I remember a debate I once had with my older brother over milkshakes at Big Daddy’s on Broadway: why should anyone keep up with current events?
I argued that it’s our civic responsibility to stay informed. I asserted that we have a duty to stay engaged so that the forces of apathy wouldn’t creep in and lull us into passivity. I maintained that we must hold our leaders accountable by shining spotlights on their actions.
All of these are high and mighty ideals, and I stand by every one of them, but here’s the thing: the news doesn’t do any of this.
It’s not the best way to stay informed, it’s not the best way to fight apathy (in fact it might do the opposite), and it doesn’t do the job of helping us keep anyone accountable, at least not as the news currently manifests in the world.
There are a couple of reasons why that is, but the biggest ones are inappropriate funding models coupled with misaligned incentives.
Currently, media outlets that report on current events are funded (primarily) by advertisements.
This already shouldn’t make sense. Why, in a society where a decently informed public is a democratic necessity, are news sources dependent on advertising and private dollars to fund their work? Good journalism is vital, and it shouldn’t be subject to the push and pull of market forces.
Given this funding paradigm, though, it is in the interests of these media outlets to hook us and keep our eyeballs glued to their messaging.
This sparks a “race to the bottom” effect where media companies try to produce the most sensational, jarring, eye-catching coverage so that users (notice the corporate jargon) stay engaged. Looking at Facebook and Google, it’s no wonder that the traditional media sector borrowed from the success stories of large tech companies and tried to monetize something they already had: our attention.
Of course, this is terrible for lots of reasons.
First, it produces the well-documented negativity bias in the news.
Media outlets report, for instance, on a school bus that crashes one day but not on the hundreds of thousands of school buses that safely arrive at their destinations all the time. This has a skewing effect that leads the public to think that the world is worse off than it really is.
We all have the image in our minds of a curmudgeonly octogenarian who spends his days watching Fox news, believing that the world is going to end in a matter of days. And who could blame him? If he’s been spoon fed a diet of horribly upsetting catastrophes, of course he’s going to believe that the world is an awful place.
While I do still believe that it’s important to stay engaged about the problems in the world (how else can we reasonably hope to fix them?), the news is not a good method of doing so. We should seek deeper, more durable sources of information that keep us engaged on topics we care passionately about.
This last point is actually extremely important: we need to pick certain causes to care about lest we become completely overwhelmed by the sheer scope and magnitude of all the troubles in the world. We simply cannot focus all of our time and attention and money on every cause, and we’re forced to pick our battles.
“The news” doesn’t care about your predilections — it’s just going to serve up whatever is most engaging, which will almost always shift from topic to topic within a matter of days.
If we really care about an issue, we’ll stick with it, investing our time and expertise and becoming advocates in the subjects where we can make a reasonable impact. There is simply no point for an activist campaigning against childhood slavery to become overly involved in climate activism: they’ve already chosen their area and they’re doing their part. (There’s a separate discussion to be had around choosing a cause area, but that’s a topic for another day.) If you’re seriously involved in a given cause, you’re not going to need to hear about it from the nightly news: you’ll already be inundated in niche publications, online forums, and communities that keep you abreast of the actually important information in your specific field.
There’s an unspoken social contract between the public and the media: you do your job of keeping us reasonably informed, and we’ll do our job of voting for the policymakers and leaders who will respect journalistic integrity.
Unfortunately, media outlets aren’t really doing a good job of holding up their end of the bargain, and they haven’t been for the last 3 decades.
It’s no surprise, then, that public faith in the news as a reliable source of information is eroding and that the public voted in 2016 for a president who simply disregards credible evidence and fact-based reporting.
The solution to this problem is to begin restoring public faith in the reliability of the news, and we can do that by ditching the publications that are dependent on advertising.
In an ideal world, journalism would be publicly funded. It actually makes perfect sense as a publicly funded utility, since it’s necessary at the local level but difficult to fund without an economy of scale (like garbage collection or postal service).
Until that happens, we shouldn’t sit idly by and simply wait for the government to step in and solve all of our problems. In fact, we can hasten the progress towards a world with better news outlets by ignoring the publications that don’t serve our interests.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a news outlet that doesn’t substantially rely on advertising dollars. The New York Times, WaPo, and WSJ do their best, but even they descend into clickbait and succumb to the pressures of advertisers from time to time.
Thankfully, you don’t have to be a part of this. It is within our power to refuse to give these companies our attention.
I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode where corporate mascots came to life and started destroying Springfield. The key to stopping them was to just not look at their rampage.
Indeed, companies will destroy a town if it will keep us engaged, and so as hard as it may be, we have to turn our backs on the news outlets that rely primarily on advertising to fund their operations. Please, if you can afford it, support your local paper and any of the amazing national and international publications that are publicly funded like NPR and ProPublica.
Lastly, following the news can be extremely damaging to your mental health, and it can lead to feelings of anger and despair that go nowhere. If you aren’t in a position in your life where you can reasonably handle the strain of everyday news coverage, simply tune out. It’s perfectly legitimate to uninstall the NYT app from your phone if it means that you’ll be better able to perform your civic duties and actually focus on the work you’re doing to make the world a better place. Of course, don’t tune out because of laziness — tune out only if you’ve got something better to do that will meaningfully help others with the time and attention you would have spent on the news.
Some people may be tempted to argue that if we don’t keep up with the news, we won’t know where to channel our outrage and who to support. They may think that news is a necessary evil.
But this is a groundless argument.
Yes, it is our responsibility to stay engaged. But it is not our responsibility to follow the news as it exists today. In fact, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to each other when we follow what has essentially become a spectacle sport designed to keep our attention hooked with our wallets at the ready.
Until we have ad-free news and journalists with the right incentives, we’re feeding the beast that is ultimately souring our civic discourse and clouding our judgment.