Why Do We Really Follow the News? (Rebroadcast)

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Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “Why Do We Really Follow the News?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above.)

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How do you get your news? And why?
(photo: baileyguinness/Getty Images)

Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post. And you’ll find credits for the music in the episode noted within the transcript.

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Hey, podcast listeners. Happy almost summer! I am on a family holiday this week, which means that today’s episode comes from our archives. We picked this one because it seems especially worthwhile considering everything that’s happening in the news, around the world. It is episode No. 215, and it is called “Why Do We Really Follow the News?” Hope you enjoy.

STEPHEN J. DUBNER: Checkity, check, check, check. OK, we’re talking to Maia, Anya and Logan.

MUSIC: The Red Planets, “Get Thee Behind Me” (from Chases Lead to Crashes)

DUBNER: So first thing I want you to do is I want you to each introduce yourself. Just say your name.

ANYA: Hello, I’m Anya, and I’m 13 years old.

Anya’s my kid. Maia and Logan are two of her friends. At school, in history class they have a current-events unit. Once a week, the teacher assigns them a news article to read, or the kids pick their own. From The New York Times, the BBC, CNN…

LOGAN: Wall Street Journal.

And then the students write an essay about the article.

DUBNER: So, when the teacher asks you to do this current events reading, what is the point? Do you ever discuss that? What does the teacher say you’re trying to accomplish by reading a current-event article and relating it to the history?

MAIA: OK, so I think it’s important to read current events because we’re in this little bubble at our school. And so it’s important to see outside of the bubble so we can improve what’s not in our school and what’s not as protected.

DUBNER: So that’s really interesting. So that’s like reading the news in order to be kind of a better person? Logan would you think — is that kind of how you see it too?

LOGAN: Just so our generation can make better decisions than the past generations have maybe.

DUBNER: Interesting. So let me ask you this. Do you keep up with stuff because you feel it’s the “right thing to do” or because you really like it?

LOGAN: I think it’s just because it’s part of the world that we live in and we want to know about it. And especially as we get older we want to become a part of it more. So we want to know our surroundings.

ANYA: Also, I think that reading about the news may make people smarter; it helps you just think about everything. And you really…

DUBNER: It gives you perspective it sounds like you’re saying.

ANYA: It gives you perspective, which I think is really important.

Their explanations for following the news sound believable, don’t they? Even a little bit noble. And their explanations may explain why you follow the news – to the extent that you do follow it. But what if we’re all deceiving ourselves? What if we really follow the news just to entertain ourselves?

MUSIC: Paul Avgerinos, “Paradise Blues”

ALEX FRANKEL: Now, if you think of why you go home at night and watch the six o’clock news, you don’t want to see the news in order to make better decisions in your life. You’re probably there in order to be entertained, and that’s the aspect we’re trying to bring in.

That’s the economist Alex Frankel. In an earlier episode, we talked to him and two of his colleagues — Jeff Ely and Emir Kamenica — about a paper they’ve written called “Suspense and Surprise.”

JEFF ELY: We view the construction and the development of suspense and surprise and other aspects of entertainment as basically optimally economizing on a scarce resource, which is the ability to change someone’s beliefs.

In other words, our ability to be surprised, or to experience suspense, is limited. So if you are making suspenseful movies, or writing mystery novels, you need to dish out these components very strategically.

FRANKEL: I think the way that economists have tended to think about the news is that surprise and suspense aren’t a part of it at all. There’s no entertainment value, there’s a value of information because it tells you what to do.

MUSIC: Donvision, “Waiting For You”

But that’s not the way these economists see the news. Or maybe I should say, how these economists see how we see the news. Just think about how a TV news show works.

ELY: When you go to a commercial, they’ll typically tell you a little bit about the story that’s about to come, enough to sort of generate suspense about what they’re going to tell you after the commercial break, but without fully revealing it so that you have something to anticipate and a reason to stay tuned through the commercial break. That would probably not be so relevant if you were just trying to be informed.

DUBNER: I find it very kind of liberating to hear you say this, because it jibes with my view of what a lot of news is and why people consume news. We sort of tell ourselves we consume news to make ourselves more informed citizens, and so we can keep up with things, for reasons I don’t know what. I don’t know why it’s important that I keep up with Yemen, for instance. I have no idea why that’s actually important, unless we think about it in terms of what you just said, which is that it might entertain me. Maybe Yemen doesn’t entertain me, but other things do, and therefore that gives me reason. But that statement is a little bit heretical in circles of civic duty and news consumption, isn’t it?

EMIR KAMENICA: Well absolutely, there’s a view that certain transformation of news into entertainment has been a great kind of downfall of civic society. But that kind of blames the news as opposed to the lack of interest in news when it’s not entertaining. And I feel like it would be great to collect some data of the kind that I think hasn’t been collected before: to what extent does entertainment lead to a more informed populace? I would love to know whether having a character like Herman Cain run in the Republican primaries makes the voters better informed as to what the true, the final candidates’ policies are. I don’t think there’s any data — I’ve never heard of any study — that actually tries to pin down the way in which this sort of drama and entertainment element of primaries is a contributor to a more informed public.

DUBNER: But how can it be that this realm around which there are so many truisms, or maybe just one big truism, which is that the news is so important for our fulfillment of civic duty, and it makes us “better” voters and more informed voters. I mean, however true or not true that truism may be, what does it say about what we don’t know about how people actually consume news and become informed and maybe vote on it? And what does it say about the incentives to follow along the news, and the incentives to vote?

MUSIC: Sarah Schachner, “Phone Call”

FRANKEL: So economics poses this, something of a paradox that we say that people should never vote. It’s never worth your time to learn about candidate positions. It’s never worth your time to even walk to the polling booth, because your vote isn’t going to determine the election. There are millions of other votes, why even bother. Now, I personally do vote. I don’t agree with that, but why do I vote? Why do I care? Well for me, I care about the policies a lot, but there’s an aspect that feels a lot like watching a sports game to me. I have a team I’m rooting for. I feel like I can help my team when I go out to vote for them. When I’m watching the news — I’m an economist, I do listen to the policies, but I’m also really engaged with the horse race aspect of it. That’s kind of the fun part. And then the policy part is the more eating your vegetables part. And so I think that the treatment of news as entertainment, and bringing this horserace aspect in, I think it can make people better informed, it can get them involved, and that’s probably a good thing. It has what we’d call positive externalities – that when people are more informed they’ll make better decisions, even if they aren’t voting for the reasons we think they should be voting.

DUBNER: So if that’s the case, that you are viewing a certain kind of news as large part entertainment if not primarily entertainment, can I, can a person like me, or anyone listening to this program just sort of acknowledge that politics is essentially a sport, or at least some phases of politics, and that if I consider it less interesting than another sport that I’d rather watch, a football match for instance, I can just do that and not feel guilty about it, rather than feel like I have to follow the thing that people say is virtuous?

KAMENICA: No, that doesn’t follow at all. The question is to whether in practice, the entertainment value of politics is one of the reasons why people pay attention to politics is entirely independent from the ethical, moral, civic-duty question of whether it is wrong not to try and know about the candidates you’re going to vote, or whether it’s wrong not to vote. It very well could be the case that entertainment component of politics is what drives a lot of people to pay attention to it and still be the case that it’s absolutely wrong for you not to try and be more informed about policies.

ELY: I think you can boil the difference down to the externalities. You do not benefit the world by knowing the LeBron James hit a buzzer beater yesterday to tie up the series against the Bulls. But even though you watch politics for the same reason, you do benefit the rest of the world by finding out the consequences of your vote.

DUBNER: What’s the proof for that, that I do benefit the world?

ELY: Well, OK, so that’s perhaps a deep question. But for sure, if voting is about choosing the right policy, and the right policy means finding out the consequences of different policies under consideration and then making a choice based on that, then the more informed you are, the more likely your vote is going to lead in the direction of a good policy as opposed to a bad one. And so everyone is going to benefit from the good policy that results from your vote. But if voting is about just deciding how to just divide up the spoils between your class and the other social class, then maybe it’s a little bit more debatable about whether you’re making the world a better place by finding out what’s the best way to tilt things in your group’s advantage and voting in that way.

MUSIC: Arian Saleh, “Better in Blue” (from The Cobblestone EP)

So we may not have good data to tell us whether “entertaining” news leads to a more informed populace. But a couple of other economists – Matt Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro – have found evidence of a link between news consumption and voter turnout.

MATTHEW GENTZKOW: The evidence is pretty strong, pretty overwhelming by this point, that overall that the more people consume news, especially news about politics, the more likely they are to vote.

Gentzkow is at Stanford University.

GENTZKOW: Why people vote is sort of a mystery in some sense that people have wrestled with for a long time. But a lot of our intuitions about that would say, I’m more likely to vote if I care about which way the outcome goes. If I think, “I really want this guy to win, and it’s going to be a disaster if this other guy wins.” In that kind of  situation, I’m more likely to vote, more like to be engaged. And in order to feel that way I have to know something about who those people are. So we see that if you go back in time and look at places where new newspapers open up in a town where people hadn’t had a newspaper before, people become more likely to vote. If you look at the introduction of radio, you see that where radio first opened up, that increased the number of people voting.

But the introduction of TV, interestingly, did not have the same effect. Gentzkow could measure this because different parts of the country got TV at different times.

GENTZKOW: What you see is places that got TV actually saw declines in voter turnout and political participation. And so you might think that’s sort of at odds with the general rule that more media seems to be associated with more turnout, or more information seems to be associated with more turnout. What you see if you dig a little deeper is I think the reason that TV had a different effect was what TV replaced was a lot of time that people were spending with other media, and in particular, newspapers and radio in the 1940s and 50s and 60s had much more coverage of politics than TV did. In the first years, TV newscasts were just 15 minutes long. Mostly, people were watching Westerns, and entertainment programs. So although it was a new medium, it actually had the effect of reducing the political information people were getting. And so consistent with all the other evidence, if you crowd out a lot of political information and people have less news, less information about the political process, then they vote less and are less engaged.

These days, of course, there’s plenty of political information on TV, with a flock of cable channels especially devoted to politics. Or should we say, devoted to political entertainment?

GENTZKOW: I think a lot of people would say there’s entertainment value to news. But I think that by itself kind of misses something important.

The important part, Gentzkow says, comes more from psychology than economics. He argues that we follow news events – a war, a drought, a celebration, whatever – in large part to make sense of our own lives.

GENTZKOW: There’s a lot of research in psychology about the importance of telling stories and building narratives for people. People like to look at their own lives as a story. They like to see kind of the arc of the challenges that they overcame and define themselves as a character in that story. And to me that makes a lot of sense of why we care so much about news, because if what I’m thinking about all the time is my own life story and my own role in it, then what’s happening in the world around me is the context that that story’s happening in.

MUSIC: Eleggua Productions, Sistema Mayoridad

MUSIC: Two Dark Birds; “Start All Over Again” (from Songs For the New)

To Jesse Shapiro, the news-as-entertainment idea is completely plausible:

JESSE SHAPIRO: I think we benefit from the news being entertaining and interesting, because that also causes us to become more informed than we would be if it were bland and uninteresting.

Fair enough. Let’s also shake off our modern myopia and look back in time to see where this craving came from.

MITCHELL STEPHENS: I think we come from a long line of people who had an intense itch to learn what was happening around them.

Mitchell Stephens is a professor of journalism at NYU. He’s written extensively on the history of news and news consumption.

STEPHENS: Well, there’s a lot of anthropological research which demonstrates that if you have a society, they have a way of finding news. So it seems to be basic to being human. And my explanation for that is that the hominids who were not news-hungry were less likely to survive. And the two things that probably were most significant in this news for survival were sex and violence. So I think we’re genetically disposed to pursue news, and also in some sense to pursue forms of sensational news.

Whether it’s genetic or not — personally, I’m always a little skeptical of evolutionary arguments like these — our demand, Stephens says, has hardly abated.

STEPHENS: I think very little of the news actually today is of practical value. For one thing, we don’t live in a society that has all that many threats encroaching upon us. Most of us live pretty safe lives. And most of us know where to find food in the supermarket. Most of us know where to look for romance, where to live our social lives. So I think a lot of the functions that news used to perform way back when in hunter-gatherer times, in preliterate societies, it’s no longer performing regularly. Yet, our itch to be aware, to know what’s going on around us, remains. And that itch expresses itself in tabloid newspapers, in silly television shows, in lists on Buzzfeed. One of the things journalism has always been is a form of entertainment, of diversion, of taking your mind off other things.

MUSIC: Crispy Bess: “What the Darn Heck” (from Oh Boy! More Filler!)

OK, so we consume news for entertainment value. We consume news in order to place ourselves in the story, see how we stack up. We consume news in order to make sense of the world around us – perhaps even for pro-social reasons, as my daughter and her friends argue. But let’s not discount another reason why we consume the news: pure personal utility.

DUBNER: So Levitt, describe for me your daily media diet. Which of the world’s leading newspapers do you read and which magazines and which TV news shows do you watch, etc.?

STEVE LEVITT: So I don’t read newspapers anymore unless they just appear in front of me.

Steve Levitt is my Freakonomics friend and co-author.

LEVITT: And indeed my total consumption of news more or less boils down to whenever I am incredibly bored and I can’t think of anything else to do, I go to CNN.com and just see what the headlines are. And then after I’ve finished that, I go to golfchannel.com and see what’s going on in the world of golf. And that’s my news.

DUBNER: And why don’t you consume more news? Is it because you don’t think it’s worthwhile? Is it because it’s not fun? Is it because you’ve got other things that are more important to do?

LEVITT: So I’m not interested in politics, and that’s one reason I don’t consume a lot of news. And I don’t have a political bent, so I don’t get excited about knowing what the right or the left thinks about some issue, and I don’t care about controversies in that way. So in the sense than CNN kind of reports everything, I don’t feel a whole lot of need to go out and get the different takes. So, in essence, I think I want to know if anything important happened so I can figure out if I should do something about it.

DUBNER: Give me an example of something important happening and whether you should do something about it.

LEVITT: So, for instance, if I read in the news that there was a global pandemic that was about to put all life in jeopardy, then I would know to lock my doors and shut my windows and cancel all my classes and try to stay inside, something like that. I’m still waiting for that one to happen.

DUBNER: Let me ask you this, Levitt. For people who do feel compelled to really follow the news in a way that you don’t, in a way that I less and less do, what do you think is the upside? What’s in it for them? Do they feel like they’re becoming better voters and citizens? Is it to kind of have a moral superiority over people like maybe you or me who don’t know everything that’s going on everywhere?

LEVITT: I certainly think that reading newspapers makes you seem smart. That people who read The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist magazine, and Time magazine, when you talk to them, they’re never short on “Oh, God, I just read this amazing article in The Times Magazine.” And I think that’s a very valuable thing. I mean I think that’s the best argument — I think that’s a really good argument for why someone should invest time reading newspapers.

DUBNER: So it’s got personal utility, yeah?

LEVITT: Yeah, it’s personal. I can’t think of any other reason really, any great reason other than personal utility for than reading newspapers. I mean, people can talk about the need to be informed and what not. But it gets very tricky to motivate being a news junkie on anything other than: you just like it.

MUSIC: Clay Ross, “Sixth City Waltz” (from Entre Nous)

It would help, of course, to hear from someone who produces news, not just consumes it.

JILL ABRAMSON: I think it’s perfectly OK to think of it as fun.

Jill Abramson is a former executive editor of The New York Times. She was fired last year, and she has no hesitation using that word.

ABRAMSON: There are a lot of people who prefer to use euphemisms of various types, but I spent my whole career telling the truth. So it doesn’t bother me to say I was fired, and it doesn’t bother me to be asked about it.

Abramson is still in the profession.

ABRAMSON: I’m a journalist. I teach a journalism class at Harvard, and I’m writing a book about the future of news.

And what’s her media diet?

ABRAMSON: For some reason, I have always had to read the New York Post in print everyday. And, like one of the first things that I look at is my horoscope. I’m Pisces, if you’re curious.

DUBNER: Is it pretty accurate generally, you find?

ABRAMSON: It’s uncanny! But obviously I read The New York Times like all day long — mainly on my iPad app. I luxuriate in the Saturday and Sunday print paper sections. I look at the Journal everyday, The Wall Street Journal. I read Politico, I read Mike Allen’s column every day. I read a lot of magazines.

DUBNER: What kind of magazines?

ABRAMSON: The New Yorker, The Atlantic. I have some, like, women’s fashion magazines in there. Allure.

DUBNER: Do you watch any Fox News?

ABRAMSON: I do. I do watch Fox News. I watch a little Fox News everyday. And it’s kind of a funny reason, but the gym where I work out, they have CNN and Fox, and for some reason the sound on CNN has been broken for almost two years.

DUBNER: OK, so it’s a kind of, so it’s kinda quasi-voluntary…

ABRAMSON: It’s forced, but I’ve come to value it.

Abramson believes a big part of why we consume the news is simply our appetite for a narrative, for a story. She, along with a lot of other people, got hooked on the podcast Serial last year, which reexamined an old murder case.

ABRAMSON: I was just reminded of the days when Charles Dickens used to publish his novels in serial form. And, there would be people standing, Londoners standing on the docks waiting for the latest chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop to be delivered because they were dying to know, like, is little Nell going to be all right? That’s part of the way we humans are wired. We love stories.

But journalism also serves a much larger function.

ABRAMSON: All right, I’m going to get all heavy on you now.

DUBNER: I’m going for the heavy.

ABRAMSON: It tracks back to the founders, and the First Amendment is first for a reason. They felt so passionately about the importance of the press and freedom of the press because they saw the press as the main tool in fighting unbridled, overly-centralized, tyrannical power, which they felt Britain had represented. So, it’s been the importance of the press informing the people and holding power accountable, is enshrined in the First Amendment and was seen as a way of making sure that this country stayed free.

MUSIC: Color Radio, “Ideas Splitting Atoms” (from Architects)

Abramson argues this importance has, in fact, grown over time.

ABRAMSON: Especially in today’s society, where you look at the corporate power and influence that’s been accrued, especially here in the United States, but globally too. And the resources you need as a journalist to really dig behind this armada of PR people and various screens of secrecy, it’s really the toughest kind of reporting there is. And after the financial meltdown in 2008, The Times — and I was very involved in this series — did a series called “The Reckoning,” where we really did try to hold specific individuals and institutions very specifically accountable for very specific wrongdoing in those cases. And it’s discouraging now, these years later, to see that the actual prosecution, for what seemed to me like egregious criminal acts in many cases, were either settled away or most people walked away. But I still think even if the political system fails and there aren’t immediate results, that there is value in raising people’s awareness and that that is the job of journalism.

DUBNER: I mean, I guess that is the central question here that we’re talking about, which is: is the belief that you plainly have held for a long time and still plainly hold, that the role of journalism is to—

ABRAMSON: Hold power accountable.

DUBNER: Yeah, exactly. And perhaps facilitate reform. At the very least create public awareness and so on. And yet, one might argue when it comes to campaign finance, that all the journalism in the world doesn’t equal one Supreme Court vote in a way, if you look at the reality of it, so—

ABRAMSON: It’s absolutely true.

DUBNER: I guess what I worry, or what I think, maybe, is that the idea that it’s righteous to stay informed about the news and therefore the reason that a lot of people do keep up with the news is to kind of morally assuage ourselves — to persuade ourselves maybe that we’re doing the right thing by being informed, so that we can, as readers, we can kind of tsk-tsk the corruption in Chinese politics even though it probably doesn’t affect my life at all. Or we can gnash our teeth and wring our hands every time Boko Haram kills another batch of children or something. Whereas it’s really not necessarily accomplishing anything for us, other than sort of entertaining ourselves in a way, making us sound informed perhaps. And that I wonder what the real value is to us, the users, consumers, readers.

ABRAMSON: Well, I mean, some of the value is utilitarian. I mean people value the idea of at least seeming informed even if they’re not very informed. They don’t want to go out to lunch and a conversation starts and not know what people are talking about. That is one practical reason.

DUBNER: Right, but I mean that’s almost a status, if you wanted to be reductive and maybe a little pejorative.

ABRAMSON: Well, I think that is one of the motivators.

DUBNER: And what about the notion that an informed populous makes better election decisions and so on, better civic decisions overall?

ABRAMSON: Well, it’s hard for even me to argue that. But now, I’m weakening; you have me weakening because I think right now, the news landscape is so siloed. And people are getting so much of their news and information from places that they agree with, that I’m not sure that many consumers get exposed to a full, rich palette of different takes on different issues that would really help them. I think a lot of news just confirms people’s prejudices.

MUSIC: Rob L, “Reasonably Priced”

Indeed, there is evidence to back this up — that the news landscape is siloed, and that many of us only visit the silos that give us the news we like. We talked about this a few years back with Dan Kahan.

DAN KAHAN: I’m a professor of law at Yale Law School.

Kahan is also a member of the Cultural Cognition Project. It uses empirical research methods to study how people’s values — their ideological predispositions — affect their perceptions of risk, and how they factor in scientific evidence. Consider the notion of climate change. Now, some people consider the risks grave, and others are skeptical. Kahan says you might think the difference is explained by how scientifically literate a person is.

KAHAN: If you thought that the problem is that people don’t know as much as scientists know, then you’d predict that as people know more about science, they’re going to become more concerned about climate-change risk. And that doesn’t happen. In fact, we found the opposite. So, as people become more science-literate, cultural polarization increases. If you have the kind of cultural predisposition that makes you skeptical of environmental risks, then as you become more science-literate, you’re even more skeptical. If you have the kind of cultural predisposition that makes you concerned about environmental risk, as you become more science literate you become even more concerned.

And the reason is, as Jill Abramson said, that we’ve all gotten pretty good at seeking out “news” that confirms our underlying beliefs. And the smarter you are, the better you are at finding news that confirms your biases. This is particularly interesting if you’re the one making the news and thinking about it as a product that you’re selling. If you’re trying to make the news more appealing — more entertaining — to whatever audience you’re selling to, with all their built-in biases, wouldn’t that inevitably make the news you produce more predictable? Which means that even though we began this conversation talking about the news as a vehicle of surprise and suspense, it may be that a lot of us don’t really want any surprise or suspense. We want to be told a story that matches the story we are already telling ourselves, about ourselves.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by WNYC Studios and Dubner Productions. Today’s episode was produced by Christopher Werth and mixed by Andrew Dunn, with help from Merritt Jacob. The rest of our staff includes Arwa GunjaJay Cowit, Greg Rosalsky, Alison Hockenberry, Jolenta Greenberg and Caroline English. If you want more Freakonomics Radio, you can also find us on Twitter and Facebook and don’t forget to subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever else you get your free, weekly podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Steve Levitt, Freakonomics co-author and William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago
  • Matthew Gentzkow, professor of economics at Stanford University
  • Jesse Shapiro, professor of economics at Brown University
  • Jill Abramson, visiting lecturer at Harvard University; former executive editor of The New York Times
  • Mitchell Stephens, professor of journalism at New York University
  • Dan Kahan, professor of law and professor of psychology at Yale Law School

RESOURCES