How I Evaluate the News

I imagine it’s because I’m a trained librarian, and so people are curious about what I think about various information sources, but for whatever reason, I actually have a fair number of friends ask me about news articles now and then. I had one instance this morning, and I sent back a detailed response. After writing it, I thought it might be something the rest of you would find interesting, especially these days when “the news” so often seems more like “the opinion,” as opposed to anything resembling fact (from some sources.)

So first, the question. What did I think of this article?

For teaching purposes, I’d encourage all of you to click through to that article and read it for yourself and ask yourself the same question. What do you think of it? More importantly, why do you think that? Is it an article to be trusted or dismissed? Why? This will be more valuable if you come to your own conclusions first, I think.

Ready?

For those of you who just decided to keep reading and ignore my helpful advice, the article is about how Obama might have been a plant by nefarious anti-American sources, designed to ruin our country. For the purposes of this exercise (and for all news source evaluations), I think it’s important to distance yourself from what you personally might believe about the topic. Face the fact that your preconceived notions might be wrong, and approach it as objectively as possible.

People come to librarians all the time, asking us questions. We can’t laugh at them if we think their questions are silly. Our job is to find the information they’re looking for. So for this question, I treated as “Do you think this is a reputable article? Why or why not?”

Here’s what I responded:

Hmm. My first step is to look at the source. Both the publication and the author. The publication (Washington Times) is quite a conservative source that sometimes pushes the envelope when it comes to fair reporting. (http://www.allgeneralizationsarefalse.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Media-Bias-Chart_Version-3.1_Watermark-min.jpg). This is an editorial in that paper, so it’s under no obligation to present anything “fair” at all. I’d treat an editorial on MSNBC about the same way.

Then there’s the author. From his bio on the Times’ site: “Todd is a contributor to Fox Business, Newsmax TV, Moscow Times, the New York Post, the National Review, Zero Hedge and others.” I’m not going to touch the Moscow Times reference. Newsmax is hyper-conservative nonsense; New York Post and Fox are borderline, and the National Review is a site I’d actually read and give some credence to. (Yes, you can critique the chart I’m consulting. I know there are quite a few conservatives who see where Fox shows up on that and immediately start accusing it of being biased. But I really believe Fox is put at about the right spot on that chart, just as I believe most of the other sites are placed in the general correct vicinity. I think a lot of the discrepancy of opinions people have about current events can be traced to this sort of bias. Which sources to believe, and why. But anyway.)

Going beyond that, L. Todd Wood helpfully has his own website we can read to see what his views in general are when he’s not tied to any particular news source. He lists his publications, and they’re recently almost all from The Washington Times, and they’re all squarely in a single worldview. From his biography (http://ltoddwood.com/l-todd-wood-biography/), he studied aeronautical engineering at the Air Force Academy, became a pilot, got a Masters in Engineering Management, served in Kuwait, became a Captain in the Air Force, branched out into investment banking, traveled internationally, became an author, and now splits his time between living in NYC and Moscow.

His publisher is Ice Box Publishing, which from what I can quickly gather is basically a company that only puts out books by Wood. It’s an LLC, and my guess is he started a company to publish his own books.

So I find very little reason to actually give him any credence whatsoever. He’s an ex-military engineer/finance guru turned author. Most of his claimed expertise comes from the hazy 17 years he was with an investment bank. “During this second career he became highly knowledgeable in Emerging Markets Fixed Income and traveled a great deal internationally with a focus on the Caribbean.  He has conducted business in over forty different countries.  He became acutely aware of the consequences of economic decisions and their effect on national and economic security.” I’m not sure how his focus on the Caribbean prepared him to become an expert on Iranian and Russian relations, but that’s where his focus seems to be now.

In the end, taking everything into account, I think Wood’s article is a biased, selective hack job–fairly easy to dismiss.

End of my response.

That’s my answer to the question. What would yours have been? How would you approach it? I’m curious if you’d do it differently, and why.

Thanks for reading!

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