Is watching the News a Terrible Idea?

The thing about peo­ple, is that we are ter­ri­bly sus­cep­ti­ble to a thing called confirmation bias. When we have an idea or opin­ion, even just a hunch, and we look for evi­dence to either con­firm or deny that notion, we have a ten­dency to pre­fer evi­dence which sup­ports our hypoth­e­sis than evi­dence which refutes it. This is why, for exam­ple, peo­ple can believe in such zany con­spir­acy theories. Gen­er­al­ly, if you start with a hypoth­e­sis and look for evi­dence prov­ing its truth, you will find it, no mat­ter the hypothesis.1 This is also why, I think, dif­fer­ent peo­ple given the same infor­ma­tion through the same news­me­dia, will arrive at wildly dif­fer­ent con­clu­sions.

Here’s my theory: It’s com­mon knowl­edge that the news gets things wrong. Head­lines are fre­quently mis­lead­ing, facts are missed, peo­ple are mis­quot­ed, etc. This is a fact of life and some of it is due to hon­est mis­takes by news­peo­ple but often it’s due to par­ti­san pol­i­tics or agen­das get­ting in the way of facts. The worst is in pol­i­tics when two news orga­ni­za­tions can take the same story and spin com­pletely dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives. Most peo­ple take this in stride and know to be skep­ti­cal of the most out­landish things they hear about in the news, espe­cially from less reli­able sources. The prob­lem is, how do peo­ple know what is out­landish or likely to be true, with­out a source of facts as the baseline? Fact check­ers can invest the time to fol­low infor­ma­tion to its source and deter­mine facts, but most peo­ple don’t have the time to fact check every news arti­cle or polit­i­cal sto­ry. Instead, we fact check sto­ries which seem false to us, and the arti­cle which seems false to us are those with which we already dis­agree. This is the con­fir­ma­tion bias at full effect.

The prob­lem is then, by con­sum­ing news, peo­ple will absorb sto­ries they agree with, and dis­pute sto­ries that chal­lenge them, and thereby con­tin­u­ally be rein­forced in their point of view. This is a prob­lem. If no mat­ter how much news we watch, all it will ever do is con­firm our already held beliefs, what are we actu­ally learn­ing? Are we com­ing to a bet­ter under­stand­ing of the world and refin­ing our belief sys­tems with new infor­ma­tion? Evi­dently not. Watch­ing news will only make the big­oted more big­ot­ed, the dis­af­fected more dis­af­fect­ed, the reli­gious more reli­gious, the sec­u­lar more sec­u­lar, and all the var­i­ous camps that Amer­i­cans fall under will only frac­ture fur­ther apart from each other.2 When we watch news sto­ries that we agree with, it’s proof that we are right, but when we watch news sto­ries that we dis­agree with, it’s proof of media bias.3 It seems to me that no mat­ter what we do, we’re all stuck as igno­rant trolls yelling at each other for imag­ined here­sies.

But here’s a thought, what if we abstained from news alto­geth­er. The vast major­ity of what peo­ple learn in the news is not rel­e­vant to our day to day lives and what is rel­e­vant we can learn through more word of mouth or more imme­di­ate sources. So, what if, for the sake of not acci­den­tally rein­forc­ing one’s own bias­es, we avoid anec­do­tal treat­ments of top­ics such as the news? If you want a bet­ter under­stand­ing of an issue, read first hand sources, and in depth books. If you need to keep up with mar­ket trends, read finan­cial sum­maries. If you need to learn about the world, trav­el, or read a book. Would doing this save us from poi­so­nous biases and allow peo­ple to dis­cuss issues from a more neu­tral point of view? Of course it would, because I’ve seen a lot of exam­ples where it seemed to hap­pen and I’ve suc­cess­fully debunked any coun­terex­am­ples.

  1. This is partly why scientific experiments generally need to be ‘falsifiable’ to be considered reliable. 
  2. Making this problem worse is the increasing trend of newsources to explicitly cater to specific points of view, doing the work of filtering contradictory information for the viewers convenience. 
  3. Funny that everyone believes in a media bias these days, but just can’t agree which way it’s biased! 

Last update: 15/07/2013

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