How do you read your 'slows'? - the media and representativeness

Epistemology of the news; Some practical resources. Or in other words, why you should read the second, less-rough draft of history

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Where do you get your news? How should you get your news? And as Drax would point out: *why* do you get your news...

These are questions of practicality — which news sources, which news app, which news medium. But at its epistemological heart the question of news-reading comes down to:

How should you go about understanding the world in its most *true* form?

From this all sorts of other questions stem:

How should you avoid parochialism/biases?
How should you ensure you haven't missed something vital to your lifestyle/survival?
How should you be intellectually challenged?
How do you ensure the news isn't detrimental to your mental health?

The troubling answer to the question of how to go about understanding reality for an aspiring journalist is: the answer probably isn't *news* in the literal sense. In a world this large, once in a billion events should happen around about 8 times per day. Are these extraordinary but otherwise meaningless events important? Probably not, and yet they make up the most of the news coverage. Reality is best understood not through stories and anecdotes but through long term trends and data; in the sense that reality can be applied as a generalization for humanity; the kind of reality we wish we were constructing our political beliefs from.

Rolf Dobelli, the infamous anti-news evangelist, has a short summary of the story over trend effect: (Read his paper here)

As a result of news, we walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. -Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated. -The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated. -Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated. -Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC reports are underrated. -Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated.


But if that’s true on a scale of minutes, why longer? Instead of watching hourly updates, why not read a daily paper? Instead of reading the back and forth of a daily, why not read a weekly review? Instead of a weekly review, why not read a monthly magazine? Instead of a monthly magazine, why not read an annual book?

- Aaron Swartz

Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock

- Ben Hecht

Online & mainstream media and social networking have become increasingly misleading as to the state of the world by focusing on ‘stories’ and ‘events’ rather than trends and averages.

- Gwern

Forming a worldview from a news story is like picking the most interesting data point in a scientific study, reading nothing else in the paper, and yet writing up a detailed conclusion. The same goes for ever more anecdote-talised forms of world view construction, like Instagram thumbnails or Facebook memes.

When we are given a large stream of single-issue 'stories' to read in order to go about forming worldviews, consuming it all is simply an impossibility. Thus, we tend to filter news according to confirmation biases; this filtering effect is greatly increased by the mushrooming of the info-sphere thanks to the internet. (Van deer Meer et al, 2020). The modern news ecosystem thus is a two sided sword: so that we don't waste too much of our lives reading, we are forced to select some sample news, and thus we select according to our biases. If we read lots of news from lots of sources, we end up with no life left to live.

In summary:

  • single events say absolutely nothing about reality, and yet we form beliefs from them. We get this wonderful paradox in which the most news worthy stories, by virtue of the size of the global population and the degree to which everything is recorded, are the least representative data points.
  • This unrepresentativness is stressing, as per Madden et al, 2017.

Here's some examples:

The worldview that vaccines are dangerous. Each instance of a side effect is extremely rare, and thus individual anecdotes--while often false, but sometimes true, tell us nothing about general vaccine safety or effacacy.

Anaphylaxis after COVID-19 vaccination is rare and has occurred in approximately 2 to 5 people per million vaccinated in the United States.

But of course "One million to 5 people didn't have any adverse reactions to the COVID vaccine today" is not a good headline. As such, what does not happen is more important than what does, and in what proportion. Is there any reason the news shouldn't publish that above headline? Or better yet, publish only a running tally of proportional vaccine risk?

Here's the classic illustration:

HTML tutorial

There has recently been a surge in so-called "slow news". Sites like Tortoise, which describes itself as so:

What’s different about us is slow news. We don’t do breaking news, but what’s driving the news. We don’t cover every story, but reveal a few. We take the time to see the fuller picture, to make sense of the forces shaping our future, to investigate what’s unseen.

Or the Delayed Gratification magazine.. Or even the popularity of Hans Rosling's "Factfullness"; which prescribes an attitude of only having an opinion about things you know the exact facts on. That book itself is a pertinent example of how skewed our worldviews can be:

When asked simple questions about global trends - why the world's population is increasing; how many young women go to school; how many of us live in poverty - we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.

So should you only get a yearly statistical report? What are some good counter points to the anti-new news perspective? Firstly, in the moment outrage is useful. Stories, particularly in the social media age, that whip up fury at government misjustice are necessary for a healthy democracy. Where would the Pentagon papers be in a slow news world? For that, we need newspapers.

To this, it's easy to argue that the most impactful stories--The Snowden revelations, or those Pentagon papers--are an example of the costly, slow news reporting big newspapers already do. Investigative journalism is what all that day to day outrage content is funding. In this sense, hard hitting reporting could surely be even better aided by slow news institutions.

Second counter-point: what about boots-on-the-ground reporting about natural disasters, for instance, that is important because it helps the people actually affected get a grip on the situation. For this, you could say that if it's important enough news to personally affect you, it will probably be a Civil Defense notification on your phone. But is that notification not the official view on something? It might overly sanitize officials' response.

This is a tricky one. Firstly, in rapidly evolving situations, it's probably just as hard for reporters as it is for civilians to get a grip on the situation. Only in later weeks will what really happened become clear. The counterpoint, perhaps, is then that civil defense organizations should be bolstered, and given independence from the government. These organizations would have the sole purpose of guiding citizens through crisis moments; their focus is on altering the people affected, not those watching it on cable TV.

Interjection: I intend this not to be simple lyrical waxing but a practical resource, so--mainly for my own benefit--I've compiled some tips for news reading.

I plan to implement all this in my own news diet, and I'll report on the results here. I plan to: 1. Subscribe to Delayed Gratification magazine. They put the focus on data analysis and they come out quarterly. 2. Read the rest of Factfullness. 3. Periodically update the below graphs with interesting trends that offer perspective on a current narrative. One example is America wins most of its wars

1. relax about missing out on anything. If it's important enough news to actually impact you, it'll be a civil defense warning on your phone, which you'll get no matter what.

2. Current events should be considered with at least a week's hindsight for follow-up fact checking. Good sources for news that doesn't directly affect you thus are:

1. Happiness

2. Inequality

3. Poverty

4. Electricity access

5. Lifespans

6. Terrorism & War

7. Religion