How to Decode 'Breaking' News

How do you begin unpacking chaotic events already in progress? News is widely available, and waves of information are constantly "breaking." It’s hard to choose which sources to consult first. Staying in the present when unprecedented events are constantly streaming is a challenge, especially during the pandemic while we remain physically distanced. Catching up on news and commentary at work or a neighborhood café is not an option for many of us right now.

Combined with ongoing digital fatigue, it’s easy to fall into disbelief and confusion. Making sense of the news helps us understand what’s happening around us, giving us solid ground beneath our feet. Here are a few strategies for understanding and analyzing breaking news.

Sift and Sort

When looking at a range of sources, try to give each report equal consideration. Finding patterns is one way to verify the accuracy of what’s being reported. Over the course of a few days after a breaking news story, there may be a consensus on what took place when, who may have been involved, and what significance the event in general has in relation to other things happening at the same time.

Pause before Hitting the 'Share' Button

Think about your role as a thoughtful person sharing information: is the information helpful and, if so, how? Before sharing a source, consider whether the information or analysis it contains can be verified by other reports. Other friends or family members might see what you share and accept it as a useful source more readily because you shared it. Being conscientious in what you share will go a long way toward creating a cleaner information ecosystem.

Follow the Breadcrumbs

Sometimes, key facts and information emerge in the days, weeks, and months after an event. Choosing a few credible resources to follow as more details are released can help as news organizations publish more reports.

Take a Breather

Remember to give yourself space to process difficult and distressing news. This Forbes article provides tips for supporting your mental health as you consume and process the news. When you are in a good mental space, you are better able to support others.

Here are a few more resources to help you break the code on breaking news:

Go-to News Sources (PDF) from the Civic Lab 
Fake News: It’s Complicated by Claire Wardle for First Draft
Key Findings about the Online News Landscape in America by A.W. Geiger from The Pew Research Center

And read an analysis by Sapna Maheswari for The New York Times on how misreported information can go viral.