• Dr. Relax

When Families Fight About the News

Do you believe everything you read?

How can you tell whether you are in an echo chamber? Are you falling victim to “confirmation bias“? When you read one set of news, and your children read others - what happens when you start fighting about politics? How can something as benign as a newspaper article or website ignite a family fight? Are you or your children saying things you both regret, because of news or politics?


We are hearing from families that they are experiencing stressful disagreements between parents and children due to current events. This is a good time to remember 1) how to stay respectful when you so strongly disagree and also 2) how to evaluate media sources so that you can all be better informed.


Respectful Disagreement

Are either of you feeling under the spell of “emotional flooding”? Here is a definition from the Gottman Institute:


Basically, when we react in the grip of emotional flooding, we do and say the kind of things that are likely to trigger emotional flooding in our partner. And then both people in the room are out of control.

In the moment, you might act like enemies! When really, you know that you are a team! Conflict is an inevitable part of relating to people - so how can you disagree, better? Instead of escalating conflict so that everyone is overwhelmed, you may wish to consider how to build the best relationships possible - especially since you are very likely spending a lot of time together with whomever is living with you, during shelter-in-place!


Instead of criticizing, insulting, getting defensive, or shutting down, you can move in a positive direction, by expressing your needs, build a culture of appreciation, taking responsibility for wrongdoing and calming down by soothing your nervous system.


Accepting that you are different from each other - which means, holding different views - may be necessary to keep the peace! The American Psychological Association reminds us:


Accept that you may not change the other person’s mind....Having conversations, specifically on sensitive topics, will not always be easy going. Recognize that you may not be able to change their viewpoints. Use the conversation as an opportunity to share views, not to convince anyone that your view is best.


Evaluating News Sources - Neutrally

It is very possible that if you are reading news or consuming other media, depending upon your country, you might only have a choice of a few large media conglomerates (for example, in the US, there are only a handful which occupy 90% of the media marketplace as of 2013). So, even if you and your children disagree, you might want to consider if you are merely repeating the positions you have heard about from your various sources instead of genuinely reflecting and deciding what you really think based on the facts.

You surely would not shop for a car without comparing prices and features in different places - should you treat your news information any less casually? When deciding what to believe - about the world, about events - what can you do to ensure you have the most accurate information available?


When checking for bias, Purdue University recommends looking for an unbiased tone (versus language filled with emotion), evidence supporting the information, and whether the information is sponsored / endorsed by a special interest group.


The picture is from a TED-ed talk, which recommends either getting information directly from the source directly. Whether a scientific study or speech, you can often get the original source yourself - cutting out the news middleman entirely. That is of course, the best source of information.


But, if you do not have time to dig up original sources, and want to be able to read news stories which are reliable - how can you find them? How can we go about finding actual information, real facts - trustworthy information? One way is to be aware of potential bias when you read something. The University of Michigan’s Library lists some resources to help people identify various biases in their news outlets. One site, allsides.com, weights various social media news sources for the magnitude of bias to help you find the most centered and reliable news.


From allsides.com: “We display the day’s top news stories from the Left, Center and Right of the political spectrum — side-by-side so you can see the full picture.” Modestly, it disclaims that even the news it labels as “centered” may still be biased or not the best resource. Perhaps it is comforting to see that the site discloses the possibilities of bias due to the political identity of the founder, John Gable, which happens not to match those of his staff and the possibility of influence by various funders (who do not politically agree with each other either).


In classic nerd form, in a TED talk, Gables makes a Star Trek reference to help the audience understand the problem of bias:


You see, we human beings -- we're not nearly as smart as we think we are. We don't generally make decisions intellectually. We make them emotionally, intuitively, and then we use our big old brains to rationalize anything we want to rationalize. We're not really like Vulcans like Mr. Spock, we're more like bold cowboys like Captain Kirk, or passionate idealists like Dr. McCoy.


Perhaps these thoughts about news evaluation sound obvious, but, even for the generation growing up on social media - the research show that they are ill-equipped to evaluate information they find on the Internet. A Stanford University study, "Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Reasoning" of nearly 8,000 middle, high school and college students in 12 states revealed that most believed news articles without any critical analysis.


Tasks such as distinguishing between a news article and an opinion column, correctly identifying ads on a website, assessing the relative “strength of evidence” of two users on Facebook - the subjects did not perform that well. The study found that only 9% of students enrolled in AP-level history courses were able to figure out that a particular website was a front for a lobbyist - because most never even performed any research to move beyond the site itself.


Stanford’s History Education Group, spurred by this research, offers materials to help teachers guide students critique news sources, in its (FREE!!!) Civic Online Reasoning courses. Lessons in skills such as lateral reading - something professional fact checkers do - comparing many different sources in different browser tabs. It sounds so simple but a study of Stanford undergraduates that 40% of them were fooled by slick websites and the use of “.org” in a site name!!! Thank goodness, critical reasoning skills can increase with practice. Something to ask yourselves as adults is - are you doing a better job than they are, in terms of questioning your news sources?


This picture, from Crashcourse’s video, Introduction to Crash Course Navigating Digital Information #1 captures how bias can be like water for fish - invisible to us, since we are immersed in it, all the time! One takeaway from the second video (see the still below) in that series is to act like fact-checker, and ask three questions every time you read a site: who is the source behind the info, what is the evidence and what do other sources say about the organization and its claims?


So, families - stay patient and kind with each other, and, be sure to do your homework by vetting the news like a fact-checker! You can set a good example for the next generation!!!


P.S. For your reading pleasure, I have intentionally embedded at least three (3) pieces of misinformation in various places within the words above. (Just kidding....!!!)




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