Saturday 3 April 2010

Bullshit News: An anatomy

Mainstream news media are supposed to provide a vital public service for democracy. Particularly newspapers since they have all those words. They are supposed to provide we the people with the accurate and relevant facts and analysis about the world that we can use to come to informed decisions about climate change, health-care, foreign military adventures, etc. They also play a directly political role in successful democracy by making the operation of political power transparent and accountable. 

So, we are told, it's terribly important that states find some way to protect our newspapers from the current cruel winds of technology driven changes in their business environments. But when you take a look at most news media, including national and local newspapers, one frankly is not overwhelmed by the evidence of either a commitment to public service or the reporting breadth, depth, judgement and integrity that this role would seem to require. The news is just a business, not a sacred mission, and an enormous proportion of what gets published is best described as bullshit news. This can take various forms, but what it has in common is the short-termist private interests of journalists and media companies over and against the public interest.

First there is freak news. For example, the cat that has learned how to use public transport, but also celebrity gossip, freak crimes (unusally stupid, strange, or horrible - child abductions, etc), and so on. These are stories about matters that are really unimportant at the political level because the phenomena are either insignificant or are unlikely to be repeated - although it is true that lots of people want to read about them. They are brain candy: superficially attractive but not good for us. Freak news is thus irrelevant to the public service role of news media (to inform people about politically important issues) but is very easy for journalists to 'investigate' from their desks.

In fact some forms of horrific freak news can actually perform the opposite of a public service by taking events that are unimportant and basically only reported to give people cheap vicarious thrills (such as a random 'dog eats child's face' event) and through histrionic coverage make it into a politically significant event. The political system is then forced to spend lots of time dealing with problems that politicians know are more or less insignificant in order to satisfy the 'public demand' for action on the 'dangerous dogs crisis' that the news media has created to sell newspapers.  This distracts the political system from dealing with real issues  and leads to misguided and disproportionate public policies driven by the media's attention deficit disorder rather than good sense. Of course, we could take the easy route of blaming the politicians for not being braver and standing up to this pressure - and newspapers themselves frequently employ this tactic in the aftermath of the bursting of a moral panic bubble, thus managing to bake their cake, sell it, and then eat it too. But is ignoring or rejecting popular demand a reasonable or good thing to require of democratic politicians?

All this generally makes politics more stupid, with consequences for long term faith in representative democracy.

A second form of bullshit news is 'public information' in which government announcements, parliamentary reports, legal judgements, medical research results, etc, are summarised in a bite-sized easily digestible form and disseminated to lots of people. Now you might think that this kind of news is exactly what the public service claim implies, and that is true, if it is done properly with good editorial judgement, analysis, and probing (some broadsheet newspapers do this some of the time). But when it is done the easy (cheap) way it involves repeating the self-serving cant of corporate and governmental press-releases - becoming a mouthpiece for power instead of holding it accountable to truth. Many news media, of course, have either an explicit ideological position or engage in multiple overlapping campaigns. In these cases they helpfully filter - cherrypick - public information to provide us only with the information that fits most easily their view of the world and distort what doesn't (eg. Human Rights = Terrorists Charter). Such news stories - really constituting public disinformation - illustrate the intriguing complexity of journalistic integrity.

Another issue arises from the media's natural urge to overdramatise - "This news is really important! Read it or you might die!"   When this combines with certain self-promoting interests one can see ridiculous results, such as a veritable media-biomedical complex. The bio-medical sciences publish an enormous number of methodologically questionable epidemiological studies and send press releases to news media about how coffee causes or doesn't cause cancer this week. The media happily regurgitates this free and exciting 'news': some newspapers seem to draw half their frontpage content from this easy source, while the 'researchers' benefit from lots of career making attention. In the UK, the Daily Mail seems to be engaged in an long term 'oncological ontology' project to divide everything in the world into things that cause cancer and things that prevent it (or sometimes both).

But even when newspapers are less lazy in their coverage, there is still a clear publication bias in favour of bad news (tragedy sells!) which cumulatively distorts the public understanding of how the world works and how it is doing. Incessant stories about government corruption and incompetence, and political shenanigans and sex scandals, without the balancing effect of more positive stories or critical overviews give the misleading impression that these institutions are broken. Likewise excessive coverage of negative stories about environmental destruction, about violent crime, and so forth, while individually true, cumulatively give us a picture of a world gone mad and heading for apocalypse. 

The basic psychological mechanism has been nicknamed the 'Newfoundland Effect'. People routinely perform a crude statistical inference to form beliefs how the world works, what's dangerous and what's not, on the basis of how often they hear negative news and positive news on a topic. People in tiny Newfoundland are not unduly afraid of violent crime, while people in a larger country like Britain are, despite the crimes statistics in both places being remarkably similar. The difference is that Newfoundland is small and people there don't bother too much with news from the rest of Canada, while Britain is big and pensioners living in Edinburgh hear all the scary news about drunken yoof attacking old people in Glasgow, Southampton, Manchester, etc. And then they become afraid to leave their house. This illustrates the responsibility of newspapers for the accuracy and tone of their whole news coverage, not just particular stories.

The fourth category is media flocking. It should surprise no-one that there are an awful lot of important and interesting newsworthy events going on around the world every day, of which only a tiny minority are reported in the mainstream news. Of course, they don't have space or human resources, even in a large broadsheet, to cover everything. But one can still ask, why do they all seem to cover the same things? On any given day, more than 50% of news stories will be pretty much the same in every national newspaper (on the frontpage, the correlation is more like 80%). 

Most news outlets do not distinguish themselves from each other by the facts they report (expensive to collect), but by the editorial style and political orientation (cheap). That means they are as much in the business of helping us to how to think about what's happening in the world as they are with providing true and extensive information about the important facts about the world from which we as citizens could make up our own minds. This point significantly undermines the claim that a democratic society needs a variety of newspapers to keep us properly informed: things might go even worse with even fewer newspapers, but the present variety isn't really motivated by nor does it achieve the goals of a properly informed polity.

Finally there is media news i.e. news about the news media itself. Since news media considers itself incredibly important for society, it is natural that they should consider their every thought about themselves extremely important too. While media news can serve an important check and balance role in the quality of news coverage (e.g. this NYT piece on the International Herold Tribune's obeisance to Singaporean censorship), it generally doesn't seem so nobly motivated. Media news can be divided into bitching stories (about other media) and individual and collective self-promotion. When you see a story about Sky news on the BBC, or one newspaper discussing another's reporting, just under the surface neutrality is 'the bitch' - a more or less subtle attack motivated either by resentment that the other got a scoop they didn't, or glee at a rival's misfortunes (such as losing a libel case). It is the natural complement of individual self-promotion, e.g. in frequent self-citing. Collective self-promotion also exists at an industry wide level, based on independent news organisations mutual interest in talking up their incredible importance and vital public service role, which is, inevitably, packaged as yet another news item.


In fact it is true that mainstream news media has played an important public service role in democracy up to now, but only through the frequent but generally accidental coincidence of media companies' private interests in selling stories that the public is interested in, with society's genuine public interest in honest politicians, rational foreign policy, and so forth. Let's face it, bullshit news sells because we like it, not because it is good for society!

The mass media were never the angels they claim to be, but that doesn't mean we might not miss them when they're gone. The business structure that supported that -  mass-circulation media and advertisers prepared to pay for access to a large but undifferentiated audience - has changed irrevocably, but it isn't clear what will come in its place. 

It is likely that the news will be unbundled so that the nuggets of good analysis that were cross-subsidised (financially and in terms of readers' attention) by the bullshit news will be spun off into specialised independent organs such as The Economist (despite its flaws, the best there is). Media organisations explicitly built on public interest foundations (like the BBC), and which don't have to support their public interest coverage by persuading the interested public to pay for it, may be more resilient but they aren't invulnerable to the same dynamics. (Their distinctiveness is sustained by political commitment alone, and they are prone to radical self-doubt about what the public interest is, such that they often evaluate themselves by ratings comparisons with other media.)

People who want to follow what's really happening in the world will still be able to, but those who were never much interested will now have even less exposure to good quality information about how the world really works and sensible politics will suffer as a result.