The Why and How of News Consumption

If you search through the Archives of this blog, you will not have to look very long before you find out that I am a fan of the ‘Freakonomics’ series of books.

I have reviewed ‘Freakonomics’, ‘Superfreakonomics’, ‘Think Like a Freak’ and ‘When to Rob a Bank’.

I had obviously heard of ‘Freakonomics’ before I first read the first book in January of this year. It was always one of those things I swore I would check out but didn’t until a sale at Audible led me to finally buy the first book.
The fact that I enjoy ‘Freakonomics’ so much is no surprise to me and really shouldn’t be to anyone who knows me really well. I love looking for motivations in why people do what they do or think a certain way. I’m a big fan of cause and effect, especially when it is cause and unintended effect.
At the end of ‘Think Like a Freak’ two episodes of the ‘Freakonomics Radio’ podcast were included. I was instantly hooked.

I don’t listen every week. Sometimes I am more interested in a subject and listen right away and other times it doesn’t grab me and I delete the episode without giving it a listen. There are even a few instances where something doesn’t appeal to me at first but I eventually have a change of heart and go back. The episode I’m going to discuss now falls under the first category.

The most recent episode of Freakonomics Radio deals with the question of why we follow the news.
There are several reasons given for why we follow the news and people such as former NY Times editor Jill Abramson are interviewed. The show argues that people watch the news more for entertainment and to feel better about ourselves. The idea being that we become more self righteous the more we believe we are informed.

The show also deals with one of the subjects that interests me quite a bit. The idea that we are becoming more and more a culture that searches for things that are easy for us to stomach. If you are a liberal you will get your news from liberal sites and networks that appeal to your ideology. If you are conservative you will get your news from websites and networks that appeal to your ideology.
Complicating the issue further is that the more information we receive on a given topic the more it tends to confirm our pre-established beliefs. The example given was that of global warming. If you are concerned about global warming the more science knowledge you acquire the more you’re concern is going to grow. If you are a skeptic of global warming the more science knowledge you gain the more you will become skeptical. Yet the perception of people who disagree with your global warming are some howless scientifically knowledgeable.

The problem as I see it is that we expect and hope that science in particular, out of all disciplines will give us a yes or no answer. We don’t like it when the answer that comes back is something like: “we’re not sure” or “we don’t know”. So when we deal with the ambiguous we dismiss the part of it that goes against our already held biases. Nobody reading this post, including the author has ever met anyone that is right all the time and about every subject. It is also true that nobody reading this post including the author has ever met someone who is completely free of bias.

The truth of the matter is that people don’t enjoy being proven wrong and love to be proven write. The news as it is currently structured is perfect to satisfy what we need. This is due to two large factors, obviously. The rise of the Internet and the Proliferation of cable news channels.

The Internet in particular is perfect for this kind of behavior. Google has algorithms that it uses to determine whether or not you are a liberal or a conservative. Here’s an easy test. Go to Google and search for BP.
If Google thinks you are a liberal the front page will be populated by search results relating to the oil spill and other environmental issues. If you are a conservative in the eyes of Google you will see investment opportunities and the like. You’re going to see what Google has guessed that you will want to see. And how many people look at page 10 or 20 of Google search results to find what they’re really looking for?

Ideas on the personalization and customization of the Internet for each user and why this is a problem are covered in many books the most often sited in books that I have read is ‘The Filter Bubble’ by Eli Pariser.
The truth is that the Internet filtering out things that make us uncomfortable happens so often and without much fanfair that most of us don’t even realize it happens. Until we see a friend share an article we think is stupid on their Facebook page and wonder either outloud or to ourselves how they can believe that nonsense.

Well, what happens when people with opposing viewpoints who only see things that confirm those beliefs come into contact with one another? Arguments, strife, namecalling, trolling and disharmony that’s what happens. As capable as the Internet is of bringing us together, it is just as capable of dividing us. That’s why I’d rather invent the wheel.

I have embeded this week’s ‘Freakonomics Radio’ below so that you can hopefully give it a listen for yourselves. I would be curious to hear what people think. When you listen to the show think about which of their ideas applies to you. If none of them do it would be interesting to find out what they missed.