“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.” –Mark Twain
Mark Twain was a very wise man! But to start with I must state that I believe in getting informed through newspapers. I firmly support our newspaper in this day of TV soundbites and website headlines and videos. I want my local newspaper to succeed. I get plenty irritated with it sometimes, but I will always subscribe, read it, and let the editors know when they have missed the mark. The key to getting the most out of a newspaper is reading it in the right way, so I’ve decided to post a series of articles on how best to read a newspaper.
Mark Twain’s statement is definitely true in too many publications, particularly those with a definite bias. Some have a subtle bias. Some used to only have a bias close to elections–but since it is always “the silly season” these days, it’s always good to read with a skeptical mind. I wrote the piece below 5 years ago as a response to a student’s question. So the examples of the articles are old news, but they are still valid. I’ve added some current findings in italics in the body of the article.
From April 2007: We were discussing how to read a newspaper in my introductory speed reading lesson the other night. I always teach my students to read the first and last paragraph in journal articles and newspaper human interest stories (along with headings and visual aids) and the first paragraph in news articles. One of my students said that she had noticed that the writers in our newspaper had started to get creative and were not getting to any facts until about the third paragraph. So the next morning I did a survey by reading all of the first paragraphs of all the articles in our paper. (Being a speed reader really helped with that!)
The Structure The first paragraph in most hard-news articles—business, world affairs, events and even sports–are classic journalism style with the facts presented in the opening paragraph. The human-interest articles that accompany the hard news are told as a story, as my student was saying. As that paper was dated the day after the tragic events at Virginia Tech, most of the main section was about that tragedy. There were two main articles: one on the left and one on the right with a picture in the middle. The article on the right was straight forward with just the facts and the first paragraph containing the most pertinent information. The article on the left was told like a story, building curiosity and interest and gradually getting to the facts. Either way, the first paragraph sets the stage for the article, and you can quickly find out whether it is going to give you hard news you want or a human-interest story. The human interest stories do give the facts two or three paragraphs down, but a news article gives them straight out. By reading the first paragraph, you can determine if you want to read the rest. Now, the front page is arranged this way only when something major has happened. Recently, the articles on the front page are all over the place for subjects and range from journalism style to human-interest style.
The last paragraph in a news article is still a summation of what has been going on about that subject forever (i.e. Anna Nichole’s marriage/baby/son/death) that you would only need if you had been on a desert island for a month or two. But you might read them, if you really have been out of touch.
Headlines can be deceiving. They can show a real bias in a publication known for a slanted view—or possible sensationalism to grab attention. You really can only use the headlines to determine the subject and decide if you want to read the article, not to form an opinion. I have seen headlines that are actually opposite of the conclusions drawn from the entire article. Sometimes I swear headline writers have never read the articles. What sticks in my craw after decades was a headline that declared a standoff with police from a young man barricaded inside his house. The sad truth was that the gunshots neighbors heard were the young man killing himself. He was dead before the police arrived.
The next blog will have more about bias and reading opinion pieces.
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