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The story that news is the broccoli which the citizen must be made to eat has been retold with increasing alarm as digitization and the Internet have threatened traditional business models in the industry. Even Clay Shirky, who often acts the hard realist on the subject, has called for subsidies because “markets supply less reporting than democracies demand.” This is perfect nonsense. Granting that it is economic nonsense only because Shirky has taken some poetic liberties with language, it is also nonsense given the nature of actual reporting. Political reporting — and indeed, reporting on news of any sort — plays exactly the same role in people’s lives as sports news.
Consider the audience for a franchise like the Yankees as a power law distribution. The largest segment by far is really only interested in whether or not their team has won, and may not watch more than a couple of games each week. The smallest, most niche segment consumes absolutely every piece of information and rumor about the team that they can find. They frequent Yankees forums and chat rooms and get into angry fights about pointless minutia. There’s a sliding scale of obsession — devotion? — between the head and the outermost niche of the tail.
So why do they care? It’s all about belonging to a group, as well as simply living vicariously through stories. Just as soap opera audiences love to feel outraged by the scandals of fictional characters, some sports fans love to feel outraged by the scandals of professional athletes. Just as we can take comfort in being a part of a family, people take comfort in being a fan of a team, and having that in common with other fans.
Political news consumption follows exactly the same patterns. All news consumption does, whether we’re talking technology, video games, celebrities, economics — you name it, it’s all the same. It’s about group affiliation, regardless of whether it’s the Yankees vs the Red Sox, Republicans vs Democrats, or Android fanboys vs Apple fanboys. It’s also about stories with strong moral frameworks baked in — whether we’re talking the fight between the parents and husband of Terri Schiavo, the use of performance enhancement drugs in baseball, or Nintendo’s decision to pursue a general market rather than cater to their longtime fans. People get exhilarated by these stories, and by the feeling that they are a part of a group that cares about these stories.
News was never high minded in the way that people like Shirky want it to be. To defend the romantic point of view, people will drudge up a handful of examples of investigative journalism that was consequential. There are indeed specific cases, such as Brian Deer’s remarkable work exposing the fraudulent study claiming a link between vaccination and autism. But as Rolf Dobelli points out, this kind of work does not need the news. It can live in long form pieces, and in books. Especially nowadays, this kind of work can be supported and promoted directly without connecting it to the vast news apparatus which produces a sea of informational garbage every hour of every day.
And if you pooled together all of such consequential work in the entire history of the news, it would not even amount to one atom in the universe of content produced in one single year in one single segment of the news industry. News is not about being informed. It is about entertainment, about feeling good — in the broadest sense of feeling good, which includes indulging in outrage and feeling smugly superior to some other set of people.
Also included is indulging in a sense of righteousness — which brings us back to the notion that journalists are the great defenders of democracy. Certainly political junkies like to believe that they are better informed than those of us who abstain to the extent that the modern information environment makes abstinence possible. But this is at odds with everything cognitive research has told us about bias and how beliefs form and are reinforced. It is well known that presenting a political junkie with a story that contradicts their beliefs tends to make them more vehement rather than more skeptical.
When you look at everything through the lens of sports news, it all starts to make sense. Why would you ever think that some scandal in the Republican party would suddenly get people to switch affiliations? Do you think that a lifetime Cubs fan would abandon his team because he found out that Sammy Sosa was taking steroids? He’s far more likely to start reciting a list of people on other teams who did the same in order to justify his continuing loyalty.
A lot of people have worried about the fate of the news in the current technological landscape. Personally, I have not lost a single minute of sleep over it. Why should I? The stakes are no higher than if we were discussing whether or not ESPN was going to be able to make it, or People magazine. I will admit it was pretty terrible when I found out that Nintendo Power wasn’t going to make it, but I think democracy will find a way to soldier on without it.