It’s been shared many times: the New Yorker cartoon that says, “My desire to be informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane.”
Jump to these sections:
- Understand the News Business Model
- Learn How to Stay Informed
- What to Know About News and Social Media
- Support Journalists! Here’s Why
The New Yorker cartoon resonates with so many of us because much of what passes for “news” today isn’t journalism - it’s noise. It’s a business model designed to keep us in an agitated state of outrage and always coming back for more.
It’s almost untenable in a year when the real news is so extreme. Corporate media and social media companies supported by high-dollar advertisers bear a lot of responsibility. Check out The Social Dilemma on Netflix if you want to freak out about how and why you often find your day or your emotions hijacked when you get online.
Regardless of how much it’s all designed to manipulate our thoughts and feelings, we still have the ability to push back by becoming a more discerning consumer of news. We do need to stay informed and we can do it by being more intentional in the decisions we make, sometimes without even thinking - to like (or dislike), share or comment on something we see online.
Some things to think about:
- Am I approaching news for understanding? Or for affirmation?
- Am I sharing news to advance understanding? Or to vent?
Let’s Start with the News Business Model
There’s another meme lamenting the state of the news media that says Walter Cronkite never gave an opinion on CBS, he just read the news.
I’ll ignore, for the moment, just how Walter Cronkite would react to being reduced to a pithy meme that lacks context. To a large extent, this meme is true (except when it famously wasn’t).
“There was the notion that you could get reliable, accurate information delivered calmly and dispassionately by all of the networks,” David Ward, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery said in Smithsonian magazine.
That’s because as late as the 1970s, news wasn’t a business for the three broadcast networks. It was a prestigious loss leader. And by prestige, I mean the Big Three networks were aware of the democratic threat posed by having only three entities influencing public opinion and elections.
If that’s the way it was, as the legendary CBS newsman might say, it is not the way it is. “What most people think of as 'the news' is, in fact, a twisted wing of the entertainment business,” says journalist Matt Taibbi in his 2019 book Hate Inc.
What is new and ferocious is the Internet, combined with a news-o-tainment business model that needs us to keep us watching, listening, reading, clicking, and sharing.
When a video of violent street clashes gets more engagement and shares than long-form reporting on the roots of urban issues, you can guess what you’re more likely to see.
The KPIs of the news-o-tainment business model are likes, clicks, video views, time-on-site and social shares. If this sounds a lot like content marketing, that's because it IS content marketing. A “successful” news organization is no longer defined by news; it’s defined, pure and simple, by money and hype. You can read more about the issue in this 2019 study: The Impact of Web Metrics on Community News Decisions.
And then there’s the echo chamber. An audience that only wants to hear news that reinforces their beliefs can easily find it, because the algorithm is designed for platforms to target very specific content to specific people all day long. Which makes it hard to find the truth. My recent search to learn more about plasma and COVID-19 ended up hurting my head because I was banging it against my desk:
So How Can I Stay Informed and Sane?
It starts by weaning yourself off the more toxic elements of your news diet. If you’re a political junkie like me, it’s okay to have a little red meat every now and then, but you’ll feel a whole lot better if you avoid the most agitating news sources.
The best guide to moderate your news diet is the continually updated Media Bias Chart by Ad Fontes Media. Media in the top green box is your best bet for less biased, more factual national and international news and you can evaluate the reporting in the context of the bias.
The Media Bias Chart should also be your go-to to check the veracity and bias of articles shared on your social channels.
More tips for a balanced news diet:
- Prioritize local news. The watchdog role of journalism is critical at the local level where decisions have the most direct impact on our lives. This is particularly important for big stories: it’s the local journalists who have the best local contacts as well as historical insight that is critical to understanding complex issues such as civil unrest.
- Business and science news are great for keeping up with global innovations.
- Support good journalism by paying for it, especially local news. Don’t let your local daily newspaper subscription lapse, and if you can afford it, support long form journalism.
- If a news report makes you angry--especially one about a party or politicians you dislike--make a conscious effort to downshift from the emotion and do a little research. For example, if the story is being reported only in outlets on the right or left side of the Media Bias Chart, ask yourself why. Is it news that keeps the powerful accountable or news designed to keep you angry?
- Limit news sources with a preponderance of headlines where various politicians and thought leaders being “owned,” “slammed,” or “shut down,” as in “Joe Republican owns Jane Democrat on Twitter!” We’re aiming for a functioning democracy, not a WWF title.
- Follow the money. Understand who owns the media outlet and who funds think tanks that publish research. For example, consider “medical breakthrough” stories on TV news in the context of the volume of pharma ads.
- Seek out opinion writers who challenge a variety of beliefs, including their “own” side.
- Turn off notifications from news apps. How often is that “breaking news” notification for real? Push notifications are hard to ignore, creating a sense of urgency that feeds our emotional response.
If you believe a news report legitimately keeps the powerful accountable, but it’s covered in a news source you consider to be biased, you’re probably right. That’s the business model we talked about above. That doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t important for you to read. Why?
- It may still be real news. Google it for yourself.
- It could be an angle on the news that causes you discomfort because it challenges some of your biases. This happens a lot with personal interest stories. It can be powerful to hear from people you disagree with. Google the facts before making up your mind, but be open to hearing stories that challenge your view of the world.
News and Social Media
In case we weren’t clear about this in our earlier post about Facebook #StopTheHate:
- Be VERY cautious about sharing articles on social media.
There is no reason--ever!--to share articles by saying, “I don’t know if this is true or not, but…”
- Even if you’ve done your due diligence, realize that your share is unlikely to change hearts and minds. In our polarized times, it may actually harden them. Click below to learn how to set up custom lists in Facebook to curate shares:
Journalists are not the problem. I repeat: journalists are not the problem.
The problem is the news business model. Most journalists are dedicated, dogged truth-tellers who got into the profession from a desire to serve the public good. I know, I started my career as a journalist. The journalists we work with every day are doing their best working in a tough business model, usually for not great pay.
Some are not willing to do it any longer, opting out of news-o-tainment and going back to what they do: reporting. What they are seeing and hearing from their contacts. What the data says about COVID-19 and climate change. They sell subscriptions directly on platforms such as Substack or broadcast via social media channels, such as Momcast and News without Noise.
In conclusion, a functioning republic needs a well-informed citizenry. It is not a passive act on our parts to stay informed, and getting outside our comfort zone doesn’t always feel great.
Do it anyway. Consider it self-care for our country.
The Fall, Rise, and Fall of Media Trust; Columbia Journalism Review, Winter 2019