Essays on Technology and Culture

Newspaper Reports That News May Be Bad For You, Film At Eleven

It must be a cultural difference. The Guardian, a British newspaper best known for lax editing, recently published an edited down essay by Rolf Dobelli with the completely not attention grabbing title of “News is bad for you”. In the United States of America, no news agency would dare publish such a thing for risk of losing their impressionistic target demographic, though maybe the straits of newspapers in the UK are dire enough to warrant the risk. Whatever the reason, it's surprising that a newspaper would publish something so antithetical to its mission. I'm almost proud.

Sadly, the essay is little more than a polemic with unsubstantiated claims about the effects of news reading on biology and cognition that lack even a token citation to a scientific or medical journal. The effect is that of a curmudgeonly old man, complaining about kids these days, especially this comment near the end: “I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie… On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs.” I so love when someone takes their own narrow worldview and expands it to the rest of the world. It makes deciding whether to dismiss their points a lot easier. This is a problem, because Dobelli is actually on to something, just going about it in a pigheadedly wrong way.

News is fundamentally broken, or at least commercial news is. The example Dobelli uses when he starts making points illustrates this, but only to a point. “A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car… But that is all irrelevant. What's relevant? The structural stability of the bridge.” Certainly, the structural stability of the bridge, or lack thereof, is the relevant part. The human element, however, is what brings the reader in. Without it, a news story reads like a bunch of dry facts that would only interest a Dr. Drang or John Siracusa type, and even they write with an ear towards how normal humans think. If the news story is exclusively about the car and the driver, and not the bridge, we have a real problem. Some newspapers and websites will cover the human interest angle exclusively over exposing the stability issues of our bridges. Those are the ones people should stop reading.

There's also a point to be made about the shallowness of a lot of news. Breaking news updates, sensational headlines, Twitter alerts, and the 24-hour news cycle add up to a lot of repetition of very little information. During the Boston Manhunt, not only was criticism leveled at news channels for fighting over being the first to report information—sometimes even inaccurate information—but also for the endless parade of talking heads that fill time by telling you how little they know in different ways. It's a Catch-22. They can't not have something on the air, but they don't have anything to talk about. The more new articles a news site puts up during a news event, the more slots they have to put ads, and more chances to bring up their page views. This is a situation that is antithetical to good news reporting.

This may come up in the book that Dobelli is promoting 1, but another way that news is broken is the echo chamber effect. This occurs in two ways, the simplest being that in a situation with limited information, the various news media will just echo what everyone else is reporting until new information comes along. The other is more insidious, and has only amplified in the last decade as a consumer can now pick and choose exactly what they want to hear, down to political slant. You can choose to get the liberal slant of NBC News, the conservative slant of FOX, or the whackadoodle slant of Alex Jones. 2 Worse, you can choose to have this be all you get. The problem here should be obvious.

The majority of my personal news consumption is limited to the five minute NPR Morning News podcast. I typically avoid most anything else, unless it affects me, or it's big enough to be unavoidable. I love to read long-form articles on issues in technology, and I'm a sucker for a good Apple rumor (but only the good ones). I put, I think, more thought than most into the choices of what news media I consume, erring towards impartiality, freshness, and relevance. A bridge collapse in Minnesota might not seem relevant, but if I'm driving to work over a bridge every day, it might get me to worry about whether I'll be the next human interest angle.

We shouldn't stop paying attention to the news. We should demand to get better news. The tradeoff may be that we get less news, less often—less all-you-can-eat buffet, and more upscale causal restaurant. However, the models by which news is made, distributed, and paid for make such a proposition almost impossible. Still, as profits dwindle among the big newspapers, and as TV news crumbles under the weight of needing to be fast, accurate, and profitable, maybe someone will stumble upon the formula for good news that's informative, relevant, and worth our time. But first, there's a special report on how what's in your child's lunchbox may cause cancer.

  1. Of course, his essay is promoting a book. Any time you come across a deliberately antagonistic essay like this, it's typically to promote some product by the writer. (n.b.: I don't have a book. Yet.)

  2. I've already set up a filter in gMail to send anything containing Alex Jones to the trash without me seeing it. Don't bother.