Officially, I was more or less raised Southern Baptist. But I’m a big believer in the idea that actions speak louder than words, and if I look at my childhood from that angle, it’s clear that I was being trained from an early age in the ways of the news junkie.
While we nearly always went to church when visiting extended family, my dad was less fastidious about taking us on his own. We went through periods of regular attendance, but nothing stuck in the long term. But there was one thing that was basically guaranteed every Sunday morning: watching news roundtable discussion shows.
Dad would watch these shows the way some people watch sports, including yelling at the TV when he saw something that didn’t seem right. But he’d also bring me in on the analysis. He’d quiz me about word choices and what information might be left out of a speaker’s argument. He’d point out ways interviewees avoided answering the questions put to them.
As any devout person of faith knows, for best results, practicing once a week isn’t going to cut it. Frequent regular devotional practice, ideally every day, is necessary. So it was with my news junkie upbringing.
Of course we’d watch the nightly news most days, but we’d also look at the editorials and op-eds in our local newspaper and apply the same analysis as we did to the TV shows. It was important to be well-informed, Dad said, and the best way to do that was to get information from a variety of sources and look critically at all of it. The experience helped me build a razor-sharp bullshit detector.
This was in the pre-Web days, so it took quite a bit of effort to do all this. It’s ironic that now, when people have access to more information than they ever have before, most of them also seem more committed to their bubbles than ever before.
While I don’t practice the news junkie faith as fervently as I did in my younger years, it continues to inform my experience, and some of its tenets have served me well. Here are a few of those tenets that I lean on the most:
- Seek information sources beyond those who agree with you all the time.
- Be suspicious of sources that always seem to align with the same powerful person or organization.
- Note where a speaker/writer is vague and where they are specific. Go over any vague statements with a fine-toothed comb. Maybe fact-check the specific stuff while you’re at it.
- Track down the original sources of information when you can. A lot of context is often lost when preparing something for media presentation.
- The likelihood that a person’s remarks were actually taken out of context is inversely proportional to their status as a public figure.
Like any enduring faith, being a news junkie has had to evolve with the times. We don’t engage with news the same way we did when I was growing up in the 1980s. And with all the hand-wringing in recent months about fake news and what is shared on social media, how do we adapt older ideas to new situations?
I try not to share anything on social media that is a blatant appeal to my vanity. This could be in a positive way (members of [group I identify with] are [smarter/happier/sexier] than [group I don’t identify with]) or a negative way (members of [group I don’t identify with] [are criminals/are unpatriotic/have poor dental hygiene]). For one thing, there’s a good chance the claim isn’t supported by evidence. For another thing, even if the claim were somehow true, it’s usually meaningless or there’s a different explanation than what the writer is claiming.
That’s another arrow you can add to your quiver, by the way. Anytime someone claims that one thing causes another, ask yourself, “What else could be the cause?”
Final thought: it’s not just in news sources where you should be skeptical of someone who tells you only what you want to hear.
In retrospect, news junkie practice was more intellectually demanding than regular church attendance would have been for me. Sure, it was unconventional, but I use bits of it almost every day. I will probably continue practicing some form of news junkie-dom as long as I live.
So what about you? Anybody else out there (besides my sister) raised as a news junkie? Is there anything in here you find helpful? Post a comment and share this with your friends!