Why Do We Really Follow the News? (Ep. 215)

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(photo: Garry Knight)

(photo: Garry Knight)

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. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) The gist: there are all kinds of civics-class answers for why we pay attention to the news — but how true are those answers? Could it be that we read about war, politics, etc. simply because it’s (gasp) entertaining?

This episode is a quasi-followup to last week’s, which was called “How to Create Suspense.” It featured a discussion about a research paper called “Suspense and Surprise” by the economists Jeffrey Ely, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica. “We view the construction and the development of suspense and surprise and other aspects of entertainment as basically optimally and economizing on a scarce resource, which is the ability to change someone’s beliefs,” Ely told us.

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. That’s what we mostly talked about in the last episode – movies, novels, also sports. But then the conversation turned to suspense and surprise in the context of the news:

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.

But that’s not the way these economists see the news. This leads us into a wide-ranging conversation that asks a basic question: why do we really follow the news? Among the voices you’ll hear:

+ A certain Anya Dubner, 13, and her friends Maia and Logan, discussing what they learn from their current-events unit at school.

+ Steve Levitt, whose personal media diet is, shall we say, utilitarian.

+ Jill Abramson, a former executive editor at The New York Times, who is writing a book about the future of news-gathering.

+ Matthew Gentzkow, a Stanford economist who, along with the Brown economist Jesse Shapiro, has written several papers about the intersection of the markets and media.

+ Mitchell Stephens, a journalism and communications professor at NYU and author of A History of News and Beyond News: The Future of Journalism.

+ Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, who’s also a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, which seeks to explain how we come to hold the beliefs we hold — and how our consumption of news is a big part of that. (Kahan was also featured in an earlier Freakonomics Radio episode, “The Truth is Out There…Isn’t It?”)

I am eager to hear what you think of our treatment of this topic.

David T.

May I just echo the other comments that Jill Abramson's voice does not below on any media other than print. Not to be petty, but could Freakonimics please vet future interviewer's so that their voices do not cause your listeners to pull over and abandon their vehicles in fear of hearing that voice on their radio again? Perhaps a careful editing and a Steve's majority of paraphrasing is in order?

Love the podcast but place accept this as some loving criticism from a fan that wants that tonal voice out of my head.


I often appreciate the perspective you bring to issues. But this episode was a huge disappointment. First, why is the question posed as either-or: is it not possible to be informed and entertained (or at least occasionally teased) simultaneously? And the examples are so contrived: so Dubner hasn't yet read new about a coming pandemic upon which he can act. Did he get a swine flu vaccine? Did HIV just pass him by with no impact? Reading about Boko Haram has no relevance to me personally? Well, what if the President suddenly proposes to send our sons and daughters to Nigeria to risk their lives in conflict with that group? If one's worldview is so short-sighted as to only be able to react to immediate threats, then we are doomed to forever putting out one fire after another without ever getting to the underlying cause of the phenomenon.

Perhaps this podcast was simply about confirmational bias. Could there be a better example than the faux experiment about climate change attitude? Anyone can erect a ridiculous null hypothesis, a straw man, and tear it down. But that does not prove the alternative hypothesis. In this extraordinarily poor example was there any control, e.g., for underlying economic interest in the status quo, attitude toward collective action versus individual action, etc., etc. No: the whole exercise seems to have been conjured to "prove" the point that actual knowledge is unimportant. If so, why should anyone listen to this podcast? You've convinced me to take it off my Stitcher list.



People are reading news, so they can change the topic of conversation or change the course of conversation when someone at work comes to gossip to them and they don't want to participate in these gossips.

Philip Vitale

While I certainly concur with the premise that news is largely entertainment, something I have believed to be true (since I have lived since the 1940's), I was surprised that you didn't even mention the fake comedy news programs: "The Daily Show," "The Colbert Report" and "Last Week Tonight" that contend that they are "fake" news and the goal is to make us laugh. Yet these satirical news programs have done more to advance the cause of real journalism since the beginning of the 21st century than all the Pulitzer Prize winning journals laid end to end. But that's my opinion. In addition, if we didn't listen, watch or read the news everyday, we would have no idea what those comedians were talking about nor would we fully understand the issues when we did get a piece of earth shattering journalism that refers to past news events. (BTW I had no problem with Jill Abrahmson. She's smart and articulate but maybe she didn't go to radio finishing school.)



Clearly the news we watch is much different than the news we read. News that is televised is the far more obvious form of entertainment as words are accompanied with images that are projected into our brains. And there's a reason why the majority of news anchors are attractive people.

Personally I prefer to read more these days as it removes a lot of the sensationalism and just presents the facts. I feel like every time I turn on CNN or FOX there's some "BREAKING NEWS!" story that I just have to know about, and can only hear it from the lips of some gorgeous (via plastic surgery), skinny woman. Just give me a compilation of interesting, relevant stories - preferably in written form - and let me make up my own mind about them.

The only upside to televised news is that it can present topics would otherwise be ignored by the masses.

Curtis Densmore

Can you please coach your guests on avoiding vocal fry? Asking them to talk a little bit louder would probably fix it. Jill Abramson probably has the worst I've ever heard. I can't believe someone with such a successful media career can have such low self-awareness. I thought she was doing it just to annoy me. By the way, Dubner has a great voice. It's very reassuring.

Jim O'Donnell

Hey guys, great show and all the usual kudos. Blah blah.

As a news junkie myself I have course felt compelled to comment on your show about why we consume news.

A few things:

First, I think in a number of ways you did nail it. In thinking about myself and the consumption of news I do consume it in part as entertainment. I also consume it in part to place myself in a larger world context. I also like to be informed and also to appear informed so that I can easily and intelligently engage in conversation with my peers. A large part of my news consumption however… Perhaps the largest… Comes from my desire to make the world a better place. As an activist I feel that the better informed I am the better I am able to help other people.

Second, I am a little surprised to hear Dubner say something like why should I care about Yemen… Or why should I care about Boco Haram.... Given the power and influence America wields in the world these things have a direct impact on us. Take Yemen, where our tax dollars and military equipment made in America is being used in that war. Part of the reason the war is going on in the first place is the unexpected consequences of America's predator war there. When the twin towers were attacked on 9–11 so many people could not understand why that would happen but they could not understand because they hadn't paid any attention to what was going on in other parts of the world. America wheels enormous power and doesn't always use it in the best ways. By knowing how America wheels it's power and where, when things like 9–11 happen Americans will have a better understanding of how we somewhat bring these things on ourselves.

Third, I do agree that media has become compartmentalized and that many people only look for what they already believe. But saying that is fraught with difficulty isn't it? I mean, I watch FOXNews on occasion even though I don't agree with the message they are trying to drive home. But when you see someone deliberately miss informing you you're less likely to give them much attention. And FOX is certainly trying to mis-inform, not just inform from a different perspective.

And that's another problem isn't it? Several different studies have shown that well FOXNews watchers consume a lot of news, they are the least informed among the general population. FOXNews is both entertainment and propaganda. My father for instance, an avid FOXNews fan, still believes that Iraq attacked the World Trade Center's and that nuclear bombs were found in Iraq. And this is a guy who consumes news 8 to 10 hours a day.

Which gets to my fourth and final point. I was very surprised that in your episode you did not discuss the law that we still have on the books in this country but that has not been enforced since the early 80s. That is, the fairness doctrine. A discussion of the fairness doctrine would be an excellent episode for you guys to make. Here is a law that generally worked. And in my study of media history probably resulted in a better informed America. Of course nothing is perfect but this was a good step.

Since the fairness doctrine has generally been ignored over the past 40 years we have seen news media go from partial entertainment to near full entertainment. We have also seen this silo – ing of information that you speak about. In my opinion, bringing back the fairness doctrine...updated to take into account the internet age of course... would help to solve this issue of people only looking for what already supports their beliefs.

But this silo-ing of the news media has also had a negative impact on even journalists who consider themselves in the middle and very balanced. Because, instead of feeling that they can dive into and investigate deeply an issue and then tell a honest story, there is instead the appearance of balance by presenting both sides of a discussion as if they both had equal legitimacy.

This was best shown when it came to climate change. We saw both the scientific and the denier camps treated for many years as if they were both equal and legitimate. This kind of false balance is a result of journalists hoping to appear as if they are squarely in the middle on issues. But the result is a less informed and more confused populace.

News consumption is done for many reasons and seems to me to be very individual in nature. But I think we have a big problem in our country right now considering that we allow certain parties to go beyond the right of free speech and deliberately misinform their viewers.

Anyway, great show.




Perhaps you should try reading history as well as news. Those wars were going on for a thousand years before there even was a United States.


While I think you found some interesting angles, this episode (and the preceding one) lacked the punch of most Freakonomics topics. One aspect of the history of broadcast news I think would have been helpful to frame its development is the fact that the network news has transformed from a costly public service to a profit center. This historical nuance seems to have been lost to the brilliance of Murrow and Cronkite, but Congress and the FCC originally mandated the broadcast of nightly news during primetime. I think Abramson touched on the origins of this with the founding fathers' belief that a free press was critical to battle tyranny and have an informed electorate. So I think it is interesting that the TV news used to be something to fulfill a requirement while entertainment programming paid the bills and now the news is a driver of profits for many networks. I think that is pretty telling that news is entertainment.

Anyhow, I think the TV news today has devolved into political theater and a choose-your-own-flavor of rhetoric mentality, not to mention the fact that the networks use any excuse to label something "breaking news" in order to sell ads. Meanwhile, the true journalists are struggling for work since nobody reads the paper any more and the fair and unbiased TV news outlets are underfunded and can't compete with the general public's desire to be spoonfed the same narrow view they already possess (to Dubner's final point).



I spend a lot of time following the news and I tried to figure out if it was for entertainment... Thing is, I just spent the weeks on vacation abroad and completely stopped listening / reading about current event, and it was kind of a relief. I also didn't check my work emails. So I'd say it's not about entertainment for me, more of a duty--a civic one at that.


Jill has the worst fry I've ever heard in my life, so incredibly infuriating. Couldn't finish listening to the rest of the frycast.


I was quite disappointed by this podcast, I found this very shallow, I usually enjoy your stuff.

I was disappointed to hear that your perspective is that nobody really cares about the severity of the acts of Boko Haram, the Chinese economy or wars around the world, this sort of news helps me create empathy with many of my refugee clients, it also informs me of how to best allocate the money I put aside to foreign aid organisations.

Even if you don't work directly with refugees, what if your were to meet one? It would help to reduce your ignorance during conversation with them. We should be aiming toward being global citizens and not assuming that our lives would always be safe, I disliked this assertion.

Why was there no comparison between commercial and non-commercial, independent sources of news? Are there no sources of this in the US? I avoid the sensationalist sources of news, and find government funded or community news to inform me and to get to point of what is happening to the world.

The kids had the best attitude to news and the adults had the most narcissistic views.


John McIntyre

The reason that many of us choose to follow the news is the same reason that we follow Freakonomics; intellectual curiosity. Whether it is news about the events in Syria or a radio episode on “The Dangers of Safety,” people want to understand more about the world in which we live.


I had to come on here just to say how horrible Jill Abramson's voice was. I would have had to fire her too. Worst vocal fry I've ever heard. Congratulations!


This podcast was interesting to say the least. The fact that these teenagers are talking about today's current events in the classroom and having to write essays on them, opens their eyes on how not only america but the world is changing. I go home after school everyday and turn on the news. Once you get past the countless top stories, things go political most of the time. For me, This is why I watch the news. To catch up on politics. Other than that, I don't really listen to what reporters have to say..

This comment was for a school assignment :)