Cody Kommers

A Friendly Interest

How to Choose What to Read: Avoid the News

The news doesn't tell you what's important, just what sells more news.

Posted Apr 29, 2019

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Life is short, but books are long. There's so much information out there, yet so little time to consume it. Our information-saturated world requires us to have a strategy for how to choose what to read

So, here's an easy rule of thumb, via negativa, to start with: Avoid the news.

The point of learning is to gain something useful—a piece of information or an idea that will bring value to your life, something that will stick with you. News is designed to do the opposite. 

News, by definition, is information that is relevant to an event happening now. It makes no promise as to whether the same event will be relevant to anything happening tomorrow. News is supposed to be timely. And that's what timely means: germane to the moment—this one, and not necessarily the next.

People will say, “But how are we supposed to know about important events that happen in the world?” After all, that’s what being well-informed means, right? Not quite. It depends on what you want to be well-informed about. And it's better to inform yourself about something that will last a lifetime rather than a week. If you want to be well-informed, consume history, not news. We are dealing today with the consequences of yesterday. And when we look to history we at least have a shot of encountering the consequential. Will today's news end up in tomorrow’s history books? It's possible. But probably not.

The reason for this is statistical. Almost all the events will be inconsequential. Very few things that happen today will actually go on to have repercussions in the future. In statistical parlance, this means that events are exponentially distributed with respect to their consequence (lots of inconsequential events, a handful of consequential ones). So if you want to know whether the event that you’re observing right now is going to be consequential in the future, the answer, from the point of view of probability, is that it will not be. 

For example, what does one learn about Donald Trump by watching the news? The media portrays Trump negatively. So what you learn about Trump tends to be about his latest and greatest sins. The problem with this information is that it is neither informative nor actionable.

It's not informative because it doesn't actually change the way you think about the situation. If you're pro Trump, it's not going to dissuade you. If you're against Trump, you aren't going to regard him any lower. It's just telling you about what you already know, under a different guise. You know new facts, but nothing that influences your stance on an issue. And this information isn't actionable because, once you've learned it, there's nothing you can do about it. If the president does something you don't like, you don't have any recourse against it. You can vote against him in four years, but you're going to do that anyway. You can take to social media to speak out against him, which is the strategy employed by most people. Either way, the information inspired neither new thoughts nor actions.

The problem isn't that the media talks about Trump. The problem is why they do.

The media doesn’t talk about Trump because what he is doing is important. The media talks about Trump because Trump sells more media. Trump and the media are in a symbiotic relationship. The more powerful and egregious Trump is, the more the media talks about it and accrues subsequent profit. Do you think it’s a coincidence that the “failing” New York Times readership was foundering before Trump and has been steadily, even dramatically increasing since Trump came on the scene? Go look at the top five articles on the New Yorker’s website right now. I would be willing to bet that three of the five are about Trump. How crazy is that? The two publications that are supposed to be most dedicated to hard-hitting stories about stuff that actually matters, and feed us the same lines about Trump, over and over again.

At its core, this is what the news is all about.

The goal of news outlets is to increase their ratings. They are businesses, and by their very nature designed to maximize their own capital gains. Higher ratings yield more profit. News outlets choose content based on whether or not they will yield higher ratings. If it bleeds it leads. CNN is under no moral obligation to uphold the standards of a free press that our country vaunts. They are only under an obligation to show you something important to the extent that content which seems important will sell better.

When it comes to the news, we expect that they will serve us information of consequence. That’s why the news will have content about business and politics—not just celebrity gossip, which sells quite well itself, but in a different context. But if in fact, they failed to show you something worthwhile and instead showed you something that you keep coming back to that particular station. For the news outlet’s bottom line that would be indistinguishable from them purvey something with legitimate utility.

The problem is what statisticians call "sampling bias." Imagine the set of all possible stories today. Let’s say, hypothetically, this includes everything from “Al-Qaeda sets up a headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina” to “Mrs. Turner makes a trip to Walgreens and was delighted by the sale on toothpaste.” News outlets have to make a decision about what they want to reveal to their viewership and what they want to forfeit. Not all information is created equal. The Al-Qaeda headquarters thing is more newsworthy than the toothpaste sale thing. But how they make this decision is crucial. You have a huge, possibly unlimited set of options and you have to choose the best examples. The bias comes into play according to how you choose the samples.

Here are three potential strategies for how to choose those samples:

The first strategy is that you could sample stories by how representative a single story is to overall daily life. This is clearly not what the news is doing. If you wanted news that was based on being representative, then you would be supplied with story after story of toothpaste sales—because that is in fact what most of life actually looks like. This would be boring, but accurate.

The second way you could sample news stories is by importance. This would be our ideal. The news should tell us things we need to know about. As we already discussed this is also decidedly not what the news does. One reason is that it is genuinely hard to know what is important. Another reason is that important stuff is not happening most of the time. But when is the news on? All of the time. By virtue of this alone, the news cannot be disseminating information based on importance.

The third way—ultimately, that which actually is done—is sampling by what earns more viewership. The news picks stories based on how many people will click the headline, scroll through the story, and engage with the advertisements. Just as Vogue is not filled with treatises about the ideal form of governance, sampling stories by viewership do not an enriching publication make. The difference is that Vogue doesn’t sell readers based on a platform of intellectual merit. They sell readers based on the tantalizing promise of exclusive celebrity gossip. The difference between that and the New York Times is that the Times runs on a platform of intellectual merit and delivers celebrity gossip.

The easiest way to up the impact of your reading is to take a look at the day it was written. Is that date today? An hour ago? Well, it'll probably be important for about that length of time into the first. Come back to it in two weeks and it probably won't matter. Instead, pick up something from the past--an article that's still incisive a couple of years after press, a book from a decades ago that still articulates well a core idea. That's the kind of reading that will stick with you.