Wednesday, April 17, 2013

News consumption

The other day this article by Rolf Dobelli in The Guardian floated around my Facebook feed.

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

Most people were skeptical, to say the least; most reactions were along the lines of 'So this guy is saying that ignorance is bliss? Give me a break!'

I thought that was a bit unfair. Dobelli had a point. The vast majority of news and analysis does not leave the news consumer knowing more about the world than the consumer did before.

What's more, the news media are absolutely crap at communicating the relative importance of stories. With all the horrible things that happen in the world on a daily basis, the American media seem to spend a huge amount of resources choosing a few murdered children every year, seemingly arbitrarily, and giving their cases enormous coverage. From what I've seen, other countries' media are not much different

And that's not even bringing up people who get all their news from within partisan echo chambers, and the twisted view of the world that they develop as a result.

Charles Stross, an author I like and a man who never strikes me as uninformed or ignorant, wrote approvingly of Dobelli's article. His take on it reminds me of the parallel Earth in Neal Stephenson's novel Anathem, where humanity's intellectuals cloister themselves away in monasteries to shield themselves from the day-to-day distractions of pop culture and world events.

All that said, however, I have to agree in the end with people who bashed the article on Facebook. Dobelli, for all his spot-on criticism of the news media, really does seem to argue that it's better to not know so much of current events in his 'News kills creativity' paragraph. He partially redeems himself in his very next paragraph:

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don't have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

But that's buried near the end. Much better would have been for him to make it clearer that people need to be well-informed, but genuinely well-informed, not the illusion of knowledge that watching CNN will get you. I like long-form journalism and reading nonfiction books. I wish he'd made that point more central to his article.

And that was where I stood a day and a half ago. Now for my personal anecdote. I live on the opposite side of the world from my native North America, and the Internet greeted me on Tuesday morning with pictures of bloody streets and carnage in Boston. Horrible situation.

There is a prominent blogger I read. He had assembled tweets from various semi-prominent people which represented their early reactions to the Boston bombings.

There were two tweets that made me mad. They weren't from random idiots with Twitter accounts; there are so many of those that if you go looking you can find offensive tweets reacting to any situation, and I frankly don't see any reason to care.

No, these tweets were both from people who called themselves journalists. They were both political commentators. Both are famous enough to have Wikipedia biographies. Both presumably get paid to do what they do. One of them made a really offensive and tasteless comment about the bombings. The other used the bombings to make a snarky comment about a completely unrelated news story.

They both offended me, but what really made me mad was that I knew exactly what would happen next. There would be pushback. People would be offended. The commentator who had made the offensive comment would probably complain she was being lambasted for 'political incorrectness'. The one who made the snarky comment would assume that nobody had 'gotten it', and would 'helpfully' explain what he meant to all those people who had incorrectly been offended.

And I got even madder, thinking about their cluelessness.

And only then, I realized just how screwed-up my emotions at that moment were.

First, I was much madder at these commentators' obliviousness (real or feigned) at their offensiveness, than I was at their offensive comments in the first place. And what's more, I was madder at these commentators' offensive comments, than I was about the fact that some person or people had just torn a crowd of people to shreds with bombs.

Second, there was a funny thing about these commentators' obliviousness. It hadn't happened yet. I was already mad, just thinking about how I expected these dumbheads to react. In other words, I was angry -- really, genuinely angry -- at something I had imagined. I had no idea if they had actually reacted (or would actually react) to the inevitable pushback in the way that I had involuntarily visualized.

In short, I realized that my years of reading political commentators, and getting mad when they said dumb things, had horribly twisted my mind.

One thing I had already done was prune the list of political commentators I read to a very few. (The two chief conditions are that they don't insult my intelligence and they don't try to make me feel waves of anger, for silly reasons, towards political figures I didn't like anyway.) Now, what I'll try to work on is not feeling angry when I see a political commentator being quoted saying something stupid, no matter how illogical and/or offensive their words are.

I will also try to read David Wong's 5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 10 Seconds every day, until it sinks in.

After five or so years of carefully pruning my news consumption, maybe I'll have developed some rules of thumb that are more useful than Dobelli's well-intentioned but ultimately incomplete advice.

No comments: