Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why the news is a waste of your time

Why do people follow the news? This may seem like a dumb question, but think about it: Why do we watch, read or listen to the news? Many of us check the news several times a day. We have other things we want to spend time on. So what is it that we hope to achieve?

There's a quick answer: It is just plain important to follow the news. We have a responsibility to pay attention to the world we live in, just as we have a responsibility to vote and to contribute to society. It is part of being an adult, and a citizen.

This is not a satisfying answer. Why is it important? What is it that makes a news item important? Its popularity, the fact that everybody else knows about it too? That's shaky ground to build importance on.

Or is it the objective truth and relevance of a news item that makes it important? But most news are inaccurate and irrelevant. Really paying attention to the world we live in is not a normal part of being an adult, but something rare, something most of us do without. How can we say that it is "important" that everybody follows the news, when the world clearly does fine without?*

There's also an honest answer to why we follow the news: We want to be entertained. The news tell us a good story, and we want to know what happens next. The belief that this story is real has the same emotional effect as when we're told that a movie is based on a true story. It gives the story emotional resonance. "Wow, this really happened."

A news story is fairly real, but it is still a story, and it is appreciated as a story. What we want from the news media is good stories based on real life, this is more important than their being perfectly accurate or relevant.

This answer explains why the news take the form that they do. The news we want to hear about are like the stories we enjoy: Fun, titillating, frightening, infuriating. It may seem odd to say that news about war, death and crime is a form of entertainment, but think about it: our favourite stories are also about war, death and crime. Think of the movies you've seen the last year. It seems natural to me that there is a connection here.

Yes, war, death and crime is relevant, but if relevancy is what matters most to us, why do we pay attention only to certain of these events, and not to others? Because they're good, familiar stories. We talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and devour all news about it because it is a good story*, a continuing saga we follow from day to day like a favourite soap. We ignore African wars where the suffering is orders of magnitudes higher because they're bad stories: Confusing and unfamiliar, like a soap from a different culture in a language you can't understand.

But this too is an incomplete answer. Our desire to be entertained explains the choices we make as news consumers, which again explains why the news media behave the way they do: They want to make money, so they obey our attention. But it is not fair to say that what we want to achieve by following the news is to be entertained.

Just as you can want to lose weight and still eat too much, it is possible to want something useful from the news, and still reward the superficial with your attention.

I think most of us do want to learn about the world, learn how things really are. We don't go about reaching this goal very well, but we're curious and we want to know.

Our level of curiosity varies: I want to know everything, it is my Great Plan. Others are less curious, but I believe that most of us want something more than entertainment from the news, something useful and relevant, even when our behavior says otherwise.

And this is where I get to a counterintuitive point: If you're one of these people, if you want to learn about the world, and this is why you follow the news, you're wasting your time. If all you care about is reality-based entertainment, then the news is a good investment of your time. But if you want to learn about the world you live in, following daily news is probably misspent time.

Not because the news media do a bad job. They do, but not all of them. Let's say you read only the best news sources in the world. It is still a waste of your time.

How so? Think of the world as a painting. Every day that painting grows by one millimeter in length. You like this painting and you want to appreciate it, but you go about this in an odd way: Every day you go up to the painting, and for a whole hour you scrutinize only the most recent addition to it. Once in a while you cast a glance at the rest of the painting, but you spend most of your time looking only at that last millimeter.

To learn about the world primarily through the news is like studying a painting one millimeter at a time. To understand an event you need to understand its background and context, and the news give you little of that. News stories are time-biased: Nearly all their attention is given to today and yesterday, some to the last week and month, and anything beyond that gets a paragraph at the end.

You may think you already know the background of the news you read about, that the background is simple and obvious, and not worth your time. But it is the other way around. The background of an event is always complex and full of important details. Knowing a summary is not enough. Compared to their background, today's events are simple and - often - obvious.

The bright side of this is that understanding does not come at a fixed price: There are some real bargains to be had if you look in the right place. Background information is such a bargain, it's like one of those movie classics you can buy at a third the price of last year's crap blockbuster.

Let's say a big event has been unfolding over the last week. You have spent ten minutes every day for six days reading about its latest developments. That's a total of sixty minutes spent understanding an event.

Imagine that we plot the growth of your understanding on a Y axis, and time on an X axis. The first minute you spent reading about this event, you gained a lot of knowledge, and also the second minute, and the third. But as you move up to fourty minutes and fifty and sixty, the graph begins to slope, until your understanding hardly increases at all. Your first five or ten minutes were a good investment of your time, the last five or ten were not.

Imagine instead that you spend ten minutes on the first day reading about this event, and then you spend ten minutes on each following day reading about the background of the event. Who are the people involved? What have they done before? What kind of place did this happen in? Have similar things happened before? What is the background of the background, and the context of the context?

This time, the graph goes straight up. It doesn't slope, in fact the fiftieth minute you spend reading may teach you as much as the first. It doesn't slope, and it doesn't end. There is no upper limit to knowledge, there is no point at which more background knowledge does not give you a better understanding of the subject, does not change your perception of it.

"But history is boring." Then we're back to news as a form of entertainment. I don't judge, I don't say "you should want to learn about the world you live in". I only say that if you do want to learn, following the news is usually a bad investment. Stay up to date, certainly, but spend most of your time learning about the background and context of current events.

You don't need daily snapshots of the world, weekly is just as fine, and makes it easier to filter out the noise. See the news not as your primary source of information, but as suggestions for further reading.

"Umm, learning isn't that important to me." Fine by me. Like I said, I'm not judging anyone. Think of this as time investment advice. Your goals are your own, but there are bad ways and there are good ways to reach those goals. And if your goals are like mine, those 10, 60 or 120 minutes you spend every day on news are a rotten investment.