We’re drowning in information, inundated from every angle. Like many people, I’ve become a news junkie, unable to stop tuning in. My homepage is set to CNN.com, but I’m frustrated that the default banner is “BREAKING NEWS.” Isn’t all news “breaking?” If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be “news.”
How do we sort through the clutter to recognize the truly important? More importantly, how do we differentiate truth, from propaganda, from outright lies. In the last six months, we have not only been introduced to, but become used to, two new phrases in our vocabulary: “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” “Fake news,” as I understand that term, is a strategic fabrication of lies disseminated widely to create a false impression. “Alternative facts” seems more tactical, and more personal: I’m more selective about the information I choose to listen to so that I only hear what I already want to believe.
How do we, as adults, learn to think more critically, and more independently? More importantly, for those of us responsible for younger, more impressionable minds, how do we teach others to be more discerning? To listen with a critical ear? To challenge what someone else’s words are trying to do to us?
For more than 20 years, Vivian Vasquez of American University, has worked in the classroom helping teachers guide young children toward being more critical learners. Her goal is to help all of us learn to listen more critically to what goes on around us. She believes that listening with a healthy degree of skepticism won’t make us more jaded, but will help us understand more deeply.
I had a great conversation with her recently.
Jay Sullivan: Dr. Vasquez, what’s the chief problem with understanding the world around us these days?
Vivian Vasquez: We all have our go-to sources for information – FOX or CNN, the Times, Post, or Journal, our mom or even the person who cuts our hair. We go, not only to what’s familiar, but what makes us feel comfortable. That limits our exposure.
Sullivan: What should we be doing instead?
Vasquez: We should be challenging ourselves to look at opinions we don’t expect to agree with, and to compare the different language people use to express the same ideas. When the next big news story comes out, flip back and forth between the websites for your favorite network and a channel you wouldn’t normally be drawn to. Become conscious of the way the same stories are positioned on one media outlet vs. another. Pay special attention to the verbs. You might be amazed.
Sullivan: I started doing that after the election. Being a New Yorker, my default was always to go to the New York Times. After the election, I thought the best way to understand where other people were coming from would be to read what they’re reading and listen to what they’re listening to. Now, I routinely go to the websites of papers in the Midwest and South. In particular, I read the editorials. It’s been enlightening to see how others have a different take on the same facts.
Vasquez: Now go a step further. When you read the paper, you know the Op-Ed section is pushing a certain point of view – that’s its role. Now go to the regular headlines. Look at the verbs they’re using. Even when they are purportedly just conveying facts, they’re doing so through a particular prism. Ask yourself, “If I had written the story, would I have used the same verbs? Taken the same angle on the story?
Sullivan: Once I have exposed myself to different points of view, how do I read each with a critical eye?
Vasquez: There are two key steps to reading more critically. I work with teachers to help them encourage students to ask some core questions when they are reading something. Ask yourself, “What is the writing trying to make me feel? What is it trying to do to me? What reactions am I having emotionally, cognitively, physically? You may find yourself getting sympathetic or angry as you read something. Was that the writer’s intent? If so, was the writer being manipulative, or are the facts of the story innately endearing or infuriating? I call this step “reading with the text.”
Sullivan: This sounds a lot like another hot topic these days – mindfulness. In mindfulness training, we’re asked to be conscious of our breathing, of the sounds around us. Being conscious of our breathing helps us control our breathing. You’re suggesting that being conscious of how a piece of writing is impacting us allows us to take control of the information.
Vasquez: That’s right. Being conscious of the clutter allows you to manage how it impacts you, to sort out the unimportant, or at least to slow down how we react to it.
Sullivan: Once I know what impact the text is having on me, what’s next?
Vasquez: After we read with the text, we need to read against the text. We should weigh the different perspectives before deciding what to take away from the text. Writers create their own contexts based on what they’ve written, and by what they’ve left out. They create the scenario, so they get to develop the plot and the characters the way they want. For most of us, our ideologies are invisible to us. Step one is to be conscious that we are hearing things a certain way. Step two is to ask ourselves why we hear things that way. That level of self-reflection and self- analysis is important to understand how to hear others more clearly.
Sullivan: What are some easy steps we can take to achieve that?
Vasquez: It’s all about the questions we ask ourselves.
Who is the source?
What do I know about the source?
Who benefits from a particular angle on the story?
Who is disadvantaged?
Whose account of the story is prevalent? Whose is missing?
How could it have been told differently?
Who benefits or is disadvantaged by different tellings?
These are just some of the questions we can ask ourselves to become more mindful, more conscious of, and more critical about the news we experience.
Sullivan: So I know the news is having an impact on me, and then I reflect on the context of the speaker. “Is she or he a part of a larger organization that has a broader agenda?” What comes next?
Vasquez: Next comes the “so what” piece. After we hear the voices around us with a more critical ear, how do we then act differently out in the world? Well, we’re part of the story too. As we engage in discussions with others, as we debate current events, as we interact with those around us, we are doing so having been influenced by the news we’ve processed. If we listen both more broadly and critically, and then reflect consciously on how those stories are influencing us, we are better able to put the stories in context. It takes the edge off the anxiety. It helps us then communicate our ideas more clearly, with greater intention, and, hopefully, with the desired impact. By becoming more conscious of how others communicate, we improve our own ability to communicate. We become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.
Sullivan: Not a bad result.
Originally published on Forbes.com.