On Being Informed

Increasingly, the picture of our society as rendered in our media is illusionary and delusionary: disfigured, unreal, out of touch with reality, disconnected from the true context of our life. It is disfigured by celebrity, by celebrity worship, by gossip, by sensationalism, by denial of our societies’ real condition and a political and social discourse that we—the press, the media, the politician and the people—are turning into a sewer.

Carl Bernstein

I don’t consume mainstream news, as a rule. I don’t visit any major newspaper websites, I don’t listen to news radio and I certainly don’t watch any news on TV. There are many people who would, based on this evidence, scold me for my lack of awareness, citing some obvious duty of mine to be informed about the world around me. No one likes an uninformed hermit and especially not one with strong opinions on matters of social importance. Those people would be mistaken, though, because I am rather well-informed, even if my methods of becoming so are not immediately obvious.

It’s popular to lament the dismal state of the mainstream media, but few people take the time to understand why there is such rampant inanity, alarmism, incompetence, and bias throughout popular media. That’s not to say that it’s particularly difficult to find or understand the reasons, but simply that most people don’t bother asking why. So why do I avoid direct consumption of mainstream media as a general rule? There’s too much noise.

In engineering there is the concept of a signal-to-noise ratio, which simply tells you how much good or true information (signal) you are receiving in relation to how much distracting or bad information is coming along with it (noise). When there is a high level of noise, it can become difficult to sort out the signal without large amounts of effort, potentially sacrificing accuracy in the process. The mainstream media are noisy because their incentives require it from them, not because they are particularly malicious or uninformed.

A news outlet’s primary motivation, like all other institutions, is to survive. In order to survive, they depend on people consuming their products as much as possible, which, in the news business, means every day. News outlets are thus in the business of disseminating intriguing information that will keep consumers coming back on a very frequent basis. This incentive toward intrigue does not always overlap with qualities like accuracy, impartiality, relevance, or even truth. It is, by nature and due to no nefarious motives, that news outlets deliver stories that are at [many] times inaccurate, biased, irrelevant and simply untrue. They do this for their own survival.

“But it’s not all bad!”, you protest. That’s true. It’s not all bad, and some news outlets are notable for higher signal-to-noise ratios, but no single source has all-quality content, and not all quality content can be found from a single source. In addition, different types of news are relevant for different people. I am not at all interested in so-called human interest stories, nor those about murders, celebrities, diets, or sports. I am interested in some tech industry news, stories about large natural disasters or worldwide strife, relevant health-related news, and original and thoughtful commentary on economics and political theory. Instead of combing through myriad newspapers and websites every day looking for only those stories that both interest me and seem to be of a high quality, I employ filters.

My filters are mostly of the human variety and I don’t pay any of them. There are many people who make it their work to link to and write commentary on news stories relevant to their interests, so I take advantage of their work to gather a sample of stories that range across a decent subset of my own interests. One of the most important practices to follow when relying on others’ commentary and selections, though, is a sober and realistic accounting for bias. Everyone has bias and it will be reflected in their work. Your understanding and views will thus be colored by your filters’ biases if you do not regularly account for them. That said, it is generally simple work to detect and account for the bias of an individual, whereas it is often much more difficult to do the same for an entire news organization.

Through many small adjustments to my filters over a long period of time, I have reached a point where most of the news I care about reaches me quickly and efficiently with little effort on my part. I do agree that it can serve one well to stay informed about relevant issues in society, but I think that each person has to decide which issues and stories are important to them and to make adjustments to their consumption accordingly. I do think, however, for the reasons mentioned above, that it is often wasteful and possibly foolish to use the mainstream media as one’s primary news source, and thoroughly irresponsible to use just a single source.

Originally published:
January 02, 2010

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