No (Network) News Is Good News

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Mike Licht at Raptitude writes of five things he noticed when he quit following newscasts, which he did eight years ago. As someone else who doesn't normally watch newscasts, I agree with much of what he says. In particular:

... There's a big difference between watching a half hour of CNN's refugee crisis coverage (not that they cover it anymore) versus spending that time reading a 5,000-word article on the same topic.

If you quit, even for just a month or so, the news-watching habit might start to look quite ugly and unnecessary to you, not unlike how a smoker only notices how bad tobacco makes things smell once he stops lighting up.
Any time I hear or see a newscast, be it in a restaurant or when a guest wants to watch the news, I usually notice both (a) I already know about the stories being presented, and at greater depth than they are being reported; and (b) the coverage is usually depressing, in part because of the reasons Licht presents:
The news isn't interested in creating an accurate sample. They select for what's 1) unusual, 2) awful, and 3) probably going to be popular. So the idea that you can get a meaningful sense of the "state of the world" by watching the news is absurd.

Their selections exploit our negativity bias. We've evolved to pay more attention to what's scary and infuriating, but that doesn't mean every instance of fear or anger is useful. Once you've quit watching, it becomes obvious that it is a primary aim of news reports -- not an incidental side-effect -- to agitate and dismay the viewer.

What appears on the news is not "The conscientious person's portfolio of concerns". What appears is whatever sells, and what sells is fear, and contempt for other groups of people.
Some of this is attributable to the nature of news itself (as the exceptional), and of the medium (which is highly perceptual). But much is due to the dominant malevolent-altruist-collectivist voices in our culture. What better way to "change the world", as many journalism students offer as the reason for their career aspirations, than to overwhelm everyone with a sense of personal impotence until they will take whatever apparent life-line is offered? I am sure news reporters run the gamut from being intentionally biased to being victims of their own Kool-Aid; but a non-stop diet of terrible things with no time for reflection or deep thought is, as Licht notes, both a horrible way to live and a poor way to truly know what's going on in the world. This doesn't make anyone depressed or fearful or ill-informed, but it makes it harder to be otherwise.

Apart from the ability -- if I've been away from a computer for a while -- to learn about a fast-breaking story one cares about, or get a quick summary of a few new things, I see little value in mainstream news coverage.

-- CAV


Dinwar said...

I believe this is due to two combined factors:

1) Fundamentally misunderstanding what news is. News isn't a way to become informed; it's a way to provide a broad overview of important information, which allows you to decide which to focus on. In a finite timespan breadth precludes depth; if you're going to cover local, regional, national, and global news (along with weather and devoting half your air time to sports) you'll necessarily have to only provide a shallow analysis of each event. This doesn't mean that the analysis is invalid or improper, merely that it is not--and cannot--in-depth coverage.

2) The neverending news cycle. In the past, news was limited in duration--you had an hour, more or less. The term "newsworthy" became synonymous with "important" because only the most important events were discussed; the limited time required careful selection of which stories to present. In a neverending news cycle (which is what "a 24 hour news cycle" really means) the opposite happens. You have to fill time, and often this is done by inflating puff-pieces to the status of real news. That's not to say that this didn't occur when news had a more limited time frame, but the need to produce 24 hours of programming every 24 hours incentivizes this.

To be clear, this isn't to say that the public are passive victims here. The former is entirely on us, and the latter only exists because we continue to participate in it (the sanction of the victim). But I do think that these are two large components of why news doesn't really exist in our culture anymore.

Gus Van Horn said...


I think you make many good points, but I wouldn't go so far as to say what you did in your last sentence. It's possible to find proper news, even on the airwaves. But doing so requires more effort than, perhaps, it should.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus, Dinwar,

The skepticism regarding the veracity of newspapers goes back to the Founders.

"The man who never looks into a newspaper
is better informed than he who reads them;
inasmuch as he who knows nothing is
nearer to the truth than he whose mind
is filled with falsehoods and errors."

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Novell, June 11, 1807

c andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


That one made me smile, and it goes double for the airwaves.