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.


That voice is the worst thing I have ever heard in my life.

Mel Olson

Belts are medically dangerous and uncomfortable for the wearer!?! Who is Mr. Dubner talking about, Scarlett O'Hara? Suspenders are constraining and binding; the very criticisms that he hurls at belts. Belts rarely break but suspenders often, dare I say constantly, "spring undone" as one moves throughout the day. When my grandfather died I was left his many suspenders. Out of love and loyalty to Grandpa I made the valiant attempt to wear them. Suspenders are uncomfortable. One can't count on them to do the job of keeping one's pants up especially if any movement is required though out the day. Others can "twack" the wearer with suspenders that cannot be done with a belt. I am 6'2" and 195 lbs in relatively fit condition. Suspenders continue to be a solution for those who are so big that no belt is large enough belt for them. This premise of this episode is akin to "Cars are stupid - the horse and buggy is superior".


not particular

In my view of the founding or prime causes: holding any power that be publicly accountable by using information outlets, law and constitutions, never did / does / will warrant mass slaughter, be that for seccession, regime change, civil war, revolution, liberation or freedom.

So in my view something went very wrong with the freedom of speech then enshrined etc to date. I don't believe that was the way to win any such thing, and no doubt nor did many other people at that time.