Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How to Meta-Read the Newspaper

Several readers have asked for some more tips on meta-reading to help them consume media on more than just the informational level. In this post I'll share tips on meta-reading the newspaper.

Let's start with the front page. Regular, factual-level readers will approach the front page of a newspaper by skimming some of the headlines, selecting one or two articles, and then reading them at face value.

Meta-readers approach the front page a bit differently. First, they'll skim all of the headlines, asking why those articles are there. They will also match those headlines against their own context of what's going on in the world, and spend a few minutes thinking about what's not on the front page. Why did the editors choose the stories they did, and why did they give them prominence?

Let's move on to the articles themselves. Informational-level readers simply read them, as will meta-readers. But the meta-readers also do more: they read on an interpretive level, asking questions like the following:

Why did the author of this article lead with the statements he did?

Who is quoted, and why? Which quotes are prominent and which are buried--and again, why?

What is the tone of this article? Is it positive, negative, authoritative, condescending, incredulous? Why does it have that tone? What does this imply about the article's credibility?

What facts are missing from the article?

Is the author biased or uninformed in any way? How can you tell?

What logic errors or factual mistakes are in the article?

Do there appear to be any edits or cuts in the article that disrupt its meaning?

What is the nature of any alternative views presented in the article?

What misleading interpretations might the author be layering onto this story? What's his angle?

Where are the facts and where are the opinions in this article? Does the reporter distinguish them? Does he even know to distinguish them?

Are there unstated opinions or viewpoints that are assumed by the article? Which opinions or viewpoints, and how do those assumed views impact the article's overall conclusions?

Admittedly, this is long, brainbending and intimidating list of questions, but a meta-reader naturally and instinctively considers all of them while reading.

It's not as hard to do as you'd think. Quite frankly, if you've made it this far into this article, you already grasp the concept of meta-reading to a level far beyond the average readers' comprehension.

Keep the above questions in mind the next several times you read the news. Feel free to print this post out and skim the list of questions before and after you read. You'll quickly build a natural habit of asking them in real time while you read, and before long, you'll easily out-sophisticate our supposedly highly-sophisticated media industry.

Most of us grew up assuming newspapers, journalists, reporters and others in the media had the authority they had for a reason. The real truth is these "authorities" are often just as biased and ill-informed as the rest of us. Keep that in the front of your mind whenever you consume information.

Finally, keep in mind that this is a blog about writing. The entire point of meta-reading is to help you write more effectively. You will never be able to write with any nuance or subtlety if you cannot perceive it in what you read.