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.


I cannot believe how disturbing Jill Abramson voice is. Her combination of sing-song and vocal fry felt like a cheese grater in my ear.

Marine S.

Stephen, you make great podcasts, but please take into account the effect of the voice of people you interview. The voice of the woman who used to work for the NYT was excruciating. I could not listen the podcast any longer.


Interesting podcast. Surprised Neil Postman and his book "Amusing Ourselves to Death" wasn't mentioned



Hey Something,

I just finished AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, and you're right, it dovetails with this episode perfectly.

To Dubner and staff,

I loved this episode! But I've got to say that the one news report that actually changed my life and got me to go out and try and do something was the reporting on the conflict at East Ramapo (Brian Lehrer's and This American Life's), and that was news that was VERY UNPLEASANT to hear.

Tom P

Here's another reason to listen to the news: if the world is a vastly complicated system of interconnected events, perhaps the only way to make sense of it and try to figure out how to navigate it (whether as an individual or as a business) is to attend to the variety and to try to determine the relationship between disparate events. That feels like why I do it: the world is a mystery, and attending to the news helps me get one step closer to solving it.

Sandeep Sai

I am an admirer of the revelations made in these podcasts. I have also bought the book "freakonomics", long ago.
I could not easily grasp the accent of some of the people who come in your podcasts as they are interviewed. I would request you to keep in mind the international appeal and users of your podcasts.


Interesting podcast, but very sad if that is true - is it because the USA is a continent totally removed from the rest of the world?. News around the world should be informative and not made into entertainment as it is done here in the U.S. - everything has to be sensationalized.
Listen to euronews or BBC news and get the 'straight facts'

Tom P

But this isn't "news," it's entertainment, and part of the appeal for a native audience is the wit and the pace. I'm all for globally accessible content, but I wonder if you would consider getting a podcast app that allows you to slow the audio down to 3/4 pace as an option?


Probably my least least favorite episode. There's no angle here that seemed "freak" enough. Isn't this what everyone assumes, that we just do it for entertainment / status and it has no practical utility? Bread and circuses?

And no mention of civil rights, relations of people, ideals.

"The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events."

Following the news isn't going to help us directly and instantly or even consciously. If we don't follow what is socially accepted, what is socially understood, how do we survive? You keep hearing the nonsense that we don't have to "worry about survival" as much. We have to worry about social survival. Our evolution is more removed from a concern of biological survival and into the more abstract social strata.

News (micro or macro) is how we build strong families and strong communities, share ideals, beliefs, and be accepted amongst peers. We're navigating our social environment.


Rob T

Industry newspapers are read with great interest by members of that industry. It seems to point out that the more relevant the news the closer attention we pay to it. Big news stories of significance aware avidly followed if they have real relevance. The financial meltdown affected many people profoundly. In my industry Medicare reimbursement, about as boring a subject as you can get. Is followed in detail because of its "proximity" to my interests. My 2 cents.


If you hadn't heard, TV, Newspapers, and magazines are dead. The reason for that is too often they are fact-checked and proven false. The Internet is actually shining a light on the self-serving agendas of corporate-owned media.

I'm stunned at the suggestion of equivalence between people who agree that climate change is caused by humans and those who deny it. The science at least 93% on the side that global warming is caused by human activity.

I'm also stunned by the suggestion that information bias is more pronounced the more people learn about a subject. Science doesn't care what you believe. On the other side there are only interest groups like the Tobacco and Chemical industries that create false studies to support their claims or refute their opponents.

This completely flies in the face of reason. I fell in love with the book Freakonomics, but listening to your podcasts chips away at my positive impression.


R. Michael Litchfield

Interesting story right up until the interview with Jill Abramson. She seems like a smart, insightful woman but she also famously has one of the most annoying and distracting voices on the planet. After the first thirty seconds of her speaking I literally could not hear anything else in the podcast. There may be "faces for radio" but she has a 'voice for print'.


I guess that goes to prove that the medium is the message. We're all complaining about Jill Abramson's voice, but she had great things to say. And that goes to the point of the episode. News comes through broadcast media, which is used for entertainment. That's why TV news is so shallow and televised debates are a spectacle of who got in the best zinger against whom.


Great episode, like so many! But I agree with some commentors, Mrs. Abramson's way of speaking made it difficult for me to follow her thoughts and ideas...


The most recent GOP debates on Fox really hammered home the idea that political reporting is just for entertainment these days.


And Donald Trump is following in the genre of Morton Downey Jr. and Jerry Springer.


This was a good podcast, although I think it let the news off the hook a little too much. The basic assumption that news is something that informs people was not sufficiently questioned I think. It sort of got there in the end, but I think that's a key point.

Anyway, this podcast also raised the question about why anyone votes, from the perspective of economics. To me this raised a lot of similar questions, but most strongly 'why does anyone sign up to fight in war'? There is a similar argument in that any one soldier isn't going to make a difference on their own, but the personal cost of fighting is much more than voting. I'd be interested in an episode that explored that question.

John Pettus

Matt- As a former soldier and a news entrepreneur, I would be very interested in a discussion of that, too.

For myself, it was all about a sense of duty to give back after having been quite privileged growing up. I enlisted a year after college, which was 30 days before 9/11. I spent 2 years enlisted and 8 years as an officer. Did 2 tours in Iraq.

There are really 2 questions. Why do people sign up? and Why do you fight when you're in the Army? The second is the easier and better understood. You fight for your buddies next to you, and your country more broadly. This gets slightly complicated when you're in a war that is not remotely in the national interest, but when you enlist, you make an oath and part of that oath means being a part of something larger than yourself, and giving up the civilian right to give everyone the finger and do your own damn thing. So once you're in, you're in and you obey orders. You get out when you can, if you want to.

The more interesting question is the one you raised about who decides to take the plunge. I can tell you from experience that there is a spectrum of people who do it for patriotic reasons and those who do it for economic reasons. I'd be very interested to see what that distribution is, broken down by gender, geography, officer/enlisted, age and prior occupation.

But the bottom line is that for many people it's not an economic or rational decision. It's highly emotional for a lot of people.


Chris powell

Dear freakonomics

Enjoying the most recent episode but I have an idea for something in your show. After listening to an episode of your own podcast which noted the work behavioural insights unit in the Uk, I wondered if there were any evidence about voting patterns in relation to closeness to payday. In the UK we have now moved to a voting date of first Thursday in May every 5 years, and I wonder if this is better for the right wing parties as I think people tend to be paid at the end of the month by salary, and at the time of voting they will have more of their monthly pay packet still available. I realise their may be limited evidence for this but I know colloquially that in the leisure sector in which I work spending has a definite monthly rhythm, and wondered if voting and say charitable giving, or civic interactions followed similar patterns.

Anyway love the show

Chris, UK