The top 10 questions to ask ourselves before getting outraged by the news

We’re currently living in an endless cycle of sensationalist media narratives resulting in mobs of outraged people attacking one target after the next. It’s destructive and unsustainable.

First, some context

I worked at Uber during the beginning and peak of the 12 month long #deleteuber media firestorm.

I found it to be a bewildering and demoralizing experience.

Not because the company was a terrible place to work — it wasn’t — but because of the gap between the lived experience of working there and the media narrative that was being told.

Part of the story was that Uber’s work culture was a toxic, misogynistic hell scape. It was declared a terrible outlier amongst other Silicon Valley companies, and the rest of America.

I didn’t see it. At first I thought it was because I was a privileged white man (although I’m technically not white). I asked the female colleagues around me if I had missed something obvious, and they confirmed that other than some fairly common gender-specific stumbling blocks, there was nothing out-of-the-ordinary from the (terribly insufficient) status-quo of generic corporate America.

Yet this media narrative persisted.

I had always been aware of some narrative inconsistencies between what I knew/suspected to be true, and how the media or people around me were reporting it. However, I always pushed that to the back of my mind or dismissed it as some kind of bias.

But the experience at Uber pierced the veil for me.

What I discovered was that the reported media narratives were, at best, exaggerated, and at worst, completely inaccurate and disconnected from reality. They often embellished a thematic idea, rather than reported the facts. They zeroed in on facts or sources that reinforced the theme. They often revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of how real world operational teams function and make decisions. I learned that you can make almost anything appear a certain way, so long as it’s set against ominous music and carefully chosen images.

It’s only getting worse. The stories are becoming more exaggerated and our reaction to them is becoming more and more extreme. These days its not uncommon for us to go from one media backlash to the next without taking a breath. Politics by outrage.

I’ve written about two of them recently. Don’t #deletefacebook and It wasn’t the Russians.

Granted some things — like Trump — seem to deserve and invite the outrage that they attract. However, generally speaking, this endless cycle of anger is ultimately both unsustainable and ineffective.

Questions to ask ourselves

When faced with news that challenges our perspective, our values, and our beliefs, it’s necessary to park our urge to react, and instead deeply evaluate what is being presented to us.

Here are some questions that I’ve started to ask myself whenever I encounter such news…

  1. Is it possible that the words selected here are biasing how I feel?
  2. Is it possible that without the benefit of hindsight, perspective and broader context, we might have made the same decision or mistake as the antagonist in this story? Are we sure? Add speed of execution, or generations of desperation and consider again.
  3. Is it possible that the these terrible people or actions we’re hearing about don’t represent the others in their organization or tribe?
  4. Is it possible that the intentions of the people we’re hearing about were generally good? That everyone is the hero of their own story?
  5. Is it possible that the same decisions are being made in countless meeting rooms? Is this a larger problem than just this one example? Is there a way to attack the root cause instead of the individual that’s being called out?
  6. Is it possible that there are nuances to the story that are being under or mis-reported?
  7. Is it possible that this story is a giant distraction from far more important issues?
  8. Is it possible that some of the assumptions and unshakable facts being relied on in this story are just dogma?
  9. Is it possible that we’re on the wrong side of history in this case?
  10. Is it possible that there’s a common-sense middle ground? Is it possible that your position is just as extreme as theirs? What’s the pragmatic middle ground?

I could go on.

Why is this happening?

First, our propensity to think and communicate in narratives and to look for stories that confirm our world view is fundamental. They are how our brains work and how we communicate with each other. It’s how we feel some sense of continuity, familiarity, safety, and understanding about the world. We all tell ourselves narratives about ourselves and our tribe that clarify and reinforce our place in the word. Or as my friend Pauly Ting said to me — we’re all effectively meaning making machines, on a treasure hunt to find validation for our biases.

Lately, however, this has gotten far, far worse. My sense is it’s due to a few key factors.

  • Despite most individuals who work in media being well meaning — the pressures of social media distribution and profit-centered newsrooms are forcing media outlets to use sensationalized clickbait headlines and ongoing narrative storylines to attract eyeballs.
  • Outlets like Fox News have set a strong example of how sensationalism and partisanship can sell.

Of course, a big new factor in 2017/18 is Trump. He’s affected things in two key ways…

  • Every day, every story about Trump is a high-pitched, norm-busting, breaking-news event (as many of them should be — but not all). The only way for all other news (tech news, celebrity news etc) to break through to the front page these days (and therefore for journalists to “win” at their jobs), is for other news to get more sensational.
  • We failed to stop him. Now we’re angry. Anything that looks or smells like him or his supporters feels like a cause for immediate repudiation and mob justice.

The larger issue

While these media narratives are holding us hostage to an endless cycle of outrage, there is actually a deeper rooted problem going on.

There are actually three kinds of narratives.

  1. There is the week-to-week news that I’ve been describing so far in this post. The stuff that feeds the 24-hour cycle. “Trump said this”. “Company X did Y”. “Country A said/did B”.
  2. There are also the quiet, background narratives we tell ourselves, about ourselves. These are the stories that define who we are and how we present ourselves in the world. “I’m a good person”. “I’m a geek”. “I’m an entrepreneur”.
  3. Then there are the fundamental narratives that tribes (i.e. countries) tell to themselves and, other tribes. These form the basis of our shared understanding, laws and social norms. “We believe in freedom”. “We believe in self-governance”. “We like guns”.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with narratives. These shared narratives however, are becoming increasingly misaligned with reality. This disparity has the potential to be one of the most dangerous trends in society today.

What could be more dangerous than a group of people who are brainwashed to believe things that are fundamentally untrue, or massively exaggerated? At the very least, it’s a form of intellectual violence, inducing adrenal exhaustion and disenfranchisement. At worst, it corrupts our ability for effective and rational decision making, and our capacity to make informed, deterministic decisions about our collective future.

How is this happening?

There are likely many reasons. One obvious contributing factor is our natural human tendencies. Information that doesn’t fit neatly into an ongoing narrative tends to be discarded by the human brain. By extension this kind of conscious and unconscious editorializing goes on inside newsrooms too. I suspect that, most of the time, journalists, editors and everyday people are unaware they’re doing it. We’re all simply subject to core human biases and the day-to day pressures of life. Worse, once we live inside a given context, it’s almost impossible to get outside perspective on it without a great deal of deep introspection.

This tendancy towards narrative inertia can manifest in multiple ways.

It can be as simple and subtle as word choice. Rebels vs. Terrorists. Regime vs. Government. Memo vs. email. Source vs. gossip. Spent vs. invested. Slams vs. makes a joke about.

It can also be as pernicious and overt as ignoring new data, and only telling the stories that support the narrative that’s been constructed so far.

In the end, I think the key tool is empathy. The ability and willingness to consider and accept another person’s experience of life. To look beyond judgements, labels and bluster, and understand what is truly driving someone’s behavior.

To that end, keep in mind that…

  • No company is a monolith. It’s a group of individuals trying to make an impact at speed and at scale.
  • No country or people are inherently evil. They might in-fact see our own aggression as the inciting incident.
  • No person is perfect. We are all deeply flawed. We all deserve due process and a path to redemption.
  • No people are predisposed to violence. Sufficiently starve anyone of hope and they too will become violent.

In the real world, no narrative is perfect. There are alway important facts and events that don’t fit the story. We must all look out for those and notice how these narratives are sensationalizing things to demand attention, carrying us along to certain conclusions, and blinding us to more nuanced truths about the world.


Special thanks to Pauly Ting for his heavy contributions to this post