A common mistake I make, and it is one that the media hopes all people make, is to not use critical reading/listening or thinking skills when interpreting information being proffered as legitimate “news”.
I try to refrain from using the term “news” as a general term because today, almost everything that is written, published, or broadcast is tainted with opinion. The Alphabet networks do it, the cable news outlets do it, and yes, the so-called “conservative media” including Fox News does it, too – but let’s not confuse news analysis and commentary (like Fox’s prime time lineup) with actual news reporting. In my opinion, the conservative media does it less, but that is just my opinion.
There are two skills one needs to learn – and they don’t come naturally to most people – these are how to be a critical reader/listener and then to be a critical thinker.
Critical reading is about facts vs. interpretation and being active rather than passive. To non-critical readers, texts provide facts. Readers gain knowledge by memorizing the statements within a text but to the critical reader, any single text provides but one portrayal of the facts, one individual’s “take” on the subject matter. Critical readers train themselves to recognize not only what a given article says, but also how the subject matter of the article is portrayed.
Critical readers also come to recognize the various ways in which each article is the unique creation of a unique author – for example, one should learn as much about the writer as possible to recognize the background or perspective that may represent bias in what the author writes or the talking head announces. Where a non-critical reader might read a history book to learn the facts of the situation or to discover an accepted interpretation of those events, a critical reader might read the same work to appreciate how a certain perspective on the events and a particular selection of facts can lead to a particular understanding.
Non-critical reading is satisfied with recognizing what a text says and restating the key remarks – basically accepting what is written or said as gospel without interrogating for themselves, but critical reading goes a step further by asking questions:
- Is the article/broadcast offering examples?
- What does/do it/they actually say?
- Is there enough information to make a decision?
- Does the author/talking head omit critical information important to the article/broadcast?
- Is the author assuming facts that are not backed by evidence?
- What sources are offered?
After interrogating and getting answers (or not getting them), critical readers/listeners then can accurately infer what the offered information means, based on the earlier analysis.
Critical reading/listening has three goals:
- To recognize an author’s purpose
- To understand tone and persuasive elements
- To recognize bias
Think of the differences between critical reading and critical thinking this way:
- Critical reading is a technique for discovering information and ideas within an article or broadcast.
- Critical thinking is a technique for evaluating information and ideas, for deciding what to accept and believe.
Critical reading refers to a careful, active, reflective, analytic reading. Critical thinking involves reflecting on the validity of what you have read considering our prior knowledge and understanding of the world. I’m going to steal a good example from the Internet:
“For example, consider the following (somewhat humorous) sentence from a student essay:‘Parents are buying expensive cars for their kids to destroy them.’As the terms are used here, critical reading is concerned with figuring out whether, within the context of the text as a whole, ” them ” refers to the parents, the kids, or the cars, and whether the text supports that practice. Critical thinking would come into play when deciding whether the chosen meaning was indeed true, and whether or not you, as the reader, should support that practice.By these definitions, critical reading would appear to come before critical thinking: Only once we have fully understood a text (critical reading) can we truly evaluate its assertions (critical thinking).In actual practice, critical reading/listening and critical thinking work together, they are skills to be used simultaneously because critical thinking allows us to monitor our understanding as we read. If we sense that assertions are ridiculous or irresponsible (critical thinking), we examine the text more closely to test our understanding (critical reading). Conversely, critical thinking depends on critical reading/listening. One can think critically about a text (critical thinking), after all, only if you have understood it (critical reading). We may choose to accept or reject a presentation, but we must know why. We have a responsibility to ourselves, as well as to others, to isolate the real issues of agreement or disagreement. Only then can we understand and respect other people’s views. To recognize and understand those views, we must read critically.”
The most common fallacy I see are non sequiturs – an argument whose conclusion does not follow from its premises – often because information is omitted – there is simply not enough information to draw a conclusion, much less the one they want you to draw. There are conclusions drawn that are simply not supported simply because an author or a broadcaster wants to walk you down a certain path.
If you want to see how it is done, I would suggest watching Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox at 7pm Eastern. While it is sometimes painful to watch the argumentum as most of Tucker’s guests are bringing a dull butter knife to a gun fight, it is very instructive to watch the way Tucker remains in control and works the logical angles, challenging the guest with probative questioning. When he is facing a guest who literally says they did not say or write what they said or wrote when Tucker waves the evidence right in front of their faces, he maintains a calm demeanor and sticks to binary facts – the basis of logic and reason – a thing is or is not, it cannot be both at the same time.