How to Understand the News in English

Do you want to read the news in English? It's a great way to get more news, from more points of view, as well as to get lots of English practice. However, it's not easy reading-- or watching. Here's a little help for understanding common news vocabulary and the way news is investigated and reported in English-speaking countries. In the next to last section of this page there are links to more help to understand the news you read or watch (ESL news sites).

Types of News Media

man sitting on a wall reading the news.
man sitting on a wall reading the news

Print media publications (also called periodicals, because they come out periodically, at daily, weekly, monthly, or other intervals) include newspapers (most often daily), magazines (mass market or special interest periodicals that most commonly are issued every month), journals (usually more academic and often issued less frequently: possibly every quarter or even annually). Most are also available online.

Broadcasting (television, radio, and video) news has* the advantage of sound (and pictures for T.V. and video). However, it may be less detailed and comprehensive than print media, because viewers/listeners are expected to have shorter attention spans than readers.

Print publications handle time limits and attention span by putting the most important or sensational (attention-grabbing) news first, then adding more and more details for the readers who want more on that topic. T.V. viewers will simply change channels if they get tired of the details, so news anchors (the main speakers for each show) keep the reports exciting, short, and fast-moving.

(*news is one of the rare nouns ending in –s that is treated as a singular, so it takes a singular verb.)

News media in English-speaking countries are supported (paid for) mainly by advertising (called commercials on television and radio) and also by subscription (most often monthly or annual payments.) Subscribers are people who pay to regularly receive particular newspapers or magazines, cable T.V. channels, or to see all the material of online newspapers, magazines, or journals. (Usually some online material is available without charge to help people see its value, with the hope that they will want to subscribe so they can read more.)

People can also buy individual copies of a newspaper or magazine, but each copy costs more than the individual copies of a subscription. Governments and/or donations (gifts of money) support public radio or television, in addition to or instead of advertising. Public media include the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) in the United Kingdom and PBS (Public Broadcasting System) and NPR (National Public Radio) in the U.S., among others.

Reporting the News

Reporters investigate and report the news. Major newspapers, T.V., and other news organizations have their own correspondents in foreign countries so they can investigate and report the news directly to their organization (rather than waiting to hear it from unfamiliar local sources or foreign governments they may not trust to tell the whole truth.)

Journalists who write for magazines usually write more in-depth analysis of the news. They don’t emphasize day to day events and temporary situations but trends and changes in direction or outlook. (“Journalism” includes all types of news reporting and analysis.)

News sources for reporters and other journalists include eyewitnesses who were present at an event, police and government officials (sometimes speaking anonymously because they don’t have official permission to speak), documents, photos and videos. All of these can provide information that will add more details, confirm the facts given by other sources, or help reporters understand and explain what happened and why. Confirmation is important to try to give an accurate report of what really happened.

Journalists have a code of ethics. They believe in finding and presenting the whole truth and presenting all the sides when there are different interpretations of what happened. Journalists and news organizations, like other people, have biases and opinions However, their code of ethics calls for disclosing (bringing into open view) their biases and conflicts of interest.

Journalistic ethical standards also require a clear distinction between facts and opinions. (Unfortunately, not all news organizations are careful to keep the news accurate and unbiased. Some present “slanted” news—making one side sound much more reasonable and not providing the whole story.)

Reporters look for answers to the “5 W” questions: who, what, when, where, and why (also sometimes how.) As you read the news in English, you may notice that the first four Ws are often reported in the first sentence or two of an article, or at the very beginning of a radio or television news report.

Reading and Understanding the News in English

It’s important to read critically: to consider the source and not automatically believe everything you read, since some people have reasons for twisting the facts or not giving the whole truth about a story. That’s also a reason for getting the news from several different sources and media. The internet makes it easier to find different sources and various points of view when you need the best information possible.

Understanding the language is another issue (even for many native-English speakers.) Here are some websites that can help:

In EnglishHints, Improve Your Reading Skills explains how to use context, word decoding skills, and inferences to understand what you read. If you want to improve your recognition of word parts and their meanings, try List of Suffixes (24 common word endings that give you clues about a word’s use), List of Prefixes, and Roots, Prefixes and Suffixes, as well as Word Families and its practice pages.)

The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) has lots of help for English learners, including Words in the News to help you understand some important news each week. It has many current ESL news reports that you can read and listen to, as well as a discussion of their vocabulary and sometimes a video and exercises to practice them.

The Voice of America has many ESL news reports in simpler English, with explanations of any difficult terms. Like the BBC, it tries to provide balance and give several perspectives on what is happening-- not just to give an official version. Some of its news reports are even simpler-- level 1, while others are for more intermediate students.

Newsela offers news stories at several levels of English, from beginning to intermediate, as well as the original article (usually advanced reading.) Try reading an easy version to get the basic idea of what happened, then a higher level for more detail.

Breaking News English also has short news stories at several possible levels. You can read them or listen to them.

Vocabulary.com offers 64 lists of 10-30+ words to practice based on news articles they link to.

If you use these sites, you should be able to read at least some news in English without too much difficulty. If you do that every day or even every week, you'll greatly improve your English vocabulary and reading (or listening) skills.

See News Vocabulary: Newspapers and Editorial Decisions for more on how to find information and opinions in newspapers. It also links to two articles about newspaper reporting and the decisions editors make about what is important and what readers should know.

HomeLearn English Vocabulary > Understanding the News in English.

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