Freedom of the press in Britain is freedom to print such of the proprietor’s prejudices, as the advertisers don’t object to. Hannen Swaffer
When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news. John B. Bogart
If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. Mark Twain
Hacker: Don’t tell me about the press. I know exactly who reads the papers: The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country; The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country; The Times is read by people who actually do run the country; the Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country; the Financial Times is read by people who own the country; The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country; and The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.
Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read The Sun?
Bernard: Sun readers don’t care who runs the country, as long as she’s got big tits. From Yes, Prime Minister. Although variations on this joke have been around much longer.
I used to be a news junkie. But, in recent years I have become very cynical about the news in newspapers and on TV. From talking to students and colleagues, I know I am not alone in this perception. This is of course a huge paradox because, compared to when I was growing up, we have so many more possibilities – the Internet, 24-hour news, blogs etc. Despite all of these possibilities, I now feel a bit out of the news loop. For example, I would struggle to name more than five or six members of Zapatero’s cabinet
Why has this happened? I think there are a number of reasons for this some of them are related to the actual news coverage itself, to my own particular interests now and to the world we live in.
Let’s look at the news coverage. I used to watch the TV news every day but these days I often don’t bother. When I do, I tend to regret it immediately. I have a laundry list of things I hate about the way TV news is presented. I am not so worried about bias because there are now more alternatives than ever in history. I have some different complaints. Hard news seems to be an endangered species as we are awash with celebrity news, consumer reports, dodgy statistics, human-interest stories and that awful vox pop. This term is used to refer to those soundbites of the proverbial man on the street that are so typical in news broadcasts now. I am a believer in the wisdom of crowds but I don’t really care what Christmas presents some anonymous member of the public has bought or how some six-year-old feels about the first day of the school term.
Some of these reasons are personal to me. I have come to be more interested in what Andrew Marr has described as anti-news, those developments and trends that don’t make the headlines but nevertheless have huge long-term effects on our lives. I have also become really interested in philosophy, history, anthropology and many other. When you turn on the television after reading about all these great thinkers, brilliant ideas etc, you get very disillusioned by the repetitiveness, pettiness and the incongruence that you have to put up with. When I hear about some scientific discovery or an economist explaining the role of incentives in policy outcomes I feel that I am learning something about the way the world works. I do not get that feeling too often when I watch the news on TV. That professional iconoclast, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, claims that reading a newspaper actually decreases your knowledge of the world. We live in a very complex world and I feel that the news fails to reflect that.
We can now do a huge amount of personalisation. This is a wonderful thing but it has a downside – you can be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of material available and you tend to only look at what interests you. Being well informed does require some hard work and it is essential not to just concentrate on your pet interests. I probably look at 7 or 8 news sources a day on the Internet but a lot of it is skimming. Jakob Nielsen a researcher has investigated our on-screen reading habits using eye-tracking technology, machines that are able to follow your eyes as they move across the page, charting how long and in which direction they move. Nielsen discovered that when we read online our eyes follow an F-pattern. We begin at the top of the screen in a linear way but as we go down horizontal movement shortens and the vertical movement quickens. We pause around the middle of the page, forming the smaller horizontal line of the F, but then it’s full speed ahead as we race vertically to the bottom of the screen. This type of reading is different to what you do with a traditional newspaper or book. Although, I have to say that after I first arrived in Spain, 20 years ago, I used to buy El País, every day. Then I realised that I was spending only ten or twenty minutes reading it and I was better off going on the Internet and getting a wider range of opinions and saving myself forty or fifty euros a month.
But even taking all these things into account I cannot justify my stance. I feel that as a citizen I should make an effort to know what’s going on in the world. If you look for interesting stuff, then it is possible to find it. The choice, which as I mentioned earlier can be a dangerous thing, also gives you the opportunity to check out different sources and compare how they treat the same story. There are also some excellent sites that critique the traditional media. So my new year’s resolution is to find a way to get back into the loop. What I need now is a strategy to do this in a time-efficient way. Any suggestions?