Traditionally anthropologists don’t study their own culture. I was given this lecture multiple times while earning my B.A. in anthropology. This isn’t to say it’s never done – it’s increasingly popular, in fact. But there are strong arguments against it still.
The primary issue is with the fact that it can be difficult enough to become aware of our own cultural assumptions, biases, and ethnocentrism while studying another culture, much less studying our own while being totally entrenched in all those life-long assumptions.
The advantage to looking at your own culture is that you already understand a lot of the implications of what’s going on, especially if you have well-developed critical thinking skills.
In the end, either way, well-developed thinking and analytical skills are critical, as well as an open mind.
I bring all this up to frame my opinion on news consumption.
First, let me say that while remaining an informed and engaged member of the world community is important, so is focusing on living life and being productive within our own sphere of influence. Which is to say it’s best to not get too caught spending all your time reading news.
That said, the question becomes How can one make the best use of a small amount of time available to consume news?
I think we should take a page out of the anthropologist’s journal of methodology. We should spend time taking stock of the assumptions, biases, and judgments we carry. American IS a multicultural nation, like many nations. One of the more interesting things to look at, though, is the variation within American culture itself and how our shared values are interpreted differently in different parts of the country, or by different groups of people who share spaces.
Most people are not only looking for reporting of facts from their news sources, but seem to really enjoy analysis as well. Analysis, by its very nature, will contain biases. And that’s okay.
However, I do believe you can get away from bias a respectable amount – the social sciences are built on this. The trick is that it requires very in-depth reporting. Unfortunately, most Americans are not interested in investing the time to consume in-depth, highly analytical news articles. It’s a shame.
We want something quicker. Shorter. And… slightly entertaining.
But even if you take away the entertainment factor, offering highly readable news on events as they occur isn’t super realistic. As things occur, we don’t have a whole ton of facts. That’s why there’s so much time spent on speculation among news networks – to me, this sort of “reporting” is mostly a waste of mental energy to consume. (This is honestly reason #1 for me recently cutting back significantly on my own news consumption, from any source.)
Then, once we do get the facts, sometimes years or decades later, analysis takes time yet again. Time to produce, and time to consume. But it’s time well spent. Once you get your foundation laid down, it becomes much easier to critically, responsibly, consume daily news. Otherwise, we’re all sort of trying to digest information in a master’s level course in world affairs while we’re still angsty, smelly, know-it-all teenagers in our sophomore year of high school. [And let me please balance this statement with acknowledgement of the fact that personal experience and first-hand knowledge is also highly valuable – it’s one reason I LOVE reading memoirs and biographies.]
Because every readable, daily news story isn’t going to take the time to reiterate to consumers the history of the issue or full analysis of the various factors at play in the situation. At most you’ll get a couple relevant key facts from history to frame the reporter’s point of focus.
This is where you as an individual must take responsibility. I know that anyone complaining about biased news has failed to take responsibility for their own free thinking. Put in the work and do your research. If you’re interested in a topic, I’m almost certain that someone, somewhere, has taken the time to look at that topic in-depth and write something highly informative about it. I’m almost doubly certain that’s the case if the issue you’re talking about is a major one. But don’t just read one article. Carefully pick a few, and sit with the topic for a couple weeks.
All you have to do is take the time to find those pieces of work that others have already produced – and read them. Easy. Get your history. Get your facts. Get your analysis.
And make up your own mind.
If you want to really make this political, I’m a registered independent. There are important issues on “both sides”, and sides around that dominating bipartisan monster, that I agree and disagree with. There is no presidency in my lifetime that I fully support. In fact, I spent my late teen and early young adult years identifying as an anarchist and I still carry a lot of that lifestyle and attitude with me, although I’m not sure I can say I fully identify as an anarchist anymore.
My point is: I’m hard to pin down. In fact, in almost every imaginable facet of my life, I live – I revel – in ambiguity. I am drawn to the abstruse as if it were a magnet to my inquiring mind. The political sphere is no exception.
It’s irritating to engage with something that you feel is wrong. Like reading news that’s saying things you don’t agree with. But it can be fascinating to get a sense of where these thoughts come from, which you can, if you keep reading.
People make assumptions, including you. People carry their history, their upbringing, their whole damn lives with them into situations, including you, and with those things they assess and react to situations, both consciously and unconsciously. There are so many ways of being.
Like I said, I’m sort of an ambiguous person, and while I believe that certain things are right and wrong, and some of those convictions I hold dearly and would be willing to fight for, I also sometimes just see life as a pointless game. People live, and grow, and delight in pleasures, and suffer, and die. That’s what it is to be human. We create the meaning of it all for ourselves, and each other, and other animals even! And that’s human, too.
In a way, I see us all as one large organism. Kind of like how you see those flocks of starlings in the sky, flying together in a twisting shadowy shape – each an individual but also part of a larger body of birds, and you’re not sure how each one knows where to go next with all of them flailing together, each individually seeming to be flying willy nilly, but somehow they’re still part of this greater whole that’s doing this perplexing but amazing thing. Your inquiring human mind may likely wonder why.
( Apparently the starlings do it in response to predators.)
We wonder the same question about ourselves.
We’ll never have a solid answer. That’s my belief. One of many, some of which I’m even unaware of.
All I’m saying is, don’t get upset about biased reporting. Be responsible for yourself. Take personal accountability for your own mind. Read news from a variety of sources, no matter your political persuasion.
Be like an anthropologist. Step outside your comfort zone. GET UNCOMFORTABLE. Read news from a perspective different from your own – and seriously read it. Often. Immerse yourself in the unknown – and get to know it. But remain thoughtful, remain inquisitive, and take notes. Put on a wider lense. Zoom out and see the bigger picture. Zoom in and see the details. It doesn’t mean you have to sympathize. It doesn’t mean you have to agree. You can take home whatever you want, or don’t – but one thing you will definitely be taking home, if you do it right, is greater understanding.
At the very least, it informs you of the opposition’s position so you can argue your own with more clarity and conviction. And at most, I think you might start to see that there are many truths all at once. Shit’s complicated. And it’s all too much for any one of us to even begin adequately grappling with. So you can check your expectations of yourself and other people. Especially your expectations of your “leaders”.