The Value of News

I read several articles yesterday morning, and while reading them, I had one of those increasingly common moments where I felt a complete picture coalesce briefly in my mind. At the time, I was only able to capture it in brief (in a series of tweets, and a text message exchange with my wife), but I feel it’s important enough to attempt to reconstruct.

The following articles are relevant:

And this morning, I read a piece by Nate Silver: What A Difference 2 Percentage Points Makes, which reinforced the image created a day earlier by the other three articles.

Because I didn’t properly connect my tweets yesterday, here’s the text of the series in paragraph form (slightly edited to fix some errors and improve flow):

I need a source of political news from an organization that has fully embraced Wendell Berry’s philosophies regarding ignorance. I’m sick of “hot takes” from journalists who have no deep understanding of the system about which they’re “reporting.” But it’s important as a citizen of a democracy to be informed about what…policies our elected officials are enacting and considering, and I don’t have the time (or expertise) to gather, parse, and analyze the information myself. That’s why journalists are important.
…this election cycle has made it clear that “mainstream” sources like [the] NYTimes, WaPo, and their ilk aren’t interested in informing. I’d like to find a news organization whose staff [has] a strong sense of how much they don’t know and who aren’t interested in predictions, whose focus is policy and its effects on real people, rather than [the] tabloid-style swill so many media outlets push these days. I’d even be willing to pay a significant amount for it. I’d rather pay $50 a month for a half-dozen well-researched analytical articles than having dozens of “hot takes” or “breaking news” segments for free. I don’t want to reward speed. I want to reward understanding. I doubt I’ll ever find something like that, but it’s fun to dream.

I’ve quoted the tweets as they originally existed at the bottom of this article.

If you’re not familiar with the writings of Wendell Berry, you should take the time to read them (I actually think they should be required reading in any high school curriculum, but that’s for a different post). The essay I had in mind is “The Way of Ignorance,” published (among other places) in a collection of essays by Berry. In a nutshell, Berry’s position is that the world is extremely complicated, and while we may understand disparate parts of it, it’s folly to assume we sufficiently understand how those parts are linked to understand the long-term consequences of our manipulation of those parts. We should approach problems acknowledging our ignorance, rather than pretending we can research or study it away. It’s a more careful, methodical, and humble approach, as opposed to the arrogant, hubristic one practiced by Western culture for the past several centuries.

Our media environment is saturated with unacknowledged, unaccepted ignorance. One need only look back at the predictions made by any journalist or pundit over the past decade and then check how often they were right to see the volume of ignorance on display. Some of them later acknowledge their mistakes. But it doesn’t stop them from making more predictions later on. They spin narratives from cherry-picked facts, confidently pitching those narratives as the complete picture.

And we’re complicit. As human beings, we long to see patterns, to find the signal among the noise, to feel like we have a firm grip on the way our world works. We’re eager to accept anyone who claims to deliver that kind of sight, especially when it’s done eloquently. We want to believe them; we need that understanding. We don’t handle uncertainty well, so any time there’s an event that upends our comfortable fantasy of an ordered world, we rush to social media to find people who can tell us what’s going on and explain it, as if knowledge of an event equates to control of that event.

In the piece referenced above, Justin Searls describes his “mission to discover, curate, and editorialize as much news as possible,” because “being informed calmed [his] anxieties about the unknown world, whereas honing a distinct persona gave [him] a sense of control as [he] navigated it.” I recognize the same impulses in myself: an idea that reading a broad sampling of commentary on a given subject would lead to a thorough understanding of it, a need to fill every moment not allocated to another task with quenching that thirst for knowledge of current events.

The remedy Searls has prescribed for himself is to cut himself off from the firehose of news. While I agree with some of his diagnosis of the problem, I don’t agree with all of it, and therefore I don’t agree with his proposed solution. It’s not the quantity, or even the pace, of our information intake that’s the problem. It’s in the quality — the very nature — of the information that the problem lies.

Danah Boyd sees a slightly different (though in my mind, related) problem than Searls: the media is too infatuated with creating a spectacle, and anything they report is in service of that end, regardless of whether it serves understanding or truth. Neither she nor I are accusing those in the mainstream media of outright lying. It’s more subtle than that. It’s cherry picking data that support your desired narrative while not reporting on the whole data set. Or more subtle still, it’s reporting on a whole data set without a thorough description (or even understanding) of how the data were gathered.

But where her analysis really rang true for me was in her observation that too many in the media have made the data itself the story:

I believe in data, but data itself has become spectacle. I cannot believe that it has become acceptable for media entities to throw around polling data without any critique of the limits of that data, to produce fancy visualizations which suggest that numbers are magical information. Every pollster got it wrong. And there’s a reason. They weren’t paying attention to the various structural forces that made their sample flawed, the various reasons why a disgusted nation wasn’t going to contribute useful information to inform a media spectacle. This abuse of data has to stop. We need data to be responsible, not entertainment.

Glenn Greenwald’s piece more directly calls out the arrogance and hubris of the mainstream media’s positions:

Supporters of Brexit and Trump were continually maligned by the dominant media narrative (validly or otherwise) as primitive, stupid, racist, xenophobic, and irrational. In each case, journalists who spend all day chatting with one another on Twitter and congregating in exclusive social circles in national capitals — constantly re-affirming their own wisdom in an endless feedback loop — were certain of victory. Afterward, the elites whose entitlement to prevail was crushed devoted their energies to blaming everyone they could find except for themselves, while doubling down on their unbridled contempt for those who defied them, steadfastly refusing to examine what drove their insubordination.

The common thread in all of this is that the vast majority of media coverage of politics is extraordinarily shallow. Reporters, and especially commentators, create their own narratives that fit the facts, rather than approaching their reporting from a position of ignorance, which would involve acknowledging that a few hours (or even days or weeks) of studying a given issue isn’t sufficient to gain understanding, and that 1,000 words on a subject serves only to give a false sense of knowledge.

Nate Silver illustrated this concept effectively, imagining a set of talking points that would likely have been reported had Clinton won the election:

Republicans simply can’t appeal to enough voters to have a credible chance at the Electoral College. While states like Ohio and Iowa might be slipping away from Democrats, they’ll be more than made up for by the shift of Arizona, North Carolina and Florida into the blue column as demographic changes take hold. Democrats are the coalition of the ascendant.
The United States was more than ready for the first woman president. And they elected her immediately after the first African-American president. With further victories for liberals over the past several years on issues ranging from gay rights to the minimum wage, the arc of progress is unmistakable.
American political institutions are fairly robust. When a candidate like Trump undermines political norms and violates standards of decency, he’s punished by the voters.

Silver’s point is that there’s a huge difference between these points and what’s being said today, while the actual difference in reality is very small (only one in a hundred voters would have had to change their vote). He goes on to point out how foolish today’s analyses of the state of politics in the country would have sounded, had Clinton won. In both cases, the cause is the same: a desire to tie everything up into a neat little package that fits a clear narrative, rather than acknowledging that reality is complicated.

All of this brought to mind one of my favorite xkcd cartoons:

The parallels need no further explanation.

Over the past couple of centuries, we’ve been conditioned more and more to consume information about our world in progressively smaller bites, served to us progressively more rapidly and progressively sooner after the events the information purports to describe. At some point, we need to question the value of that approach.

Nassim Taleb looks down on daily news: it’s too ephemeral and close to its source to be of much value. He prefers books that have stood the test of time. Let the years discard that information which hasn’t proven its value. We need to use a similar approach to our gathering and consumption of “news” in the twenty-first century. We shouldn’t be eager to read the first report of anything, or to seek out the “breaking news.” There’s no inherent value in being first, but there’s immense inherent value in being correct. Somewhere along the way, we’ve conditioned ourselves to reward the former while punishing the patience and contemplation required for the latter.

We also need to consider how we share news. For us, just for journalists and media companies, there’s no inherent value in being the first to share something. We should take pride in sharing stories that actually enlighten our fellow citizens, not in having the scoop or being the first with the inside information.

I would greatly prefer to consume my “news” information no sooner than a week after any given event happens, once the dust settles and the chaos that inevitably accompanies any upheaval has a chance to subside to an extent. Unless the news involves an immediate threat to my life (or livelihood, property, time, etc.), such as an imminent storm, or an outbreak of a contagious disease in my town , and there’s action I can take in the short-term, there’s no reason I need to know right away.

When a hurricane or earthquake devastates a small town a few hundred miles away, my assistance will be much more effective a week after the fact, once aid workers have mitigated the immediate threats and can communicate a good understanding of the actual needs. I don’t need to know right away. Even in the case where there’s a shooting in a local mall or (heaven forbid) school. Apart from notifying me if my loved ones are victims, and warning me to avoid the area, what’s the downside in waiting a few hours or days before reporting the story, until enough of the facts are known to allow a thorough reporting of the event?

I’m not advocating a complete embargo on news related to such events for a period of time. I am suggesting that what’s reported should be known facts, verified through trustworthy sources, not speculation, and certainly not analysis based on speculation.

Similarly, I don’t need to know right away what politician said what about whom. We’d be far more effective in policing our leaders (as is our role in a democracy) by focusing on their policy actions and intentions rather than parsing every statement, however meaningless or private. Those statements should remain on record of course — how else could we tell after the fact if what’s said is trustworthy. But there’s no need for urgency: I can read or watch a speech just as easily a month after it’s given as an hour.

We need to put the brakes on our sources of news. We need reporters who won’t patronize us by pretending they can explain a situation in a few hundred (or even a thousand) words, and who aren’t afraid to lay out a situation in all its complexity. We need editors with both breadth and depth of knowledge, and with the integrity to prioritize truth over a deadline. And above all, we need publishers who care more about their publications being correct than being first. We no longer live in an era where our forms of media demand a certain number of column inches or a certain number of minutes of live airtime. Why should the content of twenty-first century media be dictated by the constraints of the twentieth century?

But none of that will happen unless we — the consumers — demand it. We need to stop paying attention to “breaking news,” preferring to wait until there are substantiated facts rather than speculation. We need to stop pretending that simple predictions about the future are possible and demand more nuanced (even probabilistic) analysis. We need to learn to accept our position of ignorance. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t seek out more knowledge or eschew learning as worthless, but that we should always be aware that anything we read could be wrong and demand the same from those we trust to bring us knowledge of the world.

Here are the tweets I referenced above: