Are you wasting your time watching the news?
How much time do you spend following the daily news? Some people pay no attention; others watch a half-hour TV news show every day; yet others scour a range of Internet sources, looking for different angles on breaking stories. Some may devote a couple of hours daily to keeping up with the latest stories.
Some years ago, I did a study of the Rwandan genocide, in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed in just a few months in 1994 in the African country of Rwanda. My aim was to look at tactics used by the perpetrators to reduce outrage over their actions, so I read comprehensive accounts of the genocide. I tracked down a dozen or so books, found various articles and watched some videos. Prior to this study, I had heard about the genocide in news reports, but after studying it in some depth years later, I realised that I hadn’t really understood much about it — and it was far worse than I had imagined.
The studies of the Rwandan genocide led me to some related writings about wars in central Africa, especially in the Congo (officially the Democratic Republic of the Congo). I was astounded to discover that millions of people had died. I didn’t remember hearing much about that. Some sources called this the First African World War. It was salutary to remember that the so-called First World War was primarily a European war.
This experience got me thinking. During the 1990s, I had probably spent 30 minutes per day consuming the news, primarily by reading newspapers, a total of 180 hours. Would I have been better informed by instead spending those 180 hours reading authoritative studies of important world events? I think so. Careful studies are seldom very current. After all, as more information becomes available, it’s possible to write a more definitive and thoughtful analysis of events and their meaning and significance. So what’s the advantage of having the latest news?
Biases in the news
Western news reporting is systematically biased in a number of ways, so following the news gives a highly distorted view of the world. Bias in world news is especially important because few people have personal knowledge about events in other countries. Think about the wars in central Africa, with millions dead, but little coverage in western media. Other conflicts received disproportionate attention. The conflict in Israel-Palestine, with some 5000 deaths since 1990, receives vastly more coverage. Why should it be so?
The answer is provided by Virgil Hawkins in his important book Stealth Conflicts. He analyses attention given to conflicts since the end of the cold war. He starts by enumerating the most deadly conflicts – such as those in the Congo, Angola, Burundi, Liberia and Algeria – on down to far less deadly ones such as Israel-Palestine. Then he examines attention given to the different conflicts by four groups: governments, media, non-government organisations, and academics.
One of Hawkins’ conclusions is that most coverage and attention is concentrated on a few chosen conflicts, such as Bosnia in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s, while most of the others escape attention: they occur by stealth. He says there appears to be no correlation between how deadly a conflict is and how much attention it receives from any of the four groups. Academics, who you might expect would have the opportunity to study the full range of deadly conflicts, are swayed by agendas set by governments and the mass media. Even human rights organisations are pushed to follow these same agendas: in order to obtain funding from governments, foundations and the public, they need to address problems that others think are important. There are many honourable exceptions, but according to Hawkins the overall trends are clear. Wars and deaths in Africa, especially south of the Sahara, are almost invisible so far as the rest of the world is concerned. Even media in African countries will often report on conflicts far afield, in Afghanistan or Iraq, yet hardly mention a major conflict in a neighbouring African country.
Hawkins points out that the wars in the Congo led to nearly as many deaths as all other conflicts in the world since the end of the cold war, but they have received little attention.
This led me to reflect on my reading about the 1994 Rwandan genocide, about which a fair bit has been written. There is even a major Hollywood film, Hotel Rwanda. But few people know that the aftermath of the genocide was an invasion of the Congo by forces from Rwanda and other countries, leading to massive loss of life. One of the challenges is the complexity of the events. There is no simple storyline for media, governments and others to adopt.
The standard news values of the mass media, for example putting priority on conflict, locality and prominent individuals, mean that some important stories receive little attention. The media’s quest for markets leads to news as entertainment rather than information. Governments and corporations do what they can to shape news coverage. Using news coverage to become “informed” about international affairs may be like finding out about cars by watching advertisements for them.
For some valuable advice, you can read Peter Laufer’s short book Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer. Laufer was a journalist and an avid news consumer, but in the spirit of the slow food movement, he advocates care and caution when dealing with the flood of information now available under the label “news.” He provides 29 rules for understanding and dealing with news. Each one is worthy of consideration.
A basic theme in Slow News is to avoid the rush of urgent news and instead concentrate on solid reporting that provides depth and context, and is not one-sided. In many cases, “breaking news” is based on preliminary information, later found to be incomplete, misleading or simply unimportant. How urgent is it to know about the latest information about a mass shooting in the US, an avalanche in Peru or a bombing in Yemen? Can you wait until tomorrow or the next week? Usually, unless you are directly affected.
Laufer is especially critical of the volume of irrelevant information arriving electronically, for example on Twitter. He is critical of citizen journalism, at least when those involved know little about the topic and do not distinguish between important and trivial information.
Laufer points to the role of governments and corporations in shaping the news. He advises obtaining information from multiple sources that give different points of view while avoiding advertisements pretending to be news stories.
It is apparent that Laufer still likes news. He just prefers it to be solid. He likes to read newspapers in the old-fashioned ink-on-paper version (rule 21: “seek news that does not require batteries”). He advocates avoiding news-only channels like CNN because they recycle the same stories throughout the day. He also advocates cutting back on the number of different forms of media for obtaining news, in particular recommending getting rid of your television, because in a 30-minute news programme there is little content compared to what can be read in a newspaper in the same time.
Rule 22 is “Don’t become a news junkie.” Some people always want to know the latest, and end up spending hours every day, but are seldom all that much better informed.
Laufer likes local news: information about people in the neighbourhood, about things that affect your life, such as what is happening at the local school or government body, or what plans are being made for construction or energy management. The implication is to encourage local journalism, such as neighbourhood newspapers, and cut back on consumption of national and international news.
Local news is where people have the best chance of being able to assess the quality and significance of reporting, because they have personal knowledge and can benefit from additional information. Few people have personal knowledge about what is reported in international news, so biases in selection and emphasis are harder to overcome.
This suggests a rule of thumb: for local events, seek rapid information; for distant events, take your time. This brings me back to Hawkins’ treatment of stealth conflicts: international news provides a highly distorted sense of deadly conflicts around the world. So to understand these, for most people it is better to avoid daily news coverage and instead seek authoritative studies giving historical and political context.
On the other hand, perhaps you like to watch the news as a form of entertainment. The latest ructions involving politicians are like a sporting event, or perhaps a soap opera. That’s fine. Just keep in mind that the really important things affecting our lives are probably happening elsewhere, in a slow or stealthy process that slips under the radar of what is called news.
Thanks to Kathy Flynn for valuable comments.