly we pass it on, unexamined, to others.

I made a similar mistake recently when I reposted a quote I thought was from Martin Luther King, Jr., on IHE's Facebook page. Usually I take time to verify the credibility of quotes before I post them, but that day I was tired, and it was late, and it struck a chord with me. Turns out someone had posted a quote by King and added their own commentary above it, and people had mistaken the whole thing as from King, and off went the viral sharing of this inaccurate quote.

We're busy. There's an endless amount of information out there. We have to protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed and use our time wisely. Those are all great excuses for neglecting to think critically and deeply about news and other information we come across. But to ensure that our choices are aligned with our values, we have to be able to make those choices based on accurate information. Which means we need to take a little more time to verify what our brains are consuming.

Yesterday I came across a great example of thinking more deeply and critically about our news. Umbra Fisk is a columnist for our friends at Grist, and in her Ask Umbra column, she responds to a question concerning a recent news story highlighting a study stating that compact fluorescent bulbs "release cancer-causing chemicals."

Here are some examples of the cool critical thinking Umbra does:
  1. She dissects the framing of the title, which includes "contains cancer-causing chemicals." As Umbra notes, lots of products we come into contact with every day contain "cancer-causing chemicals."
  2. The story mentions several chemicals scientists say the bulbs emit when they're on. Umbra notes some of the other products that contain those same chemicals (such as mouthwash, certain plastics, and shoes). As Umbra says, "(Shoes! I would love to see a piece in The Telegraph about how we should stop wearing shoes because scientists discovered they contained a carcinogenic ingredient.)"
  3. She points out that "...buried below the fold -- unseen by skimming web-surfers who have already forwarded the link, I'm afraid -- one finds" statements from other scientists that "further independent studies" are needed to verify and back up the research. So, this is just one study.
  4. She considers the source of the story. As Umbra says, "...I'm not a regular reader of The Telegraph, so I can't speak as to its reputableness, but it's a historically conservative paper that's also currently running stories on how Viagra 'could' make you deaf and about a man who says he had sex with a thousand cars. Food for thought."
Read Umbra's complete response.

We certainly can't expect to conduct in-depth research on every news article we read or skim, but, especially before we pass something on to others and/or add it to our mental arsenal of evidence to support our beliefs, we can ask some basic questions, such as:
  • How accurately does the headline reflect the gist of the story?
  • What's the purpose of the story?
  • How is it framed?
  • Who are the sources for the information in the story and how credible are they?
  • What are the author's biases?
  • Does the story look at the bigger picture, or only provide a snapshot?
  • Does the story make sweeping generalizations or draw broad conclusions from minimal information/data?
  • What relevant information may be missing?
  • How can I find out more, if I want/need to?
Once we bring mindfulness to our news habits, and begin to ask such questions, we'll begin to notice new patterns, framing, and bias in those stories, and gain confidence in our ability to quickly assess the news with a critical, thoughtful eye.

~ Marsha

Image courtesy of Derek Gavey via Creative Commons.

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