Read the News Like a Lawyer
Lawyers do not take in information passively. We’re poking holes and asking questions that I think every educated citizen should when reading the news. Here’s how you can also read news like a lawyer.
[This post has affiliate links. I may receive a small commission if you make a purchase from clicking on a link. Most of the links are news stories though, for which I receive no commission.]
1. Set Your Objectives
As an attorney, I read in order to respond or to prepare responses in the future. But it’s not as clear cut why people read the news.
Why are you reading the news? Most people say it’s “to stay informed” but what are you trying to be informed of? And how are you going to gauge whether your news reading habits are achieving that goal?
I take notes on interesting tidbits I learn from the internet, noting the source of the information. If a news source never or rarely gives me factoids that I find interesting enough to write down and incorporate into my life or conversation, I read that source less. I want to be sure I’m making the most of my time reading – only finding important actionable tips and not getting sucked into celebrity gossip or useless deluges of information.
Don’t tell yourself you’re reading the news to be informed if you aren’t actually using anything you read to make your life better. Just go outside and play instead.
2. Assume the News is Biased and Inaccurate
If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do, you’re misinformed. – Mark Twain
The news is different than books. Books are meant to stick around for years. The news – whether via internet/TV/social media/newspapers/magazines/blogs – has a quick turnaround and is meant to be skimmed and forgotten. Given the demands of the 24-hour news cycle, the financial difficulties of newspapers, the unlikely chance that misinformation will be punished, pressure by advertisers to secure favorable coverage or to mitigate negative coverage, and the human attraction to lurid and negative stories, the news has every incentive to report on events and occurrences that are terrible and even to sensationalize these stories. As CNN writes, “Every year, news headlines from around the world seem to get more shocking than the year before — and 2019 was no different.” Yeah, CNN, I wonder if the news gets more shocking because it helps your bottom line?
When a lawyer reads an opponent’s brief, she starts off skeptical, and the same should be true of people reading the news. I once dated a man who still won’t read the New York Times after its hugely inaccurate coverage of one of his cases.
Although his view seems extreme, honestly he has the right approach. The Gell-Mann amnesia effect describes the phenomenon of experts believing news articles on topics outside of their fields of expertise, even after acknowledging that articles written in the same publication that are within the experts’ fields of expertise are error-ridden and full of misunderstanding. If the editors are asleep at the wheel in one area, there’s no reason to believe the other section editors are more diligent. Experts don’t trust the news and neither should you.
3. Seek Out the Truth
When people stereotype lawyers as liars, they at least assume that lawyers know the truth (even if they don’t care to tell it). Dishonest, but not dumb, is the stereotype.
If you’re a lawyer, it’s your duty to know the truth, or as much as you can really ever know. You can’t only read studies or arguments that support your hypotheses. Instead, you HAVE to know all damning evidence against your side. You have to red team your ideas.
A large part of the problem when my friends tell me about news stories is that, even assuming all the facts are accurate, their conclusions make no sense. More and more, people are choosing news that fits their political values, so they shut their curious side down and just let the confirmation bias sweep over them.
It’s easy to parrot someone else’s conclusion, particularly when your friends are an echo chamber of support. It’s much harder to mindlessly repeat what you read if you know the other side might challenge you. A lawyer is always thinking about how to challenge the narrative presented before her.
4. Assume Bias
What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. -Nicholas Carr, The Shallows
These days, people don’t read, they skim. And that’s a problem because it means that people aren’t paying attention. So people put their faith in trusted reporters, news organizations, etc. and automatically discount other reporters and other news organizations.
But bias by itself is not evidence of inaccuracy. Someone can be biased and still correct – if that weren’t true, we could never trust anyone. And bias is only one part of the inaccuracy of news.
5. Question the Facts
For the most part, you have to assume facts are reported accurately. As a reader, you likely don’t have the time or resources to check up on the facts of say, a crime.
I don’t think it matters what kind of news you read so long as you read intelligent people presenting opposing views and are engaging with the content and making sure it makes sense to you. What journalists choose to put in or choose to leave out is evidence of some bias and the only real way to combat it, is to read from all sides. Consider this paragraph from Quartz:
American news sources like the New York Times cover Western terrorist attacks by Muslims more than any other terrorist attacks, even though most victims of Islamic terrorist incidents are Muslim.
[FYI I don’t mean to pick on the New York Times. I am a subscriber to the Crossword.]
Or read my article about how we teach women to be afraid, which discusses how people selectively cherry-pick every instance of a woman being victimized for a crime, but fail to report that the rate of women being victims of crime is only 1%. Even when the facts are right, you need a better picture of the world in general, and that is a view that the news will not give you. The news is biased toward the sensational and it’s up to you to provide the bigger picture.
6. Be Suspicious of Conclusions
If the article is coming to a conclusion, you have to be skeptical. Does this conclusion logically follow the facts? Could the facts lead to any other conclusions? If you changed one of the assumptions the author makes, does the conclusion still hold up?
I remember someone mentioning a NYT article suggesting some really groundbreaking research. I was intrigued and honestly surprised I hadn’t heard of it. I found the article, which linked to a study. The study was focused on a particular subset of women in a certain situation, and the conclusions of the study were carefully limited to this particular scenario. The NYT writer, though, had used the study’s results to extrapolate a similar conclusion to all women in America in an entirely different scenario. Of course, the NYT article was much more interesting than the study, but it was also made up.
7. Is it Relevant?
The top news stories in 2019 were dominated by plane crashes, insults, scandals, mass shootings, natural disasters, freak accidents, deaths, and fires. The rest of the news is whatever Trump was doing/not doing/was rumored to have done. The news isn’t meant to make you smarter; it’s designed to give you what you want. Facebook doesn’t care if you’re informed; they care if you click. They would market alcohol to addicts. They would selectively feed all stories about women being attacked to scared women.
Just because someone reports it, doesn’t mean you need to listen. As a lawyer, you don’t have to respond to every argument from the opposing side (particularly if there are time or page limits on your rebuttal). Only concern yourself with the most important, pressing stuff – the stuff that’s affecting your life or your client’s case. Lawyers don’t have time to engage in questions that aren’t important.
8. Use Your Brain
Lawyers have to trust that they know just as much as opposing counsel on the facts and that their conclusions make sense. Maybe it’s egomania but it’s necessary to believe in your narrative and your brain above all others.
When reading the news, you should realize that the person writing the article likely has no more expertise than you. In fact you have perspectives and experiences so that if you were covering the same facts, it would be a completely different article. After all, newsrooms are not known for their diversity.
Of course, it’s possible that you are totally wrong and you need your world upended. But it’s just as likely that if you look at the facts on the ground, the experience of your life paints a more realistic picture than the world that journalists create. I mean, there’s a lot of reality TV in the world, and the news has to compete with that. Is the world really like Survivor or are people generally nice and boring? You be the judge.
9. If It Gets You Down, Stop Reading
More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result. Ironically, if the news were to say something like “eating bananas causes fatigue in 50% of Americans,” banana sales would plummet, but the news just keeps on chugging.
The reason many give for sticking with the news is “I have to be informed!” I was initially going to quote this statistic that watching partisan news actually leads one to be LESS informed than not watching any news at all. But when I looked at the study, I saw that whether one watches FOX News, MSNBC, NPR or no news at all– you’re similarly misinformed. In this survey, every respondent was asked 4 questions. Those who watched no news, got 1.22 responses correct on average, and the highest average responses for those who had some news (those who listened to NPR) was 1.51 responses correct. No one could even get half the questions correct.
Ok, this bullet point has nothing to do with the law. If you’re a lawyer, you have to figure out what to do when the bad docs come out. But, please do take a break from the news if it isn’t your job. You don’t want to end up as anxious as a lawyer.
10. Think About What You Can Do to Make the World Better
After figuring out what the problems are, the next step for a lawyer is solutions.
Somehow, and I blame Millennials (of which I am one), “awareness” became almost synonymous with change. So when people spread news through their social media, people think it’s as good as volunteering, voting, or solving actual problems. We don’t need awareness, we need action.
If you read about natural disasters, find ways you can send money or aid. If you are worried about climate change, join environmental activism groups in your area. Make changes to your lifestyle to reduce waste. If you care about the loneliness epidemic, visit a senior care facility or hospital. If you are depressed about politics, get involved in your local politics chapters or canvass for your favorite candidates.
The news makes you passive. It makes you feel like you can’t do anything. It makes you feel like you have no choices. For instance, everyone keeps telling me I have to vote for a white, male candidate for president – no one else could possibly win! – they say. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I mean, I have no idea who’s going to win in 2020, but I’d rather fail while trying to push the candidate I want to president, than win trying to push the candidate that “has to win.” I mean, the media was VERY wrong about who was going to win in 2016. The news is as bad at predicting the future as they are about reporting the past.
Read the News Like a Lawyer
The vast majority of news is negative crap that is poisoning the world, but sometimes it is entertaining. And sometimes it’s a good way to sharpen your thinking skills. And maybe if people were more critical of the news, it would encourage the news to be less of a dumpster fire.
There’s a good chance that none of us will never know the capital-T Truth of an issue. Most issues in politics today are debated because they are complicated without easy solutions. But being curious about the other side of an issue, questioning your own biases, gets you closer to a solution.
Because even if your understanding of the issue doesn’t help you make a more nuanced solution, knowing the other side of an issue helps to humanize the opposing party. And when we can empathize with each other, we have a great chance of finding common ground. As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” And if we all cared about one another, more than we care about the news, then the world would already be a much better place.