I worked as a journalist for ten years. I think I was fairly good at it: I encountered “hacks” pretty early on (by which I mean journalists who write without giving a shit about what they write) and decided I did not want to be one of them.
Good journalism requires diligence, persistence, neutrality, and some form of emotional connection with the subject at hand (these last two are especially difficult to balance, which is why a journalist’s work is always edited by someone else).
As a result, I have learned a useful life-skill, which is the ability to process a piece of text – be it a press release, an article, a blog, or a Facebook post – and quickly sift what is important and pertinent from what is nothing but bumph. This is how I do it.
1 – My own bias
The first question I always ask is this: Do I agree with what the writer has written? Do I share the same beliefs?
If this is the case, I take especial care: the most dangerous of lies are those we wish to be true, and a sympathy towards the information you are reading will seriously skew your ability to understand it.
2 – The writer’s bias
This is far easier than the above, as you can apply a simple checklist of rules. Why has the writer written this? What is the tone of the prose? Is the writer presenting information, or is he or she trying to convince you of something? Do you get the sense the writer cares about the piece? If so, do they care too much about what they are writing? Does his or her emotional connection to the subject matter override the ability to present a neutral and balanced piece of prose?
What about the writing style? Does the writer employ clear, precise sentences formed from words that are easily understandable? Or do they stuff the piece with pretentious phrases, Latin words in italics, and worn-out metaphors? If the latter is the case, the writer is either not very good, or is more concerned with displaying his or her intellect than in conveying information.
Last of all, ask yourself where this piece has been published. Does the publication have a distinct political bias? Has the information been funded by right- or left-wing think tanks?
This brings me to the title of the piece. The Daily Mail is the most clearly biased publication in the UK – I can say this with authority as I wrote numerous articles for the newspaper while freelancing (they paid well – what more can I say?) and saw how my original text was always rearranged and forced to fit The Mail’s agenda.
So, if you wish to try out the techniques I have outlined, I invite you to do this: spend a month reading a newspaper that is directly opposed to your own political views – The Mail for those of left-wing persuasions, The Guardian for those of the right – and notice how easy it is to spot the things with which you disagree.
Concentrate and focus on how you do this. Then switch back to the other newspaper and try to apply the same process.
We live in an age where the quantity of information we receive has expanded exponentially – we are glutted with the wretched stuff every time we turn on a computer – while the quality of said information has diminished to a proportional degree.
Knowledge is power, but it is necessary to learn how to dig for the diamonds amid the dust heaps.