“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re mis-informed.”
-Attributed to Mark Twain
I used to really like TV news. Like, when I was 12, for some reason I really enjoyed catching the national news and finding out about international conflicts, political stuff, and things like that. Perhaps it was sparked by the general interest in news in the aftermath of September 11, when there were frequently international issues to report on and political decisions that affected millions of lives. That’s pretty interesting stuff I think.
That phase didn’t last forever, and between going to college in 2008, and going on a mission for two years for the LDS church in 2009, then returning to college in 2011, I really haven’t gotten my news from “video” based sources, it’s been all text through the internet (or through memes on Facebook.)
Taking a (minimum of a) 5 year absence from TV news makes it seem really weird whenever I happen to see it. I’m not just talking about the way they talk, but the content, depth, scope, and everything else just seems quirky.
Unfortunately, although I find it most obvious in news presented in an audio/visual format, the same quirks exist in all news-bringing mediums. Our professional news sources have reporters who aren’t the most qualified in the topics they speak on, they don’t have their incentives properly aligned, and consumers of the information demand the wrong stuff.
When I talk about reporters being unqualified, I’m not negating the skills they have. Nearly all of them are good at speaking or writing, or have a personality that can draw people in. They get hired for these skills, and they’re (generally) good at their job (though I wish the people hired for speaking would find a new “news voice.” I really don’t like to listen to that.)
What they aren’t qualified to do is speak on the subjects they report on. I mean, how could they? We need them to speak on everything from Giant Squid sightings to Middle Eastern culture and conflicts, to stock market fluctuations, to criminal activity, to community activities. We need intelligent economists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, chemical, biological, and physical scientists, and war strategists either rolled into one, or hired to do the work.
Unfortunately, it can be hard to find such professionals that are also good writers, and it seems that those capable of both skills often have other interests in mind for their careers.
Sometimes reporters will bring in professionals to help. They will either get research help, interview them, or have them form a panel of several experts. Unfortunately, this often doesn’t work well either. The news company still controls the content provided (more on why that’s trouble in a second,) the news company doesn’t have a full view of the issues, and the final cut is rarely reviewed by the professionals before it gets published.
It also seems like lots of news firms do a poor job at finding which people are truly “professionals” as well. I suppose it’s probably hard to get Nobel Price recipient Muhammad Yunus every time a news agency wants to do a story on micro-finance, or the Pope whenever Catholicism comes up. Still, grabbing any random person claiming to be gay to do a story on homosexuality rarely does the subject (or the people as a whole) justice.
But even when they land good professionals, they still have pressures that diminish their full positive effect.
News outlets are businesses, and as such they need to make money. This on its own isn’t a problem, but their revenue model doesn’t necessarily incentivize providing good news.
Their ability to make money comes from having lots of viewers to entice advertisers to buy airtime from them. I’ll talk more about how the viewers play into this in a moment, but we can already see that if the viewers don’t demand high quality, in-depth, and accurate news (and can tell the difference,) the news outlet isn’t incentivized to provide it. At the other extreme, if viewers go so far as to demand low quality, shallow, and inaccurate news, we can comfortably bet that the news agency will provide it (see any “Red Top Tabloid.“)
Another incentive issue is that even if the viewers demand good and accurate information, the punishments for delivering poor or inaccurate information is minimal. Little more gets done than a correction notice in some corner of a newspaper, or on a hidden link on the website, or perhaps never at all on TV news. News agencies do need to worry about libel, but those cases are hard to successfully pull through.
But as I mentioned above, we, as the consumers of the information, share the blame.
When I first wrote this post several months ago, I wrote the following.
Yes, those of us from the internet generation have a dismally short attention span, but even the TV viewing generation doesn’t stay focused for long. Learning is hard, and sometimes boring, so why would we want to sit through an in-depth story when we could get a cheap sound-bite instead?
And why would we demand accurate news, when nearly-accurate news is more fun and interesting? After all, it’s far more fun to talk about congress considering minting a platinum coin the size of a 747 rather than reporting the more accurate fact that the platinum coin could be as big or small as we like (that’s part of the purpose of money. See this post from CGPGrey for more on what I’m talking about, and a play-by-play on a poorly done news story.)
But since then, I’ve had some more thoughts. Specifically, when I published my post on Ethics and Snowden, I figured it would be one of my least read and least interesting posts to date. It was super long (like, more than 13 pages if pasted into Word,) and it was an ethical analysis using frameworks I had learned in an ethics class. I didn’t really write it with the intent to have people read it, I just wanted to actually come to some sort of decision as to what I thought about Snowden’s actions (recognizing that I will be placed in ethically difficult decisions occasionally in my own life,) and making a blog post out of it was a good way to make sure I was reasonably thorough.
Well, instead of being my least read post, it became by far my most viewed post (with over 3 times my second most popular post: “In Defense of Modesty“) as well as one of the most shared and commented post (the comments aren’t in the post, they were attached to the link I posted on Facebook.) Like, even people that I don’t personally know were reading it and sharing it. That was fun!
About a week later, I ran into this post from a freelance journalist in Syria:
I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t already. She talks about many of the struggles of being a freelance journalist in conflict areas, especially as she faces editors who want “blood, blood, blood” instead of deep, more complex and complete stories.
Why do these editors want “blood, blood, blood?” Because they think that’s what their readers want. To be honest, I had fallen into a bit of that same trap myself, which is what let me to believe that Ethics and Snowden would be for my benefit only. But I think there’s a large demand out there for more thought provoking and holistic information.
Even beyond these two articles, there are tons of subscribers to youtube channels like C.G.P. Grey, VlogBrothers, Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, 1Veratasium, Mental Floss, MinutePhysics, Crash Course, SciShow, and others. Although most of these are about science math rather than social issues, they do address social issues and often in deeper, more complete ways than I see through more traditional news agencies.
Perhaps such demand is a small minority, but I hope that the audience for honest, complete, and complex information is larger than the what the mainstream media seems to think, and with luck it’s still growing.
Don’t Listen To Me
Here’s where I feel a bit like Jon Foreman from Switchfoot when he wrote the song “Adding to the Noise.” I essentially nullified my own credibility as a blogger. Like news reporters I am also completely unqualified to talk about the issues I post (am I an expert on news? Heck no! Nor on game theory, international trade, human trafficking, ethics, or spiritual matters. Or anything.)
I am also poorly punished for spreading misinformation. The worst that has happened to me is comments on my blog pointing out alternative views or directing me to corrective information (I’m still working on a final post on Social Security. Hopefully the third time is a charm.)
But at least you can take comfort knowing that I’m not making money doing this. If anyone wants to give me money to do this, I’ll happily write a blog post about how amazing that person is. It probably wont be true, but it will be glowing!
This paragraph is also from my original writings:
So be careful what you read. Even from “investigative” reporting. Real investigation is usually far too boring for public news outlets. That’s what we have academic journals for (when was the last time you thumbed through one of those for a good time?)
So my thoughts now: real investigation is usually too boring for the editors of public news outlets. But is it really too boring for readers? Sometimes, but I think I can have more faith in my fellow-humankind than that.
Thanks for reading to the end!