Current events were always my favorite part of class. In high school, I had a history teacher named Mr. Maurer, who always took at least ten minutes at the beginning of the period to let us talk about what we had heard in the news. He'd talk us through the events, play devil's advocate and even share his own opinion — something unheard of amongst teachers in my school.
It may have been four years ago, but that time stuck with me throughout high school. It was the first time I had been given the opportunity to share what I thought about what was going on in our country and our community. It taught me the importance of varying my sources. My parents had taught me Fox News was the most reliable and honest news source. So, at the time, that was all I used. It was also the first time I listened to and discussed these events with my informed peers.
Like many others, my freshman year was also the first time I really started doing research on my own. Sure, I'd written short research papers for middle school English classes, but those primarily consisted of googling the topic I'd chosen and picking and choosing facts from the first two web pages that popped up. The internet had been around for my entire life, but this was one of the first times I explored it independently. I wasn't just riding on the information superhighway — I was driving.
Because of the internet, we have access to more information than ever before. This access has led to people feeling more informed than at any time in history, but more information does not equate to more knowledge. The vast array of news, social media, opinions, facts, movements and slander can leave anyone's head spinning. With so much coming at us, how can we think for ourselves?
To form your own opinion, you have to stay up to date with what is happening. If you have no idea where to start, start small. The Daily Nebraskan's Emma Krab did a fantastic piece on staying informed during the Biden administration, and she gave some great advice about daily news sources. Using those websites, newsletters, podcasts and articles that give you a quick run down of the news you should know is a great starting point for current knowledge. I start my day with NPR's "Up First." It's just 15 minutes long, and I listen to it while I get ready in the morning.
If you just want to know what's going on in the world with little commitment, you can stop there. But to form your own opinions about various events and controversies, go a little deeper. In the news right now is the Ahmaud Arbery trial, where two white men shot and killed an unarmed Black jogger. The case heard its closing arguments on Monday. To learn more about it and to make your own opinions, start with a simple Google search. The news tab on Google provides you with a variety of sources to begin your search.
Make sure you are accounting for potential bias in reporting. Mediabiasfactcheck.com is a great resource to find news organizations with left and right-leaning biases. Checking a variety of sources and being aware of their biases allows you to get the information you need as a base for your own view.
While gathering unbiased information is important in making your opinion, so is being aware of your own biases. Everyone is biased. It's not something to be ashamed of unless you choose to ignore them. Tests — such as this one from the Learning for Justice program of the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center — can help you discover your implicit biases and keep them from clouding your judgment.
Implicit bias is just one type of cognitive bias. There are others that are necessary to know when researching a topic. One such bias is called confirmation bias. If you’ve heard someone say they’re doing their own research on a topic, they might fall victim to confirmation bias. This bias plays on our tendency to favor facts that support our existing ideas and beliefs. You can read more about it here.
When researching something, it is important to make sure you seek out information that contradicts what you've already heard, read or thought. The opposing information may not change your opinion, but it does make it stronger. No one wants an opinion that crumbles under questioning.
Another vital bias to know is the anchoring bias. This bias causes us to give too much weight to the first information we learn. That's one reason it's so important for you to seek out information on your own and from a variety of sources. If your friend shares an opinion on something and it is the first time you've heard of it, it's easy to latch on to that opinion as fact, or at least the foundation of your own thinking. Being aware of the anchoring bias helps you prevent that.
The final bias of note — though there are many, and I encourage you to continue to research biases — is the availability heuristic, also known as the availability cascade or availability bias. For college students, this one might sound pretty familiar. At its core, the availability cascade is that the more you see or hear something, the more likely you are to believe it and share it yourself.
Technological advancements and social media have provided an excellent platform for this bias, but it's not all that different from rumors that we spread in middle school. Just because you hear something a lot doesn't make it true. When you feel overcome by a topic that you think may be the result of an availability cascade, slow down and think about it — don't get caught in the wave. Just because a topic spreads quickly doesn't mean it's false, but you shouldn't just accept it as truth either.
Much of what I've discussed has been rather self-centered, focused on individual research and self-evaluation. Seeing as opinions are a personal thing, that makes sense. However, when you begin to have an idea of your opinion about a subject, take a moment to look outward. Talk to your friends and family about what they think. You don't have to agree with them. You may adamantly disagree, but don't let that stop you from discussing. Understanding what others think about a topic not only helps you form your own thoughts, but it also helps cement and strengthen your opinion.
Even then, remember: this is still your opinion. Opinion, not fact. Yes, you've done the research and considered different angles, but you don't know what others have done to form their beliefs. They can do just as much research as you and still come to a different conclusion. Don't judge others for having different viewpoints; it should be celebrated. Diversity of thinking leads to growth and advancement. It brings us closer together despite our contrast.
I have always been a rather opinionated person, and I value knowledge immensely. But what I've learned in my time debating, learning and conversing is that it is okay not to care. It is important to note that some people are more directly affected by public policy and may not be able to ignore it. There is a privilege in willful disconnection.
You don't have to have an opinion about everything. It is fine to be in the dark sometimes. I'm not advocating for ignorance, but rather considering human nature. There are simply going to be things you couldn't care less about. Some trials, scandals, investigations or even trends are going to leave you zoning out into the distance while your friends talk themselves in circles. While it is excellent to know at least the basics of what is happening, feel free to step back every now and then. If someone asks for your opinion, a shrug is acceptable from time to time.
I know a lot of this seems like common sense. But right now, as we are constantly bombarded with information, even while just trying to scroll passively, going back to the basics can be helpful, even refreshing.
As we rush to class, work and Thanksgiving meals across the country, remember to slow down. Breathe. Think. Maybe you can try what I've been doing since my freshman year of high school: ask yourself, what would Mr. Maurer say?
Megan Buffington is a freshman journalism major. Reach her at email@example.com.