Friday, August 16, 2013

News You Can Use

We got the bubble-headed bleach-blonde who comes on at five
She can tell you 'bout the plane crash with a gleam in her eye
It's interesting when people die-
Give us dirty laundry
Don Henley and Danny Kortchmar "Dirty Laundry"
Recently, my morning and evening commutes have been fairly quiet - I haven't been listening to the radio. Every so often I find myself in the position of feeling the need to choose between being informed, and remaining positive. The news always loses. And so I'll avoid it for a time, until the feeling that things are going on that I need to know about becomes too strong, and/or my morning and evening commutes become too boring to be tolerable. (I'm not really a fan of music radio - the commercials drive me crazy.)

Much of this is simply the nature of the media model. For most "free" media, even that free media that you're paying for, if you're a member of the audience, you're not the customer, you're the product. Your attention, delivered to advertisers, is the actual product - that's what people are really paying for. And so the news is like any other form of media. It has to be something that you want to receive. While there's a point to be made that journalistic integrity demands that news outlets tell their audiences what they need to know to be informed citizens the fact remains that, despite what some conspiratorial souls might tell you, audiences can't be forced to watch. So the product has to be appealing. Brooke Gladstone hit it dead on when, in The Influencing Machine, she noted a central problem with the journalistic quest for the "unreachable goal" of impartiality:
[I]t's unprofitable to ignore your readers' emotions, assumptions and values.
This is doubly true, perhaps, when one considers how people determine what sources they will get their information from. While the tendency of people to seek out news sources that they agree with is considered evidence of bias, consider the following thought experiment.

You have to chose between two possible sources of information. To make your choice, you are given two reports from each one. One report deals with something you actually know something about, the other, a completely novel subject. Now, one source says something about the familiar topic that contradicts your understanding of it, and the other is in line with your knowledge. Which source are you more likely to believe is accurate about the other topic; in the moment? The understanding that many critics of the public have, that their own version of the facts is self-evidently true, is simply a fallacy. People judge the accuracy of information by judging it against what they already know. While some of us are skeptical of things that are a little too neat, for the most part, we seek out information that agrees with what we already understand be true because we have no other way of assessing its accuracy, especially in the lack of firsthand knowledge of an event. Couple that with a tendency for people to understand themselves as naïve empiricists (that is, someone who approaches first-hand perception of events without preconceived expectations or assumptions) and you can see how seeking out sources that already agree with you is less a sign of the desire to protect bias than it is to be honestly informed.

Generally speaking, if you want to find news and information that is scrupulously accurate and objective, look to people who are paying for information because they intend to directly act on what they learn in the short term to medium term. While they need to concern themselves with the accuracy of the information, they also have a fairly objective way of finding out how accurate it is. Ideological slants and biases are all well and good, but when they start costing opportunities, they tend to go out the window.

It's the mainly passive interest of the general public that leads to news being understood (likely correctly) as really another form of entertainment. And there's nothing inherently wrong with this. Most of us aren't in a position where we need to act on what we see on the 5 o'clock news. A place crash might influence our decision on what airline to fly on our next vacation, but it's not a direct factor in our personal profit and lose calculations. It's interesting, but often not particularly important. And as in so many other things, even in the news, form follows the actual function being served.

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