The proliferation of fake news sites, YouTube faux journalism, and social media has produced an atmosphere online where people simultaneously post anything and believe nothing. Websites for news organizations fill their pages with click bait links designed to increase web traffic while placing important stories so deep in the recesses of the menus that a reader must search desperately to find anything of importance. The internet has leveled the playing field in such a way that writers of every stripe can now offer opinions, insight, and outrage on every topic in existence, plus several more, with all the accompanying ignorance, overreactions, and typos.
The internet has thus rendered the legitimate gatekeeping role of the editorial process inert, sacrificing quality for equality. Granted, editors have contributed to their own demise by their heavy-handed massaging of news stories throughout the years, relentless polling to influence rather than understand, and constant force-feeding of viewpoints that often ignore reality. In response, many today are calling for government organizations to start censoring whatever they deem to be “fake news sites” – even when they report legitimate news.
Herein lies the great and subtle danger as the Information Age gives way to the Misinformation Age. Judging the truthfulness of information and quality of writing solely by the viewpoint, personality, or style of the writer means that too many of us have abdicated the most important role in reading: discernment.
The current online climate encourages hype and sensationalism over analysis and substance. Writing controversial headlines simply to spice up rather mundane opinions has become the norm. In the drive to be noticed, writers increasingly become controversial, and – as they wade into controversy – often put their ignorance on full display. Of course, that only matters if people notice (and people only notice if they are discerning).
So, dear reader, next time you click on a link to a blog or new site, take the time to have a discussion with the author, if only in theory.
- Decide the purpose of the author in the first place. In some cases an author presents an argument; in others he only seeks to provoke a discussion. However, you must recognize the difference to appreciate and gain from having read his work.
- Examine the article and determine what assumptions the author has made. When the author suggests a course of action, ask what the motivation for doing so might be and what fundamental changes in thought it would require.
- Analyze the reasoning offered to see whether it is grounded in logic or built upon the author’s presumptions and pushed mainly through emotional appeal. Look for any potential flaws in the reasoning. The fewer flaws you find, the stronger the reasoning becomes, and therefore the more persuasive the argument.
- Think about what the author failed to take into consideration. Consider what you would have added or said differently. Then, at the end, be as critical of your own views and opinions as you have been of the author’s.
We must approach any author’s words actively rather than passively. We have the responsibility to do more than accept or reject; we must analyze and synthesize. Discerning readers discard verbal fluff so as to inspect the value of the author’s thoughts. This does not mean we should ignore the difference between (a) a well written piece filled with beautiful language and words that sing, and (b) a blog that stumbles over itself just to avoid basic grammatical flaws. To the contrary, at the heart of good readership lies the ability to appreciate the efforts of the author in all their depth by treating reading as a rigorous intellectual activity instead of as the mere imbibing of words.
In an age where the market has flooded the world with words, our job has in one way gotten harder. No longer can we rely on a highly trained expert to discard poor quality writing and immature thinking. This we must do for ourselves. While the rise of the internet and its related field of self-publishing has provided people like me a greater opportunity to have a voice, the cost for the reader is all of the noise this creates in the process. Therefore, curate what you read carefully, whether books or blogs. Become a discerning reader.
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