You typically consume thirty four gigabytes of data and come across over one-hundred thousand words each and everyday. Well done! It’s quite the feat drudging through so many tweets Facebook Statuses, .gifs, cat pictures, cat.gifs, Reddit memes, hours of MSNBC, YOutube videos, Buzzfeed list of top cat.gifs, Portraits of Courtly Cats Being Classically Classy, Top Vine Videos of the year/month/day, latest shows, latest movies, latest songs, latest books, latest stories, latest DIYs, latest how-tos, latest must dos, latest what not tos, 42 WTFS, 23 true facts, 16 telltale signs, 15 perfect responses, 8 supposed facts, and 4 reasons why you must…breathe deeply and close your eyes.
The world creates 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily. To put that in perspective the average tweet is two hundred bytes. If a tweet represents two-hundred milliseconds the total data the world creates each day would amount to seventy-nine million years. Bytes and bits are important but aren’t the best barometers of human information intake. For example, you can spend five minutes listening to a five megabyte music file, or you could be reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, about 1.4 megabytes and hours upon hours upon hours of reading. So no more talk of bytes, bits and 19th century whaling. Avast! We must climb to the crows nest and look past pure digital girth. We must critically evaluate what we’re shoving in our faces, beaming out of our screens, and letting congeal in our minds. What does this piece of information do for me? Where does it come from? How was it made? Why is this even important all good questions matey!
Humans have carnal instincts to seek out and consume more food and more information. Humans also have a tendency to lean heavily on heuristics. These heuristics are advantageous in the wild but are problematic when applied to complex news stories. We seek media that plays to our bias and fulfills our desire for novelty. As individuals and as citizens of societies, democratic or otherwise, we better ourselves by being critical of the media and our subsequent consumption of it.
I like this food-media allegory. I’m going to take it a bit further and focus in on news production.
Who is the chef? Who made this?
Family members, restaurant employees, professional chefs, and even you develop a reputation as a chef when serving others a meal. You trust a well reviewed professional chef to serve a quality dinner and expect an employee at a fast-food joint to serve something a bit less.
The professional chef’s career and livelihood is centered on producing delectable dishes. They’re well aware that they carry a reputation which will follow them to future restaurants and for the rest of their career.
The employee at the fast-food joint puts precedent on fulfilling orders. They worry little about their reputation as a chef or cook. The position requires few skills and is often just a part-time job or a brief deviation from a future career path. The fry cook won’t mind if things go wrong; it won’t ruin their lives. They can always move on.
Are the stories that you’re reading coming from the professional or from the fry cook? It’s important to know who produced the piece that you’re reading. Do they have a long standing reputation for producing quality outstanding stories, or is their past rife with plagiarism and fabrication?
What sort of restaurant/newsroom is this?
Even the best chefs in the world can’t make you eat at McDonalds. The company ultimately dictates the quality not the individual.
The McDonalds in Kansas is the same as the McDonalds in Maine regardless of who works there. They seek profits and will sacrifice quality for money. The ingredients are poor, the food is prepared in a mechanical nature, and the people preparing the food care little for the quality. The focus is on ensuring the production of a a low-cost, fast, scalable, and edible meal. In addition to this many restaurants load their foods with fats, sugars, and salts which we’re naturally addicted to. They play to our lowest common denominator for capitalistic gains. Cheap, fast, and tasty!
There are plenty of restaurants who’ve set the bar pretty low and have focused on profits over product. We don’t value a meal from McDonald’s highly. We recognize that we shouldn’t eat there too often, if at all. There are many media outlets who also play to our lowest common denominator as a means to maximize profit at the cost of quality content. The problem is we don’t necessarily recognize this as easily.
Magazine and websites churn out dozens of listicles daily as a means to amass a larger audience and increase page-views. Listicles are by nature formulaic and often contain little to no original content. Quick to produce and easy to promote. Click through photo galleries are thrown in to increase page impressions. These galleries subsequently lead to a poorer user experience but increased advertising revenues. This the media equivalent of the dollar menu.
The recent trend of sponsored content has lead to the production of stories specifically crafted for advertisers. The stories are produced either by the newsroom or by the advertisers themselves; then they’re mixed among the rest of publications articles. This is extremely dangerous. The objectivity of the article is defenestrated and at this point your just consuming long-form advertisements.
Much like the McDonalds across the world these articles, videos, and advertisements are mass and fast produced as a means to obtain maximum profits. We’re eating sugar, salt, and fat and reading shock, lists, and cats.
The News Is Bad
There is nothing bad about the occasional cat listicale, just like the occasional ice-cream shake, though don’t overindulge in the bliss because then things start to rot. Wow, I sound like a doting parent. Make sure you eat your broccoli. Oh, and if you must read something here is the latest New Yorker.
If you do consume large amounts of news cut it out for the sake of your mental health. Study after study has demonstrated that watching the news has a negative impact on your health. It also turns out that Facebook is depressing.
Media outlets, in the quest to break the news, often get things wrong. In our 24/7 fast paced news cycle tweets and stories are being broadcast without proper fact-checking. If you follow breaking news closely chances are you’re going to get a lot of disinformation, and even after the story is corrected you’ll likely hold on to many of those previous falsehoods.
Media Bias is the presentation of news from a particular point of view often containing a certain agenda. Bias is prevalent among cable news channels such as MSNBC and FOX News. Both channels frame and distort stories rather than seeking objective truth. They frame stories from a liberal or conservative agenda which leads to disinformation and super awesome television ratings. That’s their model. Riling you into a partisan fever with their endless army of pundits and leaving you knowing full well that you’re right and the other guy is a complete idiot.
There are organizations with liberal and conservative biases, but there are many other ways to look at media bias. In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman outline a bias model based on propaganda and the desire to maintain corporate structure.
Chomsky explains that most news stories are produced by large media conglomerates which have a self interest in maintaing the status quo and appeasing advertisers. Further when news organizations adopt large corporate models they become very tightly linked to the government. Corporate executives flow in and out of positions between the private and the government sector. The information expounded by these organizations becomes ancillary with profit taking precedent.
It be pretty hard for someone at NBC or MSNBC to objectively cover the failure of the Fukushima reactors when their parent company General Electric designed them. Even though there might not be direct corporate pressure it still is a very large conflict of interest that can permeate a newsrooms coverage of a story. GE has since sold ownership of NBC to Comcast.
It’s also a little tricky balancing objectivity when many of your advertisers are large, multinational oil corporations and weapons manufactures. Even if a story doesn’t succumb to upper managerial pressure and maintains surface objectivity you’re still being served a meal with corporate propaganda as a side.
Leading up to the Iraq War in 2003 cable news channels blasted pro-war messages. The channels were fueled by punditry and rating strategies as opposed to in-depth and balanced reporting
Instead, it has been the Fox News Channel, owned by the News Corporation, that has emerged as the most-watched source of cable news by far, with anchors and commentators who skewer the mainstream media, disparage the French and flay anybody else who questions President Bush’s war effort.
Fox’s formula had already proved there were huge ratings in opinionated news with an America-first flair. But with 46 of the top 50 cable shows last week alone, Fox has brought prominence to a new sort of TV journalism that casts aside traditional notions of objectivity, holds contempt for dissent and eschews the skepticism of government at mainstream journalism’s core.
FOX News and other news providers played to audiences’ sense of awe and anger. Emotions that have been found to elicit the spread of stories. They cut out the complexity and successfully delivered to our warped emotional instincts our lowest common denominator. FOX News is in turn rewarded with ratings and subsequently other stations look to emulate their model to garner a larger market share. Don’t forget about the government; they want to play too. The Pentagon helped bolstered these pro-war biases by giving military contracts to analysts who spoke positively about invading Iraq. The monolithic disaster that is the mainstream media.
A study on american public opinion by University of Maryland found that the many of citizens who consumed mainstream media were misinformed and falsely believed connections between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Other misconceptions included the belief that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 Attacks, and that “weapons of mass destruction” were found in Iraq. Of the polled Fox News viewers eighty percent had a least one misconception. PBS/NPR viewers had misconceptions only twenty-seven percent of the time.
You’re the only person fully capable of determining what you need and what you can do without. Just make sure you’re informed about the political happenings of your country. If you live in the United States you live in a democracy–technically a constitutional republic–where you can vote. Make sure you know who you’re voting for and what issues are facing your country. Who knows there just might be something that needs protesting.
A few questions to ask yourself when analyzing your information consumption habits. What does this piece of information do for me? Where does it come from? How was it made? Why was it made?
Cleave The Noise
A few things to place on the chopping block.
Get rid of it. All of it. Stop paying for cable. You’ll save money and brain cells. There are a few great shows which you might miss out on. So what? You can get DVDs of them from your local library or have viewing parties with friends. Netflix is a good alternative to traditional cable television. It’s cheaper, gives you instant access to many of the greatest films ever, and while still allowing you to veg and recuperate.
Are an inefficient means of transmitting time sensitive information. Massive amount of dead vegetation are turned into pulp which are molded into sheets of paper. These sheets of paper are then impressed with ink covered plates. After that they’re bundled up and physically shipped daily to thousands upon thousands of subscribers all over the world. If you read the same articles online you save yourself money, have greater accessibility, give yourself richer multimedia experience, and reduce your carbon footprint.
Are an inefficient means of transmitting information. Once again, read them online instead. I make an exception for The New Yorker. Their articles are of extremely high quality, and you must have a print subscription to access much of their online content anyway. You also get a free tote bag for subscribing. Sold!
My grandma accidentally subscribed me to Vanity Fair until 2017. I plan on stockpiling the many years of cologne scented inserts that await me.
Are you really being served objective in-depth news coverage, or has this program been optimized and maximized to rake in the largest possible audience all while maintaing happy advertisers and fitting snuggly into the 24/7 cable news cycle? Commercial breaks are really annoying too.
After Google Reader was murdered I stopped using RSS feeds. Look closely at the websites you subscribe to. Do you read 80% of those articles? What would happen if you read those articles a week after they were published? For the vast majority of people it’s more efficient and practical to just check a few websites once a week rather than sifting through your daily RSS feeds. Its one less inbox to deal with.
Check it once or twice a day, or less. If you don’t respond to a message right away the world won’t end. Surprise!
If you don’t use it get rid of it. I keep it so I can easily chat with long-distance friends.
Dissect the Signal
Here is a partial list of my media sources.
Short News Blasts
By playing the current hour’s NPR Newscast I get a quick feel for the days news. The newscast, accessible from their website and mobile application, is updated every hour and serves the top stories of day in five minutes or less.
A single well written and researched article can give you greater insight than a dozen haphazard ones. Long-form journalism captures your consciousness. It immerses you in a story and doesn’t shy away from tackling the complexities that come along with it. It guides you towards the many facets of reality and leaves you with a deeper perspective. The New Yorker does long-form very well with their in-depth profiles and illuminating investigative pieces. I enjoyed this story on Silicon Vally’s growing interest politics and I was quoted in an article detailing the Tyler Clementi tragedy.
I’m also an avid fan of This American Life, On the Media, and Radiolab. All three are hour long radio programs that cover wide range of topics. This American Life covers important stories such as controversies surrounding natural gas in Pennsylvania or the broken patent system in the United States. They also do lighter stories on camp and babysitting. Radiolab is very similar to This American Life, but with a focus on scientific topics. I really love the episode they did on colors. On the Media takes a critical look at the media and their coverage of the news.
Each of these programs are synced up and updated automatically on my phone. Whenever I go for a walk or train-ride I listen to them. Its all free, seamless, and efficient.
I follow a few sites that cater to a specific interests that I have. Occasionally I read Nieman Journalism Lab and Poynter for their coverage of journalism and media. I also check read a few blogs on web design. When finding niche sites check out what industry or hobby professionals read. Be conservative in your selection.
Substitute some of your corporate media source for independent ones. Independent news sources are free from large corporate pressure. Dump CNN, FOX News, and MSNBC and check out ProPublica or Democracy Now!.
Reddit is a social news website consisting of links and content submitted by its users. The vast majority of it is absolutely trivial. If you frequent Reddit you will most certainly be the first to know about the next viral video or meme. It’s posted on Reddit first, then it gets repacked by Buzzfeed and is ultimately shared by your Facebook friends few a few hours six to forty eight hours later. There are some really niche sub communities on Reddit that are pretty good, but as these small communities expand the quality of posted content recedes.
Hacker News is setup the same as Reddit. The difference between the two is Reddit’s users are numerous and broad while the community at Hacker News caters to programmers and other techy folk.
Forget all those other things that are listed above. You are set with just reading books. Years of work, research, time, effort, and tears all parsed down into few hundred pieces of paper neatly wrapped together for your pleasure. Unlike newspapers these tomes can last hundreds of years and can me easily shared and consumed time and time again. Don’t buy books use your local library. It’s free and easy. My local library is interconnected with all the other libraries in the county and I’m able to go online and reserve pretty much any book. Easy access to the life works of the greatest minds of humanity all for free. Ditch your T.V. and get yourself a library card.