In ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions’, Rolf Dobelli argues that we should not watch the news. I think there is truth in the points he makes about news (as in TV and newspaper news) being irrelevant, misleading and having little explanatory power. My last post about the BBC News at 10 looked at these limitations.
Dobelli also talks about passive news absorption as something that wastes people’s time and kills their creativity. And he cites studies showing how the brain of a news junkie undergoes structural change as a result of their addiction, leaving them unable to concentrate for longer periods. But there is a problem with cutting yourself off from the news…
I believe citizens have to aspire to delivering their part of the social contract. We have given up some of our freedoms and allowed ourselves to be ruled by governments and other such organisations in exchange for the protection of our remaining freedoms and rights (as opposed to mob rule in some dusty wasteland). But we know the power we vest in the people running these organisations has a tendency to corrupt them, and so we each have to try and take on a responsibility to fight the corruption and inequity when it appears. No one else will do this for us.
To fight corruption and inequity we need to know that the corruption and inequity exists. We need to know who else is fighting it – and we need to how we can help as individuals. Quality news reporting is part of this information. Poor quality news reporting is part of the disinformation that prevents useful citizen actions and is therefore also a target.
Dobelli says “Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth.” But investigative journalists are an endangered species within the mainstream news outlets as a result of the commercialisation of the media over the last few decades. As Nick Davies reports in ‘Flat Earth News’, 80% of news stories in the ‘quality’ papers and TV news programmes comes from wire agencies such as the Press Association and from fundamentally biased public relation sources. Papers do not spend money on expensive things like investigative journalism as that would cut into profits.
So we need to add “reporting the news” to the list of responsibilities which citizens should aspire to as part of the social contract! Fortunately, many bloggers and tweeters have paved the way (see my recommended sites list for a few examples). The lesson from Dobelli is to make sure we don’t just absorb all this “alternative” news information. Read it. Use it. Get involved.