Seperate wheat from Chaff for big picture
September 18, 2011 11:53 AM   Subscribe

I would like to improve my ability to make sense of the news and form an educated opinion. So what are the techniques you have for connecting the dots in today's news stories to get the big picture? For e.g. if you want to get an idea about Greek defaults - Is it through reading select big picture blogs/sites or reading a whole lot of random stuff related to the topic? Do you read rely on select trusted sources ? Or do you quickly go through a whole lot of Google News Stories / Wiki entries etc.

I am very interested in getting to know the big picture of a particular topic really fast. I have observed that for historical topics , you have lots of literature and I generally end up choosing some of the popular options. E.g. for the 2008 financial crisis - the books , Fault Lines, The Big Short and Too Big to Fail together provided me an insight into why things played out the way they happened.

But for a current situation like the European crisis, how do I form a big picture myself . Most of the news stories surrounding a topic are descriptive in nature with random people offering an opinion until the smoke clears a bit . Hence I do not trust a lot of analysis of the news media.

But I would like to form an educated opinion about the major news stories. So what techniques should I be using?

What are the blogs/sites you recommend for getting the big picture?
posted by manny_calavera to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
You need real journalism, not random news lite stories from the Internet. My personal go-to for in-depth news coverage is The Economist. The weekly format encourages more depth of reporting.
posted by Nelson at 12:06 PM on September 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

Second the Economist.
posted by fromageball at 12:12 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

A subpage of the New York Times is Times Topics. This is where the NYT collects its stories and other offerings by subject matter.
posted by yclipse at 12:13 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Both the New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books do great in-depth coverage of exactly these sorts of issues. They also both have blogs: NYRB, LRB.
posted by bubukaba at 12:17 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

So what techniques should I be using?

You need to read and watch the news every day, so that news stories you read today become background for news stories you will read tomorrow.
posted by pracowity at 12:29 PM on September 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

You need a good education in the classics and a head for math.
posted by michaelh at 12:31 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the long term, read a national newspaper (NY times, LA times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc) every day so that you're well informed about a broad range of topics even before some particular intrest strikes you. Specifically, read the front page section and the business section. To save time, skip stories you don't have time for, and stop reading the stories when they start to wonder. Spend all the free time you can listening to NPR. Walking, commuting, washing dishes, cooking dinner, driving, should all be spent either listening to the news on NPR (All things considered, Morning edition, Marketplace, On the media, Fresh Air, The World, Talk of the nation, etc...) or listening to podcasts of these. Fresh Air, Marketplace, and On The Media are my go to sources. Start watching Frontline on PBS. An hour or two of CNBC while the market is open would help too until you have learned enough to know the ropes and only need to watch that to keep up with intra-day news. Look up (in a dictionary or on wikipedia) any word you read/hear that you don't know specifically what the meaning is.

In the short term, get a subscription to The Economist and start reading it religiously. Search the archives of the aforementioned NPR shows (and PBS) for episodes on the topic and listen to them or read the transcripts.

CNN et al. and the broadcast nightly news is better than nothing but is worthless compared to what I have told you above.
posted by pwb503 at 12:34 PM on September 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Read and watch news sources from outside of your own country for both a closer view of events affecting people in other countries and a different perspective on what's affecting people in your country. For example, try Al Jazeera English. They have a comprehensive web site and live stream on their site, which is also available as a free mobile app.

(I was at lunch with some work colleagues here in Canada a couple of days ago. While discussing news, I flashed them AJE on my iPhone -- which, BTW, was running a documentary on poverty in the States. One co-worker, who has a university education and is fairly well-traveled and well-read, told me that he had always thought AJE was a propaganda outlet for Al Queda because that's where all the Bin Laden videos seemed to come from. Oy.)
posted by maudlin at 1:15 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your question is a lifelong quest. You should begin investigating concepts like critical thinking, scientific method, logical fallacies, skepticism. Once you become aware of your own ignorance, and the fallibility of even the greatest authorities, then you are truly on the path you seek.
posted by DesmondDoomsday at 1:26 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Economist is great for "birds eye view" coverage. Even if you don't agree with their political position, its still a unique read. Reading a big national newspaper like the NYT daily is also important.

But, I think the absolutely invaluable thing is long-form journalism from trusted sources. Print - New Yorker, New York Review Of Books, Atlantic, sometimes Vanity Fair, Foreign Affairs if you have the patience and interest. Podcasts - Fresh Air, This American Life, Planet Money.

These are my favorites, but whatever you go with, I think that its important to recognize that neither the standard newspaper article nor the standard 5 minute tv-news story help you truly penetrate an issue, there isn't enough room for both the required facts and the theory and context that stitches it all together. What these sources give you instead is factoid-salad.
posted by tempythethird at 1:33 PM on September 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would say reading diverse and honest, educated opinions is a good start. I used to be widely read. These days on an ongoing basis, I only get to read The Economist, The New Yorker and NYT. Obviously, I don't read them in their entirety every day/every week, but a general attempt to keep up with these publications, keeps me up to date and forces me to think more broadly than I otherwise would. I think these are good starts.

A lot of NPR podcast are awesome if you have time to listen to them. I find Krugman's blog and the Marginal Revolution (at two different ends of the political spectrum) stimulating (I would have suggested TPM and Ben Smith on Politico for political horse race stuff, but that was not really your question :-) )

I think books are much better than periodicals for the big picture on any given subject. I would suggest creating a bucket list for the next couple of years and attempt to finish reading at least one book from that list every month or every other month. I would recommend choosing readable books rather than the most authoritative book in any area (the most "Important" book rarely gets read by recreational readers, well-written book do ...). i update my list every few months since my interests keep shifting ...
posted by justlooking at 1:46 PM on September 18, 2011

All very good suggestions on this most-common regular reads are probably The Economist and NYT. Here's a couple that that haven't been mentioned, though:

FP Passport does a good morning brief with a global focus and lots of links from good sources.

If you're going to watch the news on TV, make sure it's PBS. The Newshour is very good, and Frontline does good documentary-style stuff.

Do not watch cable news, regular broadcast news or local TV news. Sure, they'll do OK stories on important things from time to time, but those same stories will also be done by NYT or The Economist or NPR or PBS or the New Yorker, and they'll be done much, much better. The vast majority of TV news is garbage.
posted by breakin' the law at 2:06 PM on September 18, 2011

I keep Al Jazeera in my mix of regular news reading, not because what it says is necessarily any more or less trustworthy than what comes from other sources, but because it's vital to know what such a large and important part of the world is reading. I try to pay some attention to Asian, European, African and South American sources, too.

Here's a technique I use for any news story that I read: When I first see the headline, and my mind is deciding that I want to know more about that story, I pause before I jump into reading it. I survey my thoughts to see what I already know (or think I know) about the topic, and notice what my impressions and biases are. I think for a moment about the questions this topic raises in my mind: what information am I looking for? what do I want to know about this? (Sometimes I decide that the topic isn't really important to me, and I don't need or want to know anything more about it, so I move on.) Then, I read.

Very often, I finish the article and realize that some important question in my mind wasn't answered. If I hadn't taken the time to collect my thoughts before I started reading, I think it's quite likely that I wouldn't notice that some piece of information that is important to me was not included. I learn and retain a lot more when I "interrogate" the article, rather than just ingest what the editors have decided to offer.
posted by Corvid at 2:11 PM on September 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Economist is great for solid coverage and a bit of the connect-the-dots you're looking for. But in order to fully appreciate it and to do more of the dot connecting yourself, you need some fundamental underpinning in the major disciplines of economics, psychology, politics, sociology, history and so on.

This is where reading some good books would help immensely. You did that with the credit crisis by reading specific books on the subject. But the way to generalize your approach is to strengthen your framework knowledge. Try going through some undergrad texts in the subjects listed above. It will pay off handsomely.

Having said that, the example you cite is tricy: understanding the Euro crisis is a tall order even for someone who has the basics of economics down pat. You would need to know about the banking system, Euro politics, financial crises, government financing...

Specific periodicals that deal with these subjects are the afore-mentioned Economist, Businessweek and to a lesser extent Fortune magazine. The best (non-ideological) blog to consult would be the Calculated Risk blog.
posted by storybored at 9:28 PM on September 18, 2011

Thank you all for the wonderful suggestions. I shall go through the specific sites suggested in detail and work on building a stronger framework in the fundamentals which should pay off.

I have been reading the Economist for the past 2 months and while they do provide a good background on the topic, I do not agree with a lot of their opinions. Some of the data presented is only one side of the big picture and while it might be the most authoritative / most widely read etc., it does'nt feel right to me. I also cannot get the multiple perspectives which can be offered by reading 2-3 books on the same subject.

Maybe reading Al Jazeera /NYT / LRB will help me on the other perspectives.
posted by manny_calavera at 8:13 AM on September 19, 2011

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