Stephen J. DUBNER: Checkity, check, check, check. Okay, we’re talking to Maia, Anya and Logan.
DUBNER: 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.
DUBNER: Wall Street Journal.
MAIA: Wall Street Journal.
And then the students write an essay about the article.
DUBNER: 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: It’s important to read current events because we’re in this little bubble at our school. 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: That’s really interesting. That’s like reading the news in order to be a better person. Logan, is that kind of how you see it too?
LOGAN: So our generation can make better decisions than the past generations have, maybe.
DUBNER: Interesting. 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: It’s just it’s part of the world that we live in and we want to know about it. Especially as we get older, we want to become a part of it more. We want to know our surroundings.
ANYA: Also, reading about the news may make people smarter. It helps you think about everything.
DUBNER: It gives you perspective, it sounds like you’re saying.
ANYA: It gives you perspective, which 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. That story and more, coming up, after this short break.
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Today’s question: why do we really follow the news?
Alexander 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 our previous 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.” Here’s Ely.
Jeff ELY: 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.
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: 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. 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 generate suspense about what they’re going to tell you after the commercial break, but without fully revealing it. 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 trying to be informed.
DUBNER: I find it very berating to hear you say this, because it jibes with my view of what news is and why people consume news. We 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. 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: Absolutely, there’s a view that certain transformation of news into entertainment has been a great downfall of civic society, but that blames the news as opposed to the lack of interest in news when it’s not entertaining. It would be great to collect some data 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 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 drama and entertainment element of primaries is a contributor to a more informed public.
DUBNER: 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. 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? What does it say about the incentives to follow along the news, and the incentives to vote?
FRANKEL: Economics poses something of a paradox: we say 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 do vote. Why do I vote? Why do I care? 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. I’m an economist. I do listen to the policies. But I’m also engaged with the horse race aspect of it. That’s the fun part. The policy part is the eating your vegetables part. The treatment of news as entertainment, and bringing this horse race aspect in, 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: 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: If that’s the case, that you’re viewing a certain kind of news as large part entertainment, if not primarily entertainment, can a person like me, or anyone listening to this program, acknowledge that politics is essentially a sport, or at least some phases of politics? And if I consider it less interesting than another sport that I’d rather watch — a football match, for instance — I can 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 whether 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 [to] know about the candidates, 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 [to] be more informed about policies.
ELY: 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: That’s perhaps a deep question. 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. 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 more debatable 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.
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 overwhelming by this point, that overall that the more people consume news, especially news about politics, the more likely they are to vote.
That’s Gentzkow. He’s at Stanford University.
GENTZKOW: Why people vote is a mystery that people have wrestled with for a long time. But 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 situation, “I’m more likely to vote, more like to be engaged.” In order to feel that way, I have to know something about who those people are. 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 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. You might think that’s 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 the reason that TV had a different effect was what TV replaced was time people were spending with other media. 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. Although TV was a new medium, it actually had the effect of reducing the political information people were getting. Consistent with all the other evidence, if you crowd out political information, 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 I say, devoted to political entertainment?
GENTZKOW: People would say there’s entertainment value to news. But that, by itself, 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 the arc of the challenges that they overcame and define themselves as a character in that story. That makes a lot of sense of why we care so much about news. 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.
Okay, so where does that craving come from, to place ourselves in the story? We’ll get to that right after the break. We’ll also hear from one more economist, Steve Levitt, about his media diet:
Steven LEVITT: I don’t read newspapers anymore unless they appear in front of me.
And we’ll hear from Jill Abramson, the former top editor of The New York Times:
Jill ABRAMSON: For some reason, I have always had to read the New York Post in print everyday. 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!
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Jesse Shapiro is an economist at Brown. He frequently collaborates with Matt Gentzkow, whom we heard from earlier. They often study the media. To Shapiro, the news-as-entertainment idea is completely plausible:
Jesse SHAPIRO: We benefit from the news being entertaining and interesting because that 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 N.Y.U. He’s written extensively on the history of news and news consumption.
STEPHENS: There’s anthropological research which demonstrates that if you have a society, they have a way of finding news. It seems to be basic to being human. The hominids, who were not news-hungry, were less likely to survive. Two things that were most significant in this news for survival were sex and violence. We’re genetically disposed to pursue news, and 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: Very little of the news 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. 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. 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. 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.
Okay, 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: 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.?
LEVITT: I don’t read newspapers anymore unless they appear in front of me.
That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author.
LEVITT: 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 see what the headlines are. After I’ve finished that, I go to golfchannel.com and see what’s going on in the world of golf. That’s my news.
DUBNER: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 you think are more important to do?
LEVITT: I’m not interested in politics, and that’s one reason I don’t consume a lot of news. 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. I don’t care about controversies in that way. In the sense than CNN reports everything, I don’t feel a whole lot of need to go out and get the different takes. In essence, 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: 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 are 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. People who read The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist magazine, and Time magazine, they’re never short on “God, I just read this amazing article in The Times Magazine.” That’s a very valuable thing. That’s a really good argument for why someone should invest time reading newspapers.
DUBNER: It’s got personal utility, yeah?
LEVITT: It’s personal. I can’t think of any other reason really any great reason other than personal utility for than reading newspapers. 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.
It would help, of course, to hear from someone who produces news, not just consumes it.
ABRAMSON: It’s perfectly okay to think of it as fun.
Jill Abramson is a former executive editor of The New York Times. She was fired last year, and 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, you know, obviously I read The New York Times all day long. Mainly on my iPad app. I luxuriate in the Saturday and Sunday print paper sections. I look at The Wall Street Journal everyday. 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 women’s fashion magazines in there. Allure.
DUBNER: Do you watch any Fox News?
ABRAMSON: I watch a little Fox News everyday. It’s a funny reason, but the gym where I work out, they have CNN and Fox. For some reason, the sound on CNN has been broken for almost two years.
DUBNER: It’s quasi-voluntary…
ABRAMSON: It’s a 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. There would be Londoners standing on the docks waiting for the latest chapters of The Old Curiosity Shop to be delivered because they were dying to know,”Is little Nell going to be all right?” That’s the way we humans are wired. We love stories.
But journalism also serves a much larger function.
ABRAMSON: All right, I’m gonna get all heavy on you now.
DUBNER: I’m going for the heavy.
ABRAMSON: It tracks back to the founders. The First Amendment is first for a reason. They felt 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. 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.
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. The resources you need as a journalist to really dig behind this armada of PR people and various screens of secrecy, it’s the toughest reporting there is. 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 specifically accountable for specific wrongdoing in those cases. It’s discouraging now, years later, to see that the actual prosecution — for what seemed to me like egregious criminal acts in many cases —were either settled or most people walked away. But even if the political system fails and there aren’t immediate results, there is value in raising people’s awareness and is the job of journalism.
DUBNER: 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: Exactly. And, perhaps, facilitate reform. At the very least, create public awareness and so on. 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.
ABRAMSON: It’s absolutely true.
DUBNER: Maybe 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 morally assuage ourselves, to persuade ourselves maybe that we’re doing the right thing by being informed. We can 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. It’s not necessarily accomplishing anything for us other than entertaining ourselves in a way, making us sound informed, perhaps. I wonder what the real value is to us, the users, consumers, readers.
ABRAMSON: Some of the value is utilitarian. 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 that’s almost a status, if you wanted to be reductive and maybe a little pejorative.
ABRAMSON: That is one of the motivators.
DUBNER: What about the notion that an informed populus makes better election decisions and better civic decisions overall?
ABRAMSON: It’s hard for even me to argue that. But now you have me weakening because right now, the news landscape is so siloed. People are getting so much of their news and information from places that they agree with that I’m not sure many consumers get exposed to a full, rich palette of different takes on different issues that would really help them. A lot of news confirms people’s prejudices.
Indeed, there’s 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; 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. That doesn’t happen. In fact, we found the opposite. As people become more science-literate, cultural polarization increases. If you have the 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 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 — or, maybe I should put it in quotes, “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.