October 3, 2012

How I stay informed

I know what I'm about to say makes me sound like a lunatic. I know that I spend a lot of time keeping up on the news both because it's part of my job and because I like politics. That makes me different than most people. But I face the same problem that all of you do, too. You see, it's difficult to be informed these days. 

Two facts about our current media environment make it difficult to be informed about politics. The first is that there is so much information available from so many sources through so many media. The second is the growth of ideologically slanted reporting and pseudo-news programs that involve a host going at it with a player from the other side. Good entertainment, but not a lot of usable information.

My strategy: read widely, read quickly, read critically.

Reading widely means getting information both from sources with which you agree and from those with which you disagree. (See Randall Calvert's excellent 1985 article on the value of biased information--gated version.) I read the Washington Post (free access), Politico (free access), the National Journal (free RSS, some subscriber only), Slate (free access), the Atlantic (free access), Real Clear Politics (free access), and the New York Times (free through Twitter, otherwise limited to viewing 20 articles a month). For local news, I read the Herald Bulletin (free access) and for state news, Stateline. I also read columnists who regularly write about things in which I'm interested. I like George Will, David Brooks, E.J. Dionne, and Paul Krugman. (I've tried others, but keep returning to these four.) I read a number of blogs written by political scientists, including The Monkey Cage, Mischiefs of Faction, A plain blog about politics, Norman Ornstein at Roll Call, Brendan Nyhan, and Alan Abramowitz. Each of these talks about current events in light of political science research. I follow a few public opinion sites as well, including Gallup, YouGov, and Mark Blumenthal. Finally, there are a number of political scientists and journalists I follow on Twitter, including Larry Sabato, Dan Drezner, Lynn Vavreck, and Felicia Sonmez

I told you I sound like a lunatic.

Reading quickly requires a way to sort through all of these stories. I use Google Reader (although any RSS reader will do) to subscribe to the feeds from these sources. This compiles the stories in one place so I don't have to visit multiple sites. I sort through stories (and my Twitter feed) on my iPhone with Flipboard. This shows me titles and the first few lines (usually) of the stories. I can quickly flip through dozens of stories in a few minutes (between other tasks), focusing only on those stories whose titles capture my attention. When I see something I want to read, I save it to Pocket, which creates my personalized newspaper sans advertising (I've also tried Instapaper). I read those stories at my leisure, frequently focusing only on the first few paragraphs of of the story. Any story I want to save for future reference goes to Evernote. I find this to be a seamless workflow.

Reading critically takes practice. (In fact, it's a skill we help our students develop as they progress through the Political Science curriculum.) I tend to focus more on what's going on and facts as they emerge, not on the analysis or interpretation of those facts. I do, however, pay close attention to the analysis and interpretation by the political scientists I follow.

Oh, and don't forget about TV and radio. I get much less information from these, but I do listen to NPR in the morning when my alarm clock radio goes off. My wife turns on Fox in the morning for local news. We'll watch a nightly news program if something important happened that day (so I can see images and hear the key players speak for themselves). I like NBC, but have watched the other networks over the years. If I had the time, I'd watch the News Hour (on PBS) every evening. It provides great, in-depth information on a variety of important stories. If you've never watched it, you should try it at least once. Occasionally, I'll watch the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. And I'll always catch SNL's cold open and Weekend Update. 

Although I keep informed as part of my job, the strategy of reading widely, reading quickly, and reading critically can be implemented by anyone. Check out some of the sources on which I rely or add your own. But don't feel as if you need to follow as many as I do. That would make you a lunatic.

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