Tag Archives: news media

Smart people don’t read the news

When I was a kid, going to secondary school and college, smart people consumed the news.

If you didn’t have much time, you “snacked” — consumed the few news segments on TV. If you considered yourself a serious person in society, wanting to be an informed voter and current on events and discoveries of the day, you got a morning newspaper and read it. Gave you wonderful material for conversation the rest of the day. Finally, if you really wanted to understand how the world around you worked, you subscribed to magazines, where long format and deep-dive articles took their time explaining to you why things were the way they were.

No more.

Nowadays most people don’t trust the news, but they still consume it. I find that odd.

The usual culprit is that the press has some sort of leaning to it — it’s either conservative or liberal. But press has always been biased, so I don’t buy that. People will tell you that it was the fault of cable TV and the 24-hour news cycle, but while that played a contributing factor, I don’t think it’s the entire story.

Nope, the reason consuming the news today sucks is that we live in a world of constant outrage.

At some point, news publishers realized that emotional engagement, not facts or solid background material, drove readers to consume and share. So all of our media channels are full of people who are either outraged about something or are using thinly-veiled logic to get us upset about something.

And so we have a treasure trove of material designed to drive “engagement”, which just means it’s stuff guaranteed to provoke an argument. Any news event can be spun half a dozen ways to try to generate anger — and it will be. Then, whichever angle works out the best will be mined for eyeballs until the next story comes along.

This consumption of material engineered to constantly outrage does not make for a healthy mind. Part of the reason is the constant emotional roller coaster it puts the consumer in, but part of the reason is that the media outlets are constantly trying to cover up and deny that this is why they’re running the stories to begin with. So most outlets well-known for “just the facts” reporting are anymore just presenting a light sheen on top of articles designed to enforce pre-existing attitudes.

Put another way, the reader is constantly being manipulated. The only question is the degree of manipulation and the honesty involved.

That’s why I’ve converted to reading tweets and opinion columns. Tweets are almost entirely too shallow to waste much of my time, and they’re wildly inaccurate, but they keep me apprised of the general gist of day-to-day conversation. Opinion columns are there to make a point regarding some pre-existing opinion. I find that to be perfectly fine. If you’re going to spin and slant the news to make your point, at least be a man about it and tell it to my face. Don’t hide behind “analysis” and pro and con segments.

With these two forms of news consumption, as long as I read opinion columns from all over the spectrum, I get a fairly good balanced diet of what’s going on. I don’t find all the drama in the news that my fellow consumers feel.

Consuming the news has changed. Smart people don’t do it like they used to.

I wish I could say long format pieces have survived this shift. They have not. More and more, I’m seeing long format articles that amount to nothing much more than extended arguments put forward by one special interest or another, many times with an interview of a token person holding an opposing position as some sort of fig leaf to “fairness”. What is needed here, as in tech and science news, is reporters that actually know their area and can write stories at length about important events happening there. Instead what we’re finding is reporters who are getting socially involved in issues, then try to pry meaningful news from their social network. You end up with four-thousand-word cocktail party chat. Not always, but more and more.

It’s sad that news is dead. As a former freelance writer who has written for both weekly, daily, and magazine outlets, I liked them. The TV guys were never hitting on much, but they had a fun, egocentric job to do as well. These guys as purveyors of what’s important to know are long gone. Their job positions and media outlets will go on for many decades longer, sadly. And dumb people will keep consuming them, keep getting upset every day, and keep wondering why the world is such a bad place to live in.

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Hacking an Election as a Voter

I tried something very interesting this year: I refused to participate in the election.

Not the voting part — I’m a big believer in voting. I simply refused to allow the candidates to directly speak to me. I didn’t watch the debates, I didn’t watch the news, and whenever I heard either of their voices on the radio, I turned it off. I limited my entire contact with the campaigns from reading the reactions of others on the internet.

Boy, was it an interesting experience in human nature.

We have a president who prides himself at being able to explain things at sort of a 20-something collegiate level. He prides himself in caring for the downtrodden. He’s considered a bit aloof. Some referred to him as Mr. Spock. As a result, his followers either tend to feel themselves as victims needing special help or astute managers of the human condition. They tend to either rant at others about not caring or to belittle them for being uninformed.

The other guy had a fairly religious background. Did a lot of charity. A bit of a technocrat. He prided himself in being able to understand and manage complex systems. He prided himself in his ability to both care and make tough choices. As a result, his followers either tend to be people with a religious bent that feel the nation has lost its way or those who feel that the structure of the system itself is poorly understood by the other side. They would rant about the end of western civilization as we know it.

Editorials and OpEd columns were pretty much total garbage. All the same partisan guys saying the same partisan stuff. A few times I clicked on titles that I thought would lead to more balanced coverage, only to get pitched one way or another. I found the best opinion pieces, oddly enough, in the financial sections. The finance guys have to make things work no matter who gets elected, so their main goal is to describe honestly what they feel the economy will be like under each guy. There was still bias, but nothing like with the other opinion guys. (Self-promotional plug: I created a personal site to consume opinion pieces without ads. It’s Newspaper23, the next generation of newspapers. You’re welcome to try it out.)

I found it was very difficult to stay away from direct reporting of the politicians. Of course I don’t consume entertainment/political media. But even with radio news, it seemed like any kind of news story at all (I didn’t watch TV) would lead into an angle about the campaign. Off goes the radio. I think the beat reporters got so caught up in the hysteria over the election that it colored everything they did. Fire in Dallas? How’s that impact the latino vote? It was pervasive.

There was one exception to my rule: I watched “Reliable Sources” on CNN at times. Howard Kurtz has a show about how reporters work, and that kind of thing fascinates me. How do you pick a story? A hook? What are the rules for anonymous sources? And so on.

What I found was that even that show turned into a political slugfest. The last couple were just reporters arguing their own politics whenever a question about journalism was asked. The election simply pervaded all social interactions.

Facebook and other social media was fine, since I was okay with hearing how other people reacted to the campaign. And boy, did they ever. I have around 200 friends and over the last month I was getting dozens of political cartoons and memes a day. Some were funny. Some were snarky. Some were just hateful. Most of my friends tend to associate in cliques, so nobody much argued with them. All their friends just told them how awesome their opinions were. At times somebody or another would post something like “Can we just stop it with the political stuff! I know where you guys stand!”

But then the bickering would start back up again almost immediately. Over time, I came to view this social sharing as a sign of insecurity. Folks were not sure their guy was going to win, they had a lot emotionally invested, and they just wanted some kind of validation. So they’d post whatever made them feel better and what they thought their peer group would praise.

The greatest benefit of doing things this way, by not exposing myself to any direct media messaging (including news) from the candidates, was that I felt more truly free to vote however I like than I have in years. I did not buy into the notion that one party or another was the answer to all of the country’s problems. Instead I could evaluate candidates both on their positions, their personalities, and the impact they had on others that I could observe. Plus I got a great lesson in human nature from my friends on both sides of the aisle. I also did not feel I had to either gloat or lash out after the entire thing was over.

This is the way I want to do elections from here on out.

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