The 5 best ways to get good information

We need a revolution of good information.

After the past few weeks of fake news, hyper-biased reporting and filter bubbles, accessing good information seems more important than ever. Luckily, it’s actually easy to be aware of where your information is coming from.

1. Know your sources.

This one seems obvious, but is actually really easy to overlook. We tend to be attracted to headlines, and are often unaware of the sources behind the news we read. So how do you know who is writing what and whether they’re trustworthy?

For most news sites, the easiest thing to do is simply type ‘is site XYZ biased?’ or ‘is XYZ a trustworthy site?’. Anytime you find yourself on a site you’re unfamiliar with, do a quick search and see what they’re about. You will not have been the first person to ask, and there will likely be a pretty clear answer.

Pew Research has conducted a study on bias in major news sources, which is summarised nicely in this Business insider article.

Just because a site may lean one way politically doesn’t necessarily mean that the site is bad or the news is untrue. It simply means facts may be presented in a biased way. And that’s important to know when you’re reading something that informs even a little bit of your worldview.

If you want to delve a little deeper, Fair.org has some tips for how to detect bias on news media sites.

2. Choose quality over quantity

Technology has given us more access to a vast amount of information.

(One challenge this poses is that not all of it is true. And having a lot of something that’s of poor quality isn’t really that useful. More on that in #3).

The other difficulty is that the sheer quantity of information is simply overwhelming. It’s impossible to stay on top of everything that’s going on all the time. Yet often we still try, and this is where we start to lose a sense of what news is of a high quality.

Taking in information should not be mad dash to the finish line. (Also, in the world of online news, there isn’t one.) By turning off some of the noise and limiting our information intake, we can make better use of the information we have, reduce anxiety and potentially improve our cognitive abilities.

Try this: pick a few sites of known quality (see #1) to check on a regular basis for a specific amount of time. Read articles in full and stop to think about what they mean (more on that below). When your half-hour or hour is up, stop. It is far more useful to be well-informed about a few things than badly informed about a lot.

3. Believe facts. Not stories.

You’d be surprised how easily emotion can get in the way of the truth.

The majority of us are far more likely to be interested in news stories that grab our attention, play on our emotions or conform to our beliefs. Which makes sense: this type of reporting is more immediately engaging than evidence, facts and figures. Add in the amount of information we have to sift through, and it’s no wonder we tend to go for the easy read.

The negative effects of this dynamic, however, are starting to show. ‘Post-truth’ has recently been named as Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. The word suggests that facts and evidence often matter less ‘in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Much of our recent news falls into the pitfalls of post-truth reporting. In the pursuit of trustworthy information, fact-checking should be a regular part of our reading process. And also something we demand from our online news platforms.

4. Get out of your algorithm

One of the most recent issues contributing to poor news quality has been the filter bubble phenomenon. Wikipedia has a great definition you can read here. The basic idea is that algorithms gather our data to predict what we want to see. The problem is that we then start seeing only what we want. The more refined our algorithms become, the less likely we are to come across things outside our comfort zone which challenge our beliefs.

Ring-fencing ideas in such a way can be extremely dangerous. As many experienced in the recent US and UK elections, we are increasingly trapped in a virtual echo chamber, largely unaware of opinions that differ from our own.

Gene Demby of National Public Radio says the filter bubble is an unfortunate by-product of social media. Instead of bridging opinions and encouraging conversation as it claims to do, social media makes us less aware of different opinions and more insulated in our own.

The implication here is actually quite scary. Staying inside our bubbles may hinder our ability to think differently. Being challenged to consider another’s opinion or intelligently defend our own can help us grow and change as people. Living solely in the company of our own opinions may feel good, but it’s not doing us any favours as human beings.

The solution to this is pretty simple: get uncomfortable. Break out of your algorithm. Use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. (DuckDuckGo protects its users’ privacy and avoids the filter bubble effect of personalized search results.) Take a break from social media. Have a gander at the rest of the information out there and roll around in it.

And most importantly: read one news source every day that doesn’t correlate to your own bias. (Left to my own devices, I would mainline The New York Times and the Independent. To combat my own innate liberalism, I spend half an hour every morning reading BBC, Al-Jazeera, The Guardian and Fox News.)

Once it stops being uncomfortable, you might even find it’s fun to think differently and be challenged.

5. Question what you’re reading (or hearing or seeing)

Taking in information doesn’t do us much good if we don’t think critically about it. When you read something, it’s equally important to stop and think about it. What is the article saying? What do you agree with? What parts do you not agree with? What meaning does it have for you? For the world? What can you do with that information?

(Bonus: if you give yourself space to think deeply and process information, you are also likely to be more creative.)

As automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning continue to grow, critical thinking will become an increasingly important skill. By thinking about the information we take in and analysing it, we can learn more about ourselves, each other and the world around us.

In summary:
· Know who wrote what you’re reading
· Read fewer, but better quality articles
· Just the facts, please
· Go forth and diversify your news outlets
· Question everything