How The News Makes You Dumb

It doesn’t matter whether you get your news from the cable networks (Fox, MSNBC, CNN), comedy shows (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report), newspapers and magazines, network television, Facebook, or Twitter. John Sommerville argues that it’s all making you dumber. I hear the protests now: “I follow the news to stay informed!” “Some of the smartest people I know read the newspaper daily.” But what if the news doesn’t inform or educate but instead confuses and misleads?

Sommerville says that the fundamental reason that the news makes you dumb isn’t what you probably assume. It’s not the fact that television has placed an undue emphasis on stories that have good pictures or video. It’s not that reporters are biased nor is it that they just can’t be competent in all the fields they cover. It’s something much simpler. The problem is that the news is daily.

The world hasn’t always had a news industry that pumped out a daily product. The word “newsworthy” used to mean something. But when you have to have a daily product to show on the evening news or to put on the front page of the newspaper or to post on your news blog, “newsworthy” goes out the window. Producers, editors, bloggers, etc… have to fill the daily space and that’s where things go awry.

If I am going to sell you a daily news, I have to get you to keep coming back to my show, paper, website. That means that what I sell you is change not wisdom. I have to make everything seem important which means that I can’t put stories in their proper context. I have to ask myself what will keep people coming back for more and the answer often is scandal, fear, celebrity gossip, and bad news.

“We should be under no illusions about the fact that the point of news is profit and not, say, “truth.” If the goal were enlightenment, there would be days when the paper would have to be several times bigger and others in which publishers wouldn’t bother printing one.”

Harold Reynolds Doesn’t Know What He’s Talking About

Harold Reynolds, a former baseball player that used to work for ESPN and now works for FOX Sports, was in the booth for the Cardinals/Dodgers in the NLDS. While I didn’t watch as much of the broadcasts as I would have liked to, I still heard Reynolds, on two occasions, say that Matt Carpenter is hitting better this year due to him moving from playing second base to his natural position of third base. This comment was prompted by Carpenter’s hot bat against the Dodgers including three home runs off of left handed pitching.

But if you follow the Cardinals at all, you know that Harold Reynolds, whose main job is to know about the teams he’s covering, doesn’t have any clue what he’s talking about. Last year when Matt Carpenter was playing the “unnatural” position of second base he hit far better than this year when he moved to third base. Reynolds had it exactly backwards. If I know an announcer is wrong on the teams I know something about, why would I trust him to be right on teams that I don’t know as well?

If you know that news gets stories wrong on things you know about, why would you ever trust news on things you don’t know about? If they can’t get stories about the local city council meeting right, why would you expect them to get stories on something as complicated as Ebola in west Africa right?

Daily News Makes A Mockery Of Science

In some corners the science of health and nutrition is like the boy who cried wolf. Eggs are bad for you. No eggs are good for you. Wine is bad for you. No wine is good for you. The list goes on and on. People joke all the time that they don’t pay much attention to the daily reports of health news because the experts will reverse course soon enough.

But are the experts, are the scientists that dumb? Can they really never get it right? Of course not. People who are truly experts know very well that their studies aren’t conclusive and that more research and testing needs to be done. Scientific reports are full of fine print with plenty of warnings that their research isn’t the last word. In other words scientists are skeptical of their own work. But you’d never know that in the media. Daily news needs change, shocking change where possible so it reports interim research as if it were final. Media can’t wait for more conclusive testing and results because it needs to sell tomorrow’s edition of the news.

Takeaways…

1. Read the book. I found it fascinating. There is far more than I could discuss here.

2. Consider unplugging from daily news in any form. What if you just checked the news once a month? Do you think that you’d miss that much? What if you spent that time reading books and thinking about more substantive issues? You might not know the celebrity gossip or the latest shooting rampage or the political bickering but you might be wiser for your efforts.

One Comment

  1. steeve said:

    To me the most striking part of “daily” news is how they harp on the same four stories, hour after hour and day after day. So the frequency has nothing to do with it – they’d be just as dumb and incompetent on a weekly schedule. So much time to go in depth or give real background on any of those four stories, and they always choose not to.

    The second most striking part is how little they care about their audience. They aren’t driven by ratings at all – their ratings sink and they change nothing. Look at how seldom they make the slightest effort to shake up stale conventional wisdom, or to provide some different voice or point of view that hasn’t been driven into the ground years ago. Look at how the solution to the disastrous Gregory tenure at Meet the Press was to find another guy just like Gregory. The “news” isn’t for us, it’s for the oligarchs.

Leave a Reply