By Wil Forbis
January 1st, 2014
The truth is, I owe my existence to the news business. In the 1960s, my dad was a senior editor at Time magazine and my mom worked there as a researcher. Had they not been employed by the media giant, they never would have met and the world would have been denied the pleasure of my wit and brilliant insights.
As the result of being a child of journalists, I grew up around the news. Magazines and newspapers lay about the house and current events were often fodder for dinner discussion. The classic television "nightly news" was also a presence. I spent my boyhood summers living with my dad in Montana and though he would spend the day working on the log cabin he was building, he would always come in at 5:30 and watch the NBC nightly news anchored by Tom Brokaw and Roger Mudd. He was loyal to the TV news. (It's worth taking a moment to recall that simpler era. Today cable television blasts "news" from morning until midnight but back then the big three networks gave you only 30 minutes of national news a day*.)
* There were a few additional shows like "60 Minutes" and "Nightline".
As a result of this exposure, I paid attention to the news more than most kids my age. I can remember being a teen and being shocked by my cohorts' ignorance of the news and the world around them. Didn't they care? I wondered. Didn't they want to be aware of history in the making? I remember thinking that if something wasn't being analyzed by the media then it probably wasn't worth knowing. These days I almost feel the opposite is true.
My news fetish continued into my 30s when it kicked into overdrive. The reason? The attacks of 9/11---the biggest news story of my life---took place. This was soon followed by the Iraq war and its daily headlines of bloodshed. Suddenly much of the news was about life and death matters. Would there be more terrorist attacks? Would WMDs be found? Would Iraq descend into chaos? The only way to find out was to obsessively keep track of the news, particularly as reported by a then novel kind of web site called a blog. On blogs and cable TV, the news was stripped of the dispassionate reporting style of the newspapers and network television. Now news had opinions, fire, verve!
I think it was around then, however, that I started to feel overwhelmed by the news. I began to question whether stories shown on the screen were really important or only important because "they" said so. And I definitely had a sense that there was no end in sight to the political debates. People would bicker about terrorism, then switch to Terry Schiavo, then global warming and it felt like none of the issues were ever being settled. I noticed how news stories would appear and be hyped as fundamentally important issues and then... just disappear. "Whatever happened to XXX?" you would find yourself wondering. (For example, remember the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that grabbed daily headlines for months? Whatever happened there? Did they clean it up? Is the environment ruined forever? Who knows?)
This leads me to today where I have largely soured on the news. I'm certainly aware of the headlines and I keep up with a few blogs, but I freely admit the importance I place on the news has greatly diminished. I find it hard to take the media's constant demands for attention seriously. Here's several reasons why.
The anxiety bias
Lots of people accuse the news of being slanted toward the right or the left. Having grown up amongst journalists and their friends I would say there a center left tilt to most mainstream news organizations (aside from obvious exceptions like the Wall Street Journal and FOX News.) But I think there's a more subtle bias inherent in the news. I call this the anxiety bias---a bias towards news that has conflict or drama.
To some degree this bias is obvious and understandable. No one one wants to read a headline that says "Pigeon says 'coo'". But I submit that there's a danger when the bias results in conflict or drama being created or hyped simply to get people riled up (and thus buying newspapers/clicking links etc.)
I can actually point you to the article that got me thinking of this. A couple years ago the L.A. Times ran the following headline. Drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in U.S., data show. The initial graphs reported:
Propelled by an increase in prescription narcotic overdoses, drug deaths now outnumber traffic fatalities in the United States, a Times analysis of government data has found.
Drugs exceeded motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death in 2009, killing at least 37,485 people nationwide, according to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Doesn't sound good does it? We ought to be concerned about this. After all, as we all know, a lot of people die from car fatalities right?
Well, yes and no. Part of what caught my eye about this article is that I had some vague sense that car fatalities had been declining. And, in fact, they have been, by quite a bit since the 1970s. See here; in 1975 there were 52,589 car deaths, in 2009 there were 33,883 deaths.
My point? This headline presumes you have in your head a notion that car fatalities are a benchmark for "a whole lot of deaths." And, sure, current auto fatalities are a lot, but not as much as they used to be. I can't help feel that there's a kind of number switcheroo going on here.
Now, to be fair, the article does admit this:
"While most major causes of preventable death are declining, drugs are an exception. The death toll has doubled in the last decade, now claiming a life every 14 minutes. By contrast, traffic accidents have been dropping for decades because of huge investments in auto safety."
But boy, look at those caveats. Not only are car deaths declining but so are "most major causes of preventable death." But don't start celebrating about that folks---start worrying that you're going to overdose on Xanex!
The news increases political polarization
A lot of people would probably say, "so what?" to that. They'd argue that people on the left/right are baby eating demons and the more news available about the evils of "the other" the better. But I think we're starting to get a sense, as a country, and maybe even a planet, that this attitude ultimately leads to a kind of inaction and gridlock that benefits almost no one.
We can first ask a question: has political polarization actually increased? According to reports such as this one, it absolutely has.
"As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years," the Pew report stated. "Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides."
I would say this corresponds with my general observation of life. I can recall political debates with friends 20 years ago, and, while they might have been feisty, they were not blood sports; there was never a sense the friendship might end over it. Also, in that era most people seemed to have friends of various political stripes. I do not believe either of these observations to be true now.
Can we blame the news media for this increase in polarization? Not entirely. I think many people were polarized by the actions of the tumultuous George Bush presidency, not simply the news reports of its actions*. And there are various other factors.
* Though one has to note that the continuation of the surveillance state which so enraged liberals when Bush ran it seems to generate barely a yawn under Obama.
However, consider John and Joan Q. Public 25 years ago. They did not have cable news hosts screaming at them for hours a day about the evils of the other side. They did not have an inbox of emails alerting them to the latest shenanagans that their opponents were up to. It was simply easier back then to think about things other than politics.
There's a particular example of these polarizing media memes I'd like to focus in on. On social networks (Twitter, Facebook) and email you often see various articles or videos about some outrage committed by the other side. What I have noticed is that people's willingness to believe obvious untruths has gone up in recent years. For instance, I recently observed several Facebook posts of the following quote.
"We would treat any other colored president the same way. Even Chinese or Mexican. I don't see why they call us racist." - Michele Bachmann
Usually the quote was inserted into a graphic implying Bachman made the statement on a FOX News broadcast. Now, I'm the first to agree that Michele Bachmann is whacked, but you'd still have to be pretty out there to think she would make a remark so politically clueless and damaging. Nonetheless, you can find numerous retweets and highlights of this obviously phony quote*.
* I'm the first to admit that after a half hour of internet searching I couldn't find a clear dismissal of the quote, but I think we can agree that had she actually said this, liberal blogs and MSNBC would have rightfully commented on it and posted footage of the damning video.
Of course, the right is no better. Don't even get me started on this "Obama born in Kenya" idiocy.
The news distracts us from what's important
This might sound counter-intuitive. After all, isn't the news by definition what's important? I'm not so sure.
We can consider this on both a personal and public level. As individuals, we all have goals and interests. I, for example, am interested in composing music, writing for this fine web site, hiking and ruminating on science and psychology. I also have a job, a girlfriend and various responsibilities. (I'm also a big fan of giving myself time to do nothing.) Does the news help me engage in these pursuits? At times yes*, but this is seldom. For the most part the news is a distraction from what I consider important. I've definitely noticed that as I've lessened my focus on the news, my ability to accomplish goals has increased.
* The weather report might advise me not to hike for instance.
I'm not the only one who's made these sorts of observations. Over at the Guardian news site, author Rolf Debelli damned the the news as trivial and distracting.
The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what's relevant. It's much easier to recognise what's new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we're cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage.
Also at the Guardian, George Saunders bemoaned online news sites eating his time.
I do know that I started noticing a change in my own reading habits – I'd get online and look up and 40 minutes would have gone by, and my reading time for the night would have been pissed away, and all I would have learned was that, you know, a certain celebrity had lived in her car awhile, or that a cat had dialled 911*.
* Apparently this sort of thing does happen!
I admit that these could be considered selfish reasons to avoid the news (though I have no problem being selfish.) Shouldn't we as "concerned citizens" read the news to stay involved with the world? Don't we owe our fellow man some attention to his plight*?
* I often suspect that many people read the news as a kind of self-flagellation; by reading about all the pain and suffering in the world they are atoning for their comfortable life. Of course, if they really want to make things better they should turn off their TV and Twitter feed and get out there in the real world.
On some level, maybe. But I often feel the news misses the forest for the trees. The news presents events on their most granular level. A headline might scream, "30 People Killed in Gun Violence Today," prompting another round of arguing about gun control and the power of the state etc. But seldom are the bigger questions addressed. What makes people violent? Are humans’ innately kind or callous? Do good or evil exist? And what do various disciplines---psychology, neuroscience, spirituality, ethics---say about these questions?
I'm not saying these questions aren't asked in our society; they are often discussed in non-fiction best sellers and long form journalism. But seldom are they really addressed in the news. (Maybe in the op-ed section but that's only a couple pages in a two pound newspaper.) By focusing so closely on the individual events, the media doesn't encourage people to consider the grand currents operating within the news stories.
You might say the news can't address overarching themes in 1500 word stories. Yes, and that's my complaint. We're being fed kibble when we need a main course. If the media can't take the time and space to deeply examine these issues then it shouldn't bother bringing them up*.
*I'm aware "we" are to blame here. The media produces nuggets of news because that's all our ever depleting attention spans can consume. I'm not sure what the answer is here, I'm just identifying the problem.
The news paralyzes us
I'm hardly the first to hypothesize this, but I suspect the endless onslaught of (mostly negative) news actually makes people less willing to improve their world. Why try and make anything better when tomorrow’s headlines will be yet another litany of death and dismay? Any attempt to improve things can never seem more than a drop in the bucket.
Rolf Debelli (linked above) makes a similar point.
News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can't act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic.
I agree that the premise behind the news---connecting with our world and fellow humans---is a good one. But the various sources of news have become like a sea of barking chihuahuas, each one desperate for our attention and determined to rile us up so that we will continue to proffer our eyeballs, ears, time and mouse clicks (and ultimately, wallets.)
When I look at the evolution of news media over the course of my lifetime I can't help but notice a disturbing snowball effect going on. People see the news as depressing and invasive so they turn to light entertainment---TV shows, movies, video games, Dean Koontz novels---to blot it out. The news media responds by becoming even more shocking and demanding, and thus we further bury our heads, and on and on. At some point in this cycle I think even the most diehard news junkie will concede that turning off the news isn't an act of ignorance but a plea for sanity.