The News We Need and How to Analyze It

By David Himmel

Growing up, my favorite thing to do was my most mind-centering, physically relaxing thing to do. That thing was read the Chicago Tribune’s comics while eating cereal or Cream of Wheat—if it was cold enough—before heading off to school for the day. My father teased me: “What’s happening in the world, David?” My response was always the same. “Garfield still hates Mondays.”

I didn’t read any other part of the newspaper, save for the movie listings when I was making plans with friends on the weekends. Since I only had enough time to shovel down two bowls of Cocoa Puffs, the funnies were about all I could fit into my busy schedule. Plus, I had no interest in the news. Outside of what happened to Dick Tracy or the kids in Fox Trot, nothing in that paper affected my life in any way. The news was for grownups.

I was wrong, of course. But I was a kid. A kid shouldn’t have to pour over the complexities of a troubled and changing world. They have new hormones and homework to fuss over. Though I must tell you that I was not a completely clueless kid. I could easily name the president, rattle off a few superficial facts about whatever the big news item of the week was. But that knowledge was garnered mostly in passing. Glancing at the front page as I tore the sections away to get to that Tempo Section; hearing the news reports on Mom’s smooth jazz radio station in the car to Hebrew School; things the men at the anchor desks would say on whichever one of the three networks my parents tuned in to around dinnertime.

I ended up graduating with a degree in journalism. I wrote for the university newspaper for four years. Had my own column. Served as Opinion Section Editor for two years. It was the best job I ever had. My closest friends worked with me and to this day, I’m not sure if we were close because we worked together so well or if we worked together so well because we were close. We were all going to graduate and become reporters, columnists and editors. Journalists. Real journalists who, like we had done in college, broke stories about corruption, kept the elected officials in check, provided a voice for the little guy, represented the fair truth of the Human Condition.

Analysis stories: Stories written to tell the reader what it all means. It’s not lazy writing it’s lazy reading. Or rather, it’s lazy news consumption. That is assuming that’s the only thing being consumed.

And for a while, we did that. We applied our skills to weekly alternative newspapers and independent political magazines. But then we got distracted. Corporate jobs pulled us away from the real work and replaced our grit with thicker wallets in the same way shiny objects distract fish and numbskulls. I regret not starving a little while longer. Because if I had, maybe I’d be that reporter, columnist or editor that I had dreamed about being. But then again, is today’s news the kind of news I would want to be doing?

Of course not. Because today’s kind of news, in so many ways, is not the kind of news that I fell in love with and wanted to report. Today’s news is less about what is newsworthy and beneficial to the Human Condition and more about what’s popular and easy to mentally chew.

Now, before we go any further, you must understand that this is not another essay whining about the liberal media or the conservative media or fake news or any of that. All of that stuff existed long before any of us were around and it will continue to exist long after we’re stuffed in human landfills to rot like forgotten Mike Royko collections. This is about what kind of news is being consumed by us.

Unlike my younger self, I read the paper now. I don’t gorge on it like I used to because since the Internet has exploded, I find that it can be overwhelming to even consider trying to keep up with it. I subscribe to several print magazines, I receive the Sunday New York Times, I read Crain’s Chicago Business and Chicago Health magazine, of which I am the founding and former editor in chief. And though I pour through the printed materials, those printed materials are complimented with online-only stories or real-time stories available online only because it’s the best way to stay on top of everything. So I sometimes read their stories online. And I read a lot of other news strictly online. Washington Post, Vice, BBC, I’ll stream NPR. I, like the rest of the world, can now only read The Onion online. The Internet has made inundating us with news a breeze and with our smartphones in hand at all times, we cannot avoid it.

Even the carefully measured, though thorough, daily news reading I do can often and easily feel like too much. There is no such thing as breaking news anymore because we are never not aware of what’s happening.

And it’s what I found the other day in the right column of a Washington Post story I clicked to through my daily email from the paper that troubled me in a way that surprised me. What I found surprising was not what I read but that what I read didn’t anger me and lead me to sulk in gurgling rage as I’m known to do before I erupt in momentarily uncontrollable fury. I’m like a sophisticated Incredible Hulk but not super strong and pale white instead of deep green.

The story I was reading (on Feb. 16) was about the latest credibility issues facing the Trump Administration following the Flynn/Russia conversations. It wasn’t hard news. But it wasn’t commentary or hard opinion either. And it wasn’t a feature. It was, I don’t know, let’s call it soft news. And OK, I sometimes read the fluffier stuff. But as a rule, I try to avoid reading any fluff or analysis until I’ve ingested and considered the facts provided by hard news stories. Who, What, When, Where, Why and How.

So, what I saw in that right column was a top five list of Washington Post’s Most Read online stories. Four were labeled as Analysis. Depending on what story you read and when you read it, the number of Analysis stories populating the Most Read list changes. But these stories do most often dominate that list.

Analysis stories: Stories written to tell the reader what it all means. It’s not lazy writing it’s lazy reading. Or rather, it’s lazy news consumption. That is assuming that’s the only thing being consumed.

I was always taught that, and always did my best to practice writing news stories that presented facts and filler—features and narrative is enjoyable, who could read the AP Wire for more than 10 minutes before falling asleep or falling into some kind of hypnosis?—but left enough room for the reader to analyze the information for himself or herself. If this is what’s most popular, it is clear that we don’t want to think for ourselves. We want news we can trust, sure, but we also want news we don’t have to think much about.

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“Hey, Facebook friends. What are some news sources you trust? I’m looking for organizations that are not blatantly for one side or the other.” I have seen versions of that all over social media a lot lately. At the surface, it’s a harmless, even beneficial question. In a world where the United States President lies about the weather, his press secretary promotes accusations of calling long-respected news organizations like CNN “fake news” and a counselor admitting that the administration is governing off of and promoting “alternative facts,” we need to be mindful that not all news is actual news.

But what that question does is admit that we are looking for news we don’t have to strain to comprehend. And good news reporting is not difficult to comprehend. But it should be consumed in a way that we can understand it and analyze it ourselves.

Reading the analyses of others is important. It allows people smarter than us to explain highly complex conditions. If we follow the news daily, we should be able to avoid the daily happenings of the wild, goon we call President Trump and his Brotherhood of Evil CEOS from becoming too complex.

I caution all of us to not only take analysis of the day’s events from one or two external sources if needed without also, and most importantly, analyzing the day’s events and forming a conclusion on our own. If we don’t, then all that really matters is that Garfield hates Mondays.