I’ve been paying attention to the news my whole adult life. It was, I thought, the best way to keep up with important things going on in the world. But it wasn’t, and a 1999 book by C. John Sommerville explains why. His book, “How the News Makes Us Dumb: The Death of Wisdom in an Information Society,” is just as relevant today as it was two decades ago.
It was published while the internet was still in its infancy – well before the social media era. But these facts serve to highlight the truth of his thesis: the news makes us dumb. It’s not the news’ fault, though. The news isn’t trying to make us dumb. It’s our fault for investing so much time, energy, and trust in the news, as though the 24 hour news cycle is the most important thing that happens. It’s not.
I’ve been on a years long quest, through trial and error, of discovering better ways to keep in touch with what important things are happening in the world. What follows is some of the main takeaways from Sommerville’s book and some adjustments I’ve been making as a result.
How the News Makes Us Dumb
The most important things in life rarely, if ever, change. That’s a good thing. People build their lives on things they can count on not changing, such as family, friends, jobs, neighborhoods, and so on. God himself is immutable. From a human perspective, the more important something is, the more you want to protect and preserve it. Our change tolerance is limited. Most people do not want much to change in their lives from day to day.
Change makes things interesting, not more important. The failure to distinguish interesting from important is one of the main reasons why the news makes us dumb. For example, the fact that one day can be 78 degrees and sunny and the next day be 34 degrees with snow flurries is interesting, but that is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Having a variety of new and unusual food options for dinner each night is interesting. Having a stable circle of valued relationships to share those meals with is important.
The news is all about reporting change. The things that don’t change from day to day aren’t usually newsworthy, but that doesn’t make them unimportant. If most people in a community are healthy, employed, and content with life, that’s incredibly important, but it’s not newsworthy. If a tornado rips through that community leaving death and devastation in its wake, that’s newsworthy. But while it’s important for the community that is impacted by the tragedy, it’s not as important for people on the other side of the country who are unaffected by it. For them, it’s just news.
The news is a business, not a charity. The main purpose of the news industry is to make money. That’s not a complaint. Everyone needs to make money. Doctors spend years of their lives in training in order to provide medical care, but they expect to be paid for it. If they no longer got paid for it, they would do something else. That doesn’t make them greedy, it’s just how things are. It’s the same with the news. The news industry reports on stories that will keep people interested (change) and will keep them consuming more of their product. People don’t consume news to hear about what’s unchanging and of the greatest importance. They go to church for that. The news is a form of entertainment that is funded by advertising dollars.
Bad news is the most interesting and profitable kind of news. Fear is a more profitable news product than hope. In the news business they say, “if it bleeds, it leads.” As scintillating as bad news can be, the wise Christian will resist the temptation. Psalm 112:7 says, “For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the Lord.”
The “Bad News + Video” formula is even more tempting. As the news media has become increasingly visual, video footage makes something more newsworthy. I once walked by my living room TV while my local news was reporting on a high speed car chase with video footage in California. But I live in Cincinnati. Why was this on our local news? Because they’ve got an exciting video of it. It’s interesting, but not that important.
Exaggerated coverage of bad news makes things seem worse than they are. The relentless focus on tragedy and heartbreak in the news creates an inflated perception of tragedy in the world. For example, tens of thousands of cars may safely drive through town on a given day. But safety doesn’t excite. Tragedy does. So the one tragic accident that happened that day makes the 6 o’clock news. The tragedy is very important to those who are affected by it. For the rest of us, it’s just news.
News makes the novel seem normal. The consensus is boring and uninteresting. That’s why the news focuses its attention on things that break the pattern. The outliers, the bizarre, and the things that deviate from the norm are newsworthy. For example, if hundreds of scientists have been studying a phenomena for years and arriving at similar conclusions, that’s not newsworthy, because it doesn’t represent any significant change. But if one study yields a completely different result, that’s newsworthy, even if the change reported by the study was due to poorly conceived and executed experimentation. The headlines will read, “New Study Shows…” and it will appear as though this is the new scientific consensus, but it’s not. Sloppy science is often rewarded with undeserved news coverage.
The news boosts its relevance by reducing context. Summerville writes, “The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day’s report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.” In recent weeks, we’ve been treated to countless headlines talking about the “rising death toll” caused by COVID-19. Of course the death toll is rising – every day in human history will have more deaths than the day before. But what’s needed to understand the death toll numbers is context. What are the trends represented by those numbers? That information is not always provided – just the number of deaths. Understand the importance of something requires wisdom and broader context.
The news is addictive. The stimulation provided by constant change is addictive. The “fear of missing out” drives us toward the news. Joe Carter wrote that “the most disconcerting consequence of this addiction is the belief that it is normal, and that those who aren’t tuned into a daily news feed are ill-informed.” We’ve heard that trust in the news media is at an all time low, yet we still consume it. It’s addictive.
New Media has upended the News Industry. One thing that Summerville’s book couldn’t have foreseen is how the new media has disrupted the news industry. The daily news cycle has been replaced with a non-stop onslaught of news that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. The lines between news, advertising, and activism are blurred more now than ever before. Much of what passes as “news” these days is little more than click bait. Even still, the way many people get their news nowadays is through social media, which accelerates misinformation. Social Media equalizes the playing field by presenting a crowdsourced “news feed” that might contain serious journalism mixed with memes, cat videos, and conspiracy blogs. It all looks the same. When someone reads a misleading headline, they may not even realize it’s from a disreputable source. All they remember is, “I saw it on Facebook.” For example, the Babylon Bee has been criticized for spreading “misinformation,” but the critics don’t realize it’s a satire site.
Breaking the News Addiction
Consuming too much news is a bad habit, but it can be broken. Here are some personal rules I’ve developed to break the news habit without being isolated.
Stop relying on clickbait, Facebook posts, and memes for the news. Refuse to click the clickbait. Clickbait websites collect money from advertisers every time someone clicks the headline. If the headline promises a “shocking truth revealed” or some secret being “exposed,” it’s clickbait. If there’s exclamation points in the headline, it’s clickbait. If it’s got a numbered list and says, “#6 Will Blow Your Mind!,” it’s clickbait. Don’t support them. Also, avoid news sources that are blindly driven by ideology (MSNBC and Foxnews are prime examples).
Limit your intake of daily news. The 24 hour news cycle is unreliable and incapable of providing context. Limit yourself to one or two of these, known for good reporting, and pay for a subscription. Weekly or monthly news magazines may have broader perspective, but can still be ideologically driven. (World Magazine is known for excellent reporting from a biblical worldview. They also produce a podcast and a daily news brief called “The Sift.”)
Be selective with blogs. Ten years ago, most blogs looked amateur and credible news sources had sharp looking websites. Now, sophisticated blogging platforms have evened the playing field. Anyone with a half-baked opinion can write nonsense on their beautifully designed blog. Design and aesthetics matter – attractively designed blogs have an air of credibility because they look good, no matter what they say.
Read more books, especially the really old ones. Modern society increasingly needs to listen and learn from voices of the past – what GK Chesterton called the “democracy of the dead.” I can’t think of any better way to gain perspective on modern life than to read books by dead people. They had their blind spots, for sure, but so do we. The best way to see our modern blind spots is to let dead people from ages past point them out to us.
Certainly, of all the old books, the one we need most desperately is the Bible. It was written by men long since dead, but also written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is forever alive. God, who never changes, is the most important thing there is. To read the Bible is to hear the voice of God, who transcends all time and space, and who is directing all history towards God’s Eternal Purpose. To read the Bible is to read the newspaper of heaven, where the daily headline always reads, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev 21:5).