The world is a big, messy, complex, and sometimes-scary place – and it’s often made to seem more scary than it really is, thanks to mainstream news media.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not some sort of tinfoil-hatted alt-truther who believes there are secret forces pulling the strings behind what we see and hear in the news. I know it for a fact.
News outlets need to generate revenue to survive (they’re not charities), and over time, the proven revenue generators have been bad news. The day Oscar Pistorius shot Reeva Steenkamp was a fantastic day for online news, and for online ad revenue – that’s the sort of market force that ends up shaping editorial policy.
News organizations are optimizing for what works, and unfortunately, what works is not good. They’re forced to give audiences less of what they need, and more of what they want.
What people want, it seems, is sensationalism. They want news that angers and upsets them, that gives them something to talk and argue about, that conforms to their biases and reminds them their opinion of the world is still valid. They want to be entertained, not informed – because real information is boring.
At some point, the content that news providers put out there stopped being informative. It stopped being information that applied to you, or information that you needed in order to make an informed decision. There’s almost nothing that you can take from a news website today and use to improve the world you live in.
For example, here’s the top-line news on News24.com right now:
This is what the largest and most popular news website in South Africa thinks I need to know today. None of it is relevant or useful to me.
- Police pursuing N1 City Mall robber, high alert at shopping centres – I’m not in the police. I don’t control their budgets or deployments, I have no involvement in shopping center security, and the only way this applies to me is if I go shopping at a mall – at which point the people who’s jobs it is to keep the mall safe, will do their job to the best of their ability.
- Helen Zille is a chief racist – ANC Western Cape – An empty statement from a political party. I don’t know Zille, I have nothing to do with either party (no say in their internal structures, no membership), and when it comes time to vote in a few years, I’ll cast my vote based on what the parties have actually done for me. News like this does nothing to sway my opinion.
- We will show you how the ‘soccer’ game is played – KZN’s ANC – more political noise. I’m not in the ANC, I’m not in KZN, I’m not attending that conference, or have any interest in its outcome. Even if I hopped a plane right now and showed up at the conference venue door, there’d be nothing I could do. Hell, even if I was in the KZN ANC itself, chances are I’d have no voice, owing to the fact that my career is not politics, and I’d have no decision-making ability.
- CONFIRMED: Mashaba sacked as Bafana coach – Zero relevance to me, since I don’t follow sports at all. But even to a sports fan, still zero relevance – hiring decisions are made by team management, not fans. Team managers are doing their jobs, and if there are better ways to do it, then a case can be made for change.
- The end of Everest as we know it? China plans to build a mega-resort on the mountain – Everest is literally a world away from me. Everything I know about Everest is thanks to movies, books and music – this news is irrelevant to me. If China does build a resort there (which will be interesting seeing as Everest is in Tibet, and the nations have a cold relationship), I’ll have zero say in how it’s designed, resourced, built or maintained. I definitely, as a South African, have less than zero input into any decision made by a Chinese firm.
I could go on – headlines about SA’s nuclear plan, an SPCA investigation into a rodent supplier, Hlaudi Motsoeneng mouthing off: none of this information is useful to me. I doubt it’s useful to most people, since most people are not in a position to do anything with this information.
Except get upset. The mall-robbers story is a great springboard for complaining about how South Africa is chronically unsafe and the police aren’t doing their jobs. The Zille story is the perfect fuel to stoke the continually-burning race war in our national discourse. The Everest story is Christmas to people who think nature should be left alone, and people (or the Chinese specifically) are evil for building things.
None of these stories leave you with anything constructive – you just come away feeling depressed, angry and hopeless. And then, most of the time, you do your friends the disservice of sharing that on social media, spreading the infection further. Worse if you believe that your Facebook likes are actually saving lives.
And if you’re like most people, you rationalize it by calling it “being informed”, and that it’s better to be informed, than ignorant. You think that being informed is very important, almost crucial to daily life, and that the news you’re reading is an accurate depiction of the state of things.
Except that it’s not. On top of being driven by what sells, news organizations occasionally employ very biased editors. Editors that would happily tarnish the reputation of their organization for the sake of running, say, a politically-motivated smear campaign.
- 28 Jan: Is FW de Klerk tutoring Mmusi Maimane?
- 29 Jan: We stand by our Maimane – de Klerk story
- 18 Feb: Mea culpa: We should have done better
- 19 Feb: MG editor apologises for report claiming Maimane took lessons from de Klerk
That was not news. That was a deliberate, blatant fabrication with no fact-checking, presented as news. Even if it had been true, what would you do with information that serves only to confirm your existing biases?
Imagine for a second that it was true, that Maimane was getting lessons from FW. If it was a problem, the DA has its own means of dealing with it. If it’s not a problem, the DA will have spun it to Maimane’s credit. In either case, on the outside, there’s nothing meaningful you could have contributed to the process.
If that’s what an editor is willing to put on the front page, in the middle of an election season, imagine what the editors are willing to do with the every day stories you read online. How many of those have been edited to provide the worst version of events? How many are actually just political hit-pieces disguised as news, aimed at discrediting a person, a party, or a part of society? How can you even tell the difference anymore?
And how many editors are just flat-out ignorant? Like the story of Andrew Kenny, a respected engineer and columnist who visited the Afrikaner town of Orania. His story shows the community in a positive light, and his editor decided not to run the story, since it might offend readers.
News that might offend readers? News is meant to be facts, right? Well-researched, well-documented, delivered responsibly, and if it upsets people, then that’s unavoidable – hell, it’s necessary. Being offended is a natural and healthy part of living in a civilized society – but that’s a whole other topic.
So that’s news, as of 2016. It’s either designed to generate revenue, slanted to an editor’s personal bias, or simply ignored because it doesn’t fit the outlet’s story. The information you really need (civics, opportunities, policies) are all obtained elsewhere, and any time you spend on a typical news website is probably (balance of probability) time spent consuming content that won’t have a net-positive effect on your health or wellbeing.
Which is what I built a Chrome extension to fix.
It’s still in its early stages. The concept is simple – if it sees a news website, it replaces it with that message above instead.
I’ve been using it for over a week now, and it’s already made a noticeable difference. I’ve clicked through from depressing-sounding headlines on my Facebook feed, only to be met with a relaxing cat. I’ve habitually opened up news websites in moments of boredom, hoping to find something new, and getting that gif instead.
It already feels like the news is leeching a lot less of my time and energy away from me. So much so, that I found the time (and mental clarity) to write this really long blog post, without feeling like the world is about to collapse on me at any moment.