Read Less News
The battle for our eyeballs is enough to drive us mad — which might be the point.
Somewhere along the line we got it in our heads that we ought to read the news. The way that story goes is that we, as good and productive citizens in a democracy, must be informed. We need to be informed because that’s how we decide which politicians to punish at the ballot box and which to reward. That’s how we hold power to account. That’s how we expose the crooked and discourage bad behaviour. That’s how we learn to navigate complex contemporary societies. Etc., etc., etc.
We can’t inform ourselves firsthand. Not much, anyway. We can’t spend our days at town council or Parliament. We can’t wake up each day and dedicate our hours to chasing down experts and politicians for interviews. That’s not our job. We rely on journalists for that work. These expert scribblers do that stuff for us, deciding what counts as news and when. They fetch the information we need, contextualize it, write it up, and share it, all the while deciding what’s fit to print and what’s not. Guardians of the public trust and the civic good.
I won’t spend any time here digging into media effects — framing, priming, agenda-setting. That’s fodder for another day, but they’re important for understanding how mass media works. I won’t get into objectivity — which doesn’t exist — or truth, which is different from fact. I’ll talk about that another day. Another month. That’s a springtime post. It’s not for November, if you get what I mean. Instead, I want to focus on the volume of news we consume and what it does to us.
The theory of the democratization of media suggests that the rise of the internet and social media has lowered the cost for doing journalism and opened the gates such that more sorts of people can do the work and more perspectives can enter the public sphere. There’s definitely something to that theory, with some caveats. For instance, a recent survey by the Canadian Association of Journalists has found that Canada’s news rooms are white and male, particularly at the top.
The structure of the mainstream media industry is fundamentally conservative and non-diverse. That conservatism includes ideology, too — not in the capital ‘C’ sense of the word Conservative, but the small ‘c’ sense of being slow and unwilling to change, try new things, or to explore ideological heterodoxy beyond the mainstream.
Those pushing back against the mainstream offer an alternative, but it’s not always better. The media space is full of online fly-by-night “outlets” peddling nonsense and driven by gritters. That makes the industry work. Mainstream legacy institutions (many of which are home to world-class journalists doing strong work) remain but they struggle to stay afloat as the industry changes. Indie outlets and freelancer work offers an alternative – some of which is high-quality and some of which...really isn’t.
The variety of news media and the “democratization” of the industry has, however, produced a tremendous amount of information. From these sources, we get a massive, constant flow of day-to-day reported pieces, op-eds, investigations, and more. Boosted by direct visits to sites, breaking-news push notifications, news aggregators, newsletters, and social media, the sheer volume of news media information is overwhelming. If you’re inclined to pay attention to the news of other countries, the amount of information that comes across your desk may rise exponentially. Indeed, it’s too much, and it’s making us miserable while not always serving the purpose of educating, edifying, mobilizing, and so forth.
Insofar as news is competitive and commodified, the quality of the product — which is what it becomes at this point — is often sacrificed for the attention journalists and outlets need to remain in business. That’s an old challenge, as old as the industry itself. But in the internet age, it’s taken on a new form all together. As the old line goes ‘quantity has a quality all its own’. When paired with the now-interactive element of media, which has turned swathes of the internet into a no-holds-barred arena for bludgeoning one another with and over the news, the product itself is less the news and more the fights over the news.
We know from online data who reads what and just how much of it. I won’t get into detail here, but it’s enough for now to say that many more people read the headline than the article. Few click the link and fewer read to the end. The drop-off rate beyond the first paragraphs of a piece can be…steep. In short, there’s a lot of bounce in this business. But that doesn’t stop people from weaponizing news they haven’t read. It does, however, induce journalists and outlets to do whatever they can to fight over eyeballs, to catch whatever attention they can and hold it for however long they’re able.
Emotional connections to news get and keep us engaged. Again, that’s not new. What’s new is a 24/7 global network that connects us to everything and everyone, a network that has turbo-charge emotional resonances with news media. And it’s miserable. The combination of constant connection to the news, much of it sad or tragic or absurd or enraging or all the above, has made us vessels for those who are trading off our emotional responses and attention.
For those who own social media sites and news outlets, readers are a means to an end. The high-flying rhetoric and imagined ends of the public good are either incidental considerations or, worse, barriers to their real end. What we end up with is a toxic, counterproductive, undemocratic, vicious, and even debilitating news media environment that erodes trust, enrages us, and leaves us sad and hopeless.
I believe we ought to read the news. I also believe we need to log off. Often. For long periods of time. We need time away from the news. From social media. From the digital representations of one another. We need to carefully curate out newsfeeds — not to avoid perspectives we disagree with, but to avoid grifters and hucksters and blowhards who don’t care about anything beyond a click or rage-baiting headline or post. We need to support our best journalists, nurture independent outlets. We need spend time on deep and good faith engagement. And we need to ignore the rest, refusing to feed the beast.
There’s a wonderful world out there. And most of it happens outside the news.