10 principles on how to consume “news”

1. Assume all the news is inaccurate

Assuming the news can only be accurate by chance is a good starting point. We can’t trust journalists anymore. Maybe we could never trust them, but we didn’t know. Now it’s obvious since lies and inaccuracies by news outlets can be debunked in almost real time, thanks to the internet. It’s *your job* to figure what’s accurate and what’s not, based on the information available. Most “news” are in fact opinion pieces. Don’t let news outlets assign their opinions to you. News organization are biased one way or another. The business model of the news requires engagement, not accuracy. That applies to the Reuters, Bloomberg and APs of the world who used to publish “raw” and verified news in the past. They will lie to their audience or distort reality to attract more attention and clicks. The biggest lie of all (in volume) is the hardest to detect: it’s the lie by selection and omission. News organizations will only cover what *they* think is worth covering.

2. Assume the data is inaccurate

Most graphs and data analyses are misleading for similar reasons as above. The data could be cherry-picked, presented as a % instead of volume or the contrary, the axes distorting the reality, or the way the data was collected was biased to start with. There are many ways data analyses can be wrong. Always go back to the raw rata when possible.

3. Most “experts” don’t know what they’re talking about

You probably heard of the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. When you become expert in one area, you realize that 90% of the information in your area of expertise in the media and social media is inaccurate, but yet you still believe the information outside your area of expertise is accurate. Well, it isn’t. Covid19 was a blatant confirmation of that: a majority of MDs had a completely wrong understanding of covid19 risks and of the ways to mitigate them. Selection bias is also a contributing factor: biased news networks will select biased “experts” as contributors.

4. “Fact-checkers” don’t check facts

It’s a very clever language trick that some organizations call themselves “fact-checkers”, when what they mostly do is oppose some (unpopular) opinions using other (popular / official / accepted) opinions. There are countless examples of that phenomenon, that I sometimes highlight on my twitter timeline. For instance, after Facebook was sued for labelling two videos as “false”, it admitted in court that its ‘Fact Checks’ were pure opinion. Personally I consider fact-checkers as contrarian indicators: if they declare some information as “false” there is a high chance it is actually right, but inconvenient for the mainstream narrative of the time.

5. Don’t trust elected officials with news

That’s an obvious one. The main objective of elected officials is to stay in power. If the government labels something as “misinformation” there’s a high chance it’s real but hindering their chances of staying in power.

6. Majority isn’t always right

Just because a majority of people or news outlets support an idea doesn’t automatically mean they’re right. No need to expand here as there are plenty of historical examples. During the covid19 pandemic, some people were labelled “conspiracy theorist” only to be proven right a few weeks or months later. Even a scientific consensus about a topic doesn’t mean it’s an absolute truth. The very purpose of science is to challenge existing models and continuously improve them. Any idea that can’t be challenged is propaganda.

7. Be aware of the amplifier effect

Many big news are in fact insignificant. Some topics that are discussed in the media aren’t discussed in real life circles. What happens is that some issues limited in scope are amplified by a small group of loud activists, and then amplified again by the media because it creates engagement. Those news look bigger than what they really are. You may think that a majority of a country behaves or thinks a certain way, when it’s only a view shared by a small minority. This effect is linked with the notion of intolerant minority. Grifters take advantage of this effect to gain clout and money (because people see them as bigger than they really are).

Given those principles, what can be done? A few tips:

8. Pay attention to authors’ backgrounds and conflicts of interest

If an author is biased, you can assume that the content will be biased. That rule alone gets me to reject a good number of articles before I even read them. It’s not that those articles can never be accurate, but it’s that I would not trust what’s written or said, and don’t have the energy and time to verify all the claims myself. That’s why I almost never read Forbes articles outside of a handful of authors who I trust, as it’s mostly corporate marketing.

9. Read from diverse sources

It’s imperative to get out of your news bubbles if you want to avoid blind spots. Be aware of your own confirmation bias and challenge yourself to read / hear news that you don’t like. Get your information from very diverse sources. A good rule of thumb is: “if CNN and Breitbart are reporting a piece of news in the ~same way, it’s probably accurate, else the truth is in the middle”. Replace CNN by NY Times or Washington Post, etc. In general, independent sources are more trustworthy than carefully curated corporate news.

10. Follow fair and consistent sources

Independent thinkers who remain at the center and can embrace different viewpoints, or who can praise the “other side” and criticize their “own side” when it’s deserved tend to be more reliable. Consistency is key as people applying two standards depending on who/what is the focus of the news can’t be trusted at all. It’s up to you to find who these people are in your area, but for social and political takes in the US I am thinking of people like M. Taibbi, G. Greenwald and T. Pool to name only three.





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