To make a long story a little shorter, there are major challenges in accurately reading a Western news media produced English news story:
1. Well-Hidden Slant, Bias, and Agenda. Now, an experienced native speaker accustomed to political arguments may say that it’s not quite so well-hidden. However, for a non-native English speaker, nuance can be very difficult to identify. Also, the news media (note that media are plural, medium is singular) collectively cherish a well-polished myth of impartiality, best represented by the idea that “if both sides complain, we’re doing it right.” (This allows a few radical loudmouths to create the appearance of fairness in the minds of those pushing out very slanted stories.) Thus, I call this “well-hidden” because understanding how news is written in with an agenda is rather difficult. The belief that news is written with an agenda requires no special linguistic knowledge, but at any rate, we’re interested in how to read better.
2. Colloquialisms. This blog post on the New York Times blog is a plea for serious news organizations, such as the New York Times, to stop using so many colloquialisms when writing news articles. More accurately, an article is sprinkled with colloquialisms. This is considered a way to better connect with the native speaking English reader, providing a bit of spice and entertainment to make the boring news more digestible. Non-native speakers can quickly become lost when dealing with these colloquialisms, making the content harder, not easier, to understand.
3. Unclear Explanations. Reporters are not as knowledgeable as experts in the fields about which they are writing news reports. Honestly, I have come to appreciate how rare the gift of very thorough explanation is in this world. Many news reports deal with complicated subjects, but for whatever reason, the reports do not make the content clear, even to well-educated English speakers. In fact, experts reading a news article about their field are often amazed by how bad the explanations feel to them.
4. Incomplete Facts. As a result of the three preceding points, a typical news article will leave certain important facts out of the article. This is either because these facts conflict with the story the writer is trying to make, they do not “sound good,” or the writer is genuinely ignorant of them. Depending on the national journalism culture of a particular country and the scruples of the particular writer, the writer may seek to “lie by omission” and deliberately present inconvenient facts as the opinion of one side in a story, while presenting the writer’s own opinions as facts to get the reader to identify with them. I find this habit extremely frustrating, both as a reader and as a tutor.
As I have written about previously, English is heavily dependent on what you know, and what you don’t know. Even within a normal news article, the first resort of sniffing out what is reliable and what is not is to examine what is presented as fact, and what is presented merely as opinion. This tells you the angle of a story: the approach the writer takes to informing the reader (you) about what the reporter wants you to believe is true, and what the reporter wants you to believe is questionable, fishy, suspicious, and sometimes, outright false. Usually, however, a writer seeks to guide you to these conclusions and make you believe as if you came to them all on your own, even if the writer is manipulating every step of the reading process to produce this conclusion.
This leaves me at a great loss in terms of deciding how to approach instructing people in how to read the news. To me, there is “the normal way,” and “the real way.”
The normal way of instructing people how to read the news is to teach how to correctly understand what the writer wants you to believe, so that you can better believe what writers write.
The real way of instructing people how to read the news is to teach how to correctly understand the agenda behind what the writer wants you to believe, in addition to the above, so that you can make up your own mind with less interference from deceptive English writing practices.
I am still at a loss as to which would be correct to teach. The normal way is what a learner needs to pass a test. The real way is what a learner needs to operate in English-speaking society with a full command of the language.
The normal way remains exactly what universities/ colleges want to see from people being assessed for English proficiency. Educational institutions want students to be able to identify the intended message from a piece of writing. Further analysis is based on comparing this intended message to what others think the message should have been.
The real way examines the unintended message: the natural consequence of finding deep flaws in an argument, some of which have incomplete facts, unclear explanations, and deceptive colloquialisms, precisely because they are written with an agenda. That natural consequence is informed skepticism.
Mark Twain wrote that there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” with statistics being the most deceptive of the three. His lesson has been ignored by much of society.
Again, however, that’s not what a learner needs to pass a test. Consequently, I am quite unsure if I should teach anyone these deeper secrets, and instead, just confine myself to teaching how to understand the intended message, since even that is a challenge for non-natives (through no fault of their own).
Ultimately, I feel as if this is not my choice to make alone. Those of you who read these words who desire to learn English, I say to you: you should decide for yourselves. If you want something else than just the essentials of reading stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, on CNN, in Wired.com, and so on and so forth, I will faithfully accommodate you with every bone in my body.
If you want something more, just know that I’m capable of other things, too. Even so, I do have one word to the wise, advice I probably must take myself: Just because you can do something, does not mean you should.
Anyway, thanks for reading. Comments welcome, since to be quite blunt, I don’t know the real answer. I don’t know if anyone does.