You Said, ‘Why Public Broadcasting?’ I Still Say, ‘Why Not?’

It appears my column a few weeks ago on public broadcasting hit a few raw nerves. Despite my trying to stickhandle around the emotionally charged use of the word “socialism” there were a few comments saying, in essence, why should taxpayers have to support broadcasting when there were private and corporate donors willing to do so? Why would we follow a socialist approach to ensuring fair and responsible journalism? We are the land of the free and open market. Let’s just let it do its job.

One commenter suggested that if people want to support responsible journalism, let them become subscribers. Make it a Netflix-based model for journalism. That is one solution put forward in my friend John Marshall’s  new book, “Free is Bad.”

It’s not wrong. It’s certainly one approach. I would encourage everyone to subscribe to at least one news publication that still practices real journalism.

Another commenter suggested that as long as there are donors who believe in journalism and are willing to put their money where their mouth is, we can let them carry the load. That’s another approach. 

Case in point, ProPublica. 

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom funded by donations. The quality of its reporting has garnered it six Pulitzers, five Peabodys, three Emmys and a number of other awards. It can certainly be pointed to as a great example of high-quality reporting that doesn’t rely on advertising dollars. But ProPublica has been around since 2008 and it only has a little over 100 journalists on the payroll. I’m sure its principals would love to hire more. They just don’t have enough money. 

The problem here — the one that prompted my suggestion to consider public broadcasting as an alternative — is that both subscriber and donor-based approaches are like trying to kill the elephant in the room with a flyswatter. The economics are hopelessly imbalanced and just can’t work.

Journalism is in full-scale attrition because its revenue model is irretrievably broken. Here’s why it’s broken: The usual winner in competitions based on capitalism is what’s most popular, not what’s the best. It’s a race to the shallow end of the pool.

And that’s what’s happened to real news reporting. Staying shallow in an advertising-supported marketplace is the best way to ensure profitability. 

But even the shallow end needs some water; there needs to be some news to act as the raw material for opinion and analysis content. In the news business, that water is the overflow from the deep end. And someone — somewhere — has to keep refilling the deep end.

In a market that is determined to cling to free-market capitalism, no one is willing to invest in the type of journalism required to keep the deep end full. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons, applied to journalism. There are too many taking, and no one is giving back. Incentives and required outcomes are not only not aligned, they are pointed in opposite directions. 

But, as my commenters noted, that is where subscriptions and donations can come in. Obviously, a subscriber-based model has worked very well for streaming services like Netflix. Why couldn’t the same be true for journalism? 

I don’t believe the same approach will work, for a few reasons. 

First, Netflix has the advantage of exclusivity. You have to subscribe to access their content. Journalism doesn’t work that way. Once a news story has broken, there is a whole downstream gaggle of news channels that will jump on it and endlessly spin and respin it with their own analysis and commentary.  

This respun content will always be more popular that the original story, because it’s been predigested to align with the target audience’s own beliefs and perspectives. As I’ve said before, when it comes to news, we have a junk food habit. And why would you buy broccoli when you can get a cheeseburger for free?

This exclusivity also gives Netflix the ability to program both for quality and popularity. For every “Queen’s Gambit,” there are dozens of “Tiger King’s” and other brain-food junk snacks. When all the money is being dumped into the same pool, it can fill both the shallow and deep ends at the same time.

But perhaps the biggest misconception about Netflix’s success is that it’s not determined if Netflix is, in fact, successful. It is still a model in transition and is still relying heavily on licensed content to prop up the profitability of its original programming. When it comes to successfully transitioning the majority of viewer streams to its own programming, the jury is still very much out, as this analysis notes.

There are more reasons why I don’t think a subscription model is the best answer to journalism attrition, but we’ll leave it there for now. 

But what about donor-based journalism, like that found on PBS affiliates or ProPublica? While I don’t doubt their intentions or the quality of the reporting, I do have issues with the scale. There are simply not enough donor dollars flowing into these organizations to fund the type of expensive journalism that we need. 

And these donor dollars are largely missing in local markets, where the attrition of true news reporting is progressing at an even faster rate. In the big picture — and to return to our previous analogy — this represents a mere trickle into the deep end. 

There are just some things that shouldn’t exist in a for-profit setting. The dynamics of capitalism and how it aligns incentive just don’t work for these examples. These things are almost always social obligations that we must have but that require a commitment that usually represents personal sacrifice. 

This is the basis of a social democracy where personal sacrifice is typically exacted through taxation. While you may not like it, taxation is still the best way we’ve found to prevent the Tragedy of the Commons. 

We are now to the point where access to true and reliable information has become a social obligation. And much as we may not like it, we all need to sacrifice a little bit to make sure we don’t lose it forever.

Dear US: Start Thinking Differently about Public Broadcasting

In my ongoing discussion about how to support true and reliable journalism, there is one option I haven’t talked about: public broadcasting. 

In a previous column, I talked about the difference I saw on one day in the way the news was reported in Canada vs the U.S. Largely missing in Canada was the extreme polarization I saw in editorial tone in the U.S. 

And, as I mentioned in my previous two columns — one on why free news is bad news and one on the problems with “news” analysis — the divide between news on the right and news on the left has the same root cause: the need for profitability.

The one thing I didn’t talk about in that U.S. versus Canada column is that we have a robust public broadcaster in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). 

“Ah,” you say, “We have public broadcasting, too. We have PBS and NPR.” 

Well, yes, but no. There are important differences in how these institutions are funded.

Let’s take PBS, for example. PBS stations are independently operated, and each have their own financials. They are members of PBS, which is not a network but rather a programming partner. Affiliates pay member dues to belong to PBS.

For example, the Seattle PBS affiliate is KCTS, whose 2019 financials show that the lion’s share of its income, over half, comes from individual donations. Corporate donations represent another 16.5%. Just 9% of its funding comes from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), supposedly representing U.S. taxpayers’ support of public broadcasting on PBS and NPR.

CPB has been a punching bag for Republicans for years now. What meager support public broadcasting does receive from CPB is constantly at risk of being chopped by Congress.  Most recently — and not surprisingly — Trump threatened to cut funding for CPB from its current level of $445 million to just $30 million. 

He did this after an NPR reporter asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if he owed an apology to the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Conservative radio jumped on the altercation, with one station tweeting, “Why does NPR still exist? We have thousands of radio stations in the U.S. plus satellite radio. Podcasts. Why are we paying for this big-government, Democrat Party propaganda operation.”

Trump retweeted, “A very good question.”

It actually is a good question, but from a very different perspective than what Trump intended. 

I am Canadian. I come from a social democratic country. I am free of the knee-jerk reactionism of many Americans (as shown in last week’s election) toward the word “socialism.” You have to start with that idea to understand our approach to broadcasting.

While the CBC does sell advertising, it’s not dependent on it. In its last financial report, just 14.5% of all CBC revenues came from advertising. Sixty-five percent of the CBC’s funds come directly from taxpayer dollars. As a comparison, the amount of money CBC received from the government last year was 1.1 billion, almost three times the total budget of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in the U.S. 

That highlights the difference in attitude about the importance of public broadcasting in our two countries. In Canada — following the model of Britain and the BBC — we have enshrined public broadcasting as an important part of our society that we directly support through our taxes. Not only do we have the CBC across Canada, but each province also has its own public broadcaster. 

In the more capitalistic and laissez-faire U.S., public broadcasting largely depends on the kindness of strangers. What little taxpayer support it does receive is constantly being used as a pawn in political posturing between the right and left. 

So, who’s right?

I’ll be honest. There are many Canadians — not a majority, but a significant percentage — who would like to see Canada pursue a more American path when it comes to broadcasting. “Who needs the CBC?” they say. 

But I believe strongly that the relative health of Canadian journalism when compared to the U.S. is largely due to our investment in public broadcasting. The CBC sets the norm of what’s acceptable in Canada. Its biggest private competitors, CTV and Global, don’t stray far from the relatively neutral, reliable and objective tone set by the CBC. 

If we look at reliability when it comes to public broadcasters in the U.S., we see that both NPR and PBS score top marks when it comes to lack of bias and reliability on the Ad Fontes Media Bias Chart.

Unfortunately, Canadian broadcasters are not represented on the chart, so we’ll have to look for another measure. Luckily, one exists. More on this in a bit.

The doubters of my proposed hypothesis that taxpayer-funded public broadcasting means better journalism will be quick to point out that Russia, China, Cuba — heck, even Iran — all have state-owned broadcasters. These are all — as the conservative radio tweeter above said — simply “propaganda machines.” How is this different from public broadcasting?

Again, we have the conflation of democratic socialism with the U.S. right’s favorite bogeyman: communism. Y’all really have to stop doing that. 

Public broadcasting in places like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden are all modeled after the originator of the concept: Britain and the BBC. Although there have been many British prime ministers — Winston Churchill included — who sought to co-opt the BBC for their government’s purposes, over the past century a legislative firewall has been built to maintain the public broadcaster’s independence from the government of the day. Similar legislation is in place in Canada and other democracies with strong public broadcasters. 

So, how is that working?

Pretty well, according to Reporters Without Borders, the “biggest NGO specializing in the defense of media freedom.”

The organization’s World Press Freedom Index ranks media freedom in every country in the world. The top five countries (all Nordic and northern European countries — and all social democracies) have strong public broadcasters. In case you’re wondering, Canada scores 16th on the list. The U.S. scores 45th out of 180 countries. 

Public broadcasting — real public broadcasting, with taxpayers’ skin in the game — seems to be working pretty damned well in Canada and other places in the world. (As an interesting side note, the Reporters without Borders ranking of countries bears more than a little resemblance to US News’ Quality of Life Index). 

You should think differently about public broadcasting, because the biggest problem facing journalism in the U.S. isn’t socialism or government propaganda. It’s capitalism. 

Analyzing the Problem with News “Analysis”

Last week, I talked about the Free News problem. In thinking about how to follow that up, I ran across an interesting study that was published earlier this year in the Science Advances Journal. One of the authors was Duncan Watts, who I’ve mentioned repeatedly in previous columns.

In the study, the research team tackled the problem of “Fake News” which is – of course – another symptom of the creeping malaise that is striking the industry of journalism. It certainly has become a buzzword in the last few years. But the team found that the problem of fake news may not be a problem at all. It makes up just 0.15% of our entire daily media diet. In fact, across all ages in the study, any type of news is – at the most – just 14.2% of our total media consumption.

The problem may be our overuse of the term “news” – applying it to things we think are news but are actually just content meant to drive advertising revenues. In most cases, this is opinion (sometimes informed but often not) masquerading as news in order to generate a lot of monetizable content. Once again, to get to the root of the problem, we have to follow the money.

If we look again at the Ad Fontes Media Bias chart, it’s not “news” that’s the problem. Most acknowledged leaders in true journalism are tightly clustered in the upper middle of the chart, which is where we want our news sources to be. They’re reliable and unbiased.

If we follow the two legs of the chart down to the right or left into the unreliable territory where we might encounter “fake” news, we find from the study mentioned above that this makes up an infinitesimal percentage of the media most of us actually pay attention to. The problem here can be found in the middle regions of the chart. This is where we find something called analysis. And that might just be our problem.

Again, we have to look at the creeping poison of incentive here. Some past students from Stanford University have an interesting essay about the economics of journalism that shows how cable tv and online have disrupted the tenuous value chain of news reporting.

The profitability of hard reporting was defined in the golden age of print journalism – specifically newspapers. The problem with reporting as a product is twofold. One is that news in non-excludable. Once news is reported anyone can use it. And two is that while reporting is expensive, the cost of distribution is independent of the cost of reporting. The cost of getting the news out is the same, regardless of how much news is produced.

While newspapers were the primary source of news, these two factors could be worked around. Newspapers came with a built-in 24-hour time lag. If you could get a one day jump on the competition, you could be very profitable indeed.

Secondly, the fixed distribution costs made newspapers a very cost-effective ad delivery vehicle. It cost the newspapers next to nothing to add advertising to the paper, thereby boosting revenues.

But these two factors were turned around by Internet and Cable News. If a newspaper bore the bulk of the costs by breaking a story, Cable TV and the Internet could immediately jump on board and rake in the benefits of using content they didn’t have to pay for.

And that brings us to the question of news “analysis”. Business models that rely on advertising need eyeballs. And those eyeballs need content. Original content – in the form of real reporting – is expensive and eats into profit. But analysis of news that comes from other sources costs almost nothing. You load up on talking heads and have them talk endlessly about the latest story. You can spin off never ending reams of content without having to invest anything in actually breaking the story.

This type of content has another benefit; customers love analysis. Real news can be tough to swallow. If done correctly, it should be objective and based on fact.  Sometimes it will force us to reconsider our beliefs. As is often the case with news, we may not like what we hear.

Analysis – or opinion – is much more palatable. It can be either partially or completely set free from facts and swayed and colored to match the audience’s beliefs and biases. It scores highly on the confirmation bias scale. It hits all the right (or left) emotional buttons. And by doing this, it stands a better chance of being shared on social media feeds. Eyeballs beget eyeballs. The gods of corporate finance smile benignly on analysis content because of its effectiveness at boosting profitability.

By understanding how the value chain of good reporting has broken down due to this parasitic piling on by online and cable platforms in the pursuit of profit, we begin to understand how we can perhaps save journalism. There is simply too much analytical superstructure built on top of the few real journalists that are doing real reporting. And the business model that once supported that reporting is gone.

The further that analysis gets away from the facts that fuel it, the more dangerous it becomes. At some point it crosses the lines from analysis to opinion to propaganda. The one thing it’s not is “news.” We need to financially support through subscription the few that are still reporting on the things that are actually happening.

Why Free News is (usually) Bad News

Pretty much everything about the next week will be unpredictable. But whatever happens on Nov. 3, I’m sure there will be much teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing about the state of journalism in the election aftermath.

And there should be. I have written much about the deplorable state of that particular industry. Many, many things need to be fixed. 

For example, let’s talk about the extreme polarization of both the U.S. population and their favored news sources. Last year about this time, the PEW Research Center released a study showing that over 30% of Americans distrust their news sources. 

But what’s more alarming is, when we break this down by Republicans versus Democrats, only 27% of Democrats didn’t trust the news for information about politics or elections. With Republicans, that climbed to a whopping 67%. 

The one news source Republicans do trust? Fox News. Sixty-five percent of them say Fox is reliable. 

And that’s a problem.

Earlier this year, Ad Fontes Media came out with its Media Bias Chart. It charts major news and media channels on two axes: source reliability and political bias. The correlation between bias and reliability is almost perfect. The further a news source is out to the right or left, the less reliable it is.

How does Fox fare? Not well. Ad Fontes separates Fox TV from Fox Online. Fox Online lies on the border between being “reliable for news, but high in analysis/opinion content” and “some reliability issues and/or extremism.” Fox TV falls squarely in the second category.

I’ve written before that media bias is not just a right-wing problem. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC show a significant left-leaning bias. But CNN Online, despite its bias, still falls within the “Most Reliable for News” category. According to Ad Fontes, MSNBC has the same reliability issues as Fox.

The question that has to be asked is “How did we get here?”  And that’s the question tackled head-on in a new book, “Free is Bad,” by John Marshall.

I’ve known Marshall for ages. He has covered a lot of the things I’ve been writing about in this column. 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Upton Sinclair

The problem here is one of incentive. Our respective media heads didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what we need to be? A lot more biased!” They have walked down that path step by step, driven by the need to find a revenue model that meets their need for profitability. 

When we talk about our news channels, the obvious choice to be profitable is to be supported by ads. And to be supported by ads, you have to be able to target those ads. One of the most effective targeting strategies is to target by political belief, because it comes reliably bundled with a bunch of other beliefs that makes it very easy to predict behaviors. And that makes these ads highly effective in converting prospects.

This is how we got to where we are. But there are all types of ways to prop up your profit through selling ads. Some are pretty open and transparent. Some are less so. And that brings us to a particularly interesting section of Marshall’s book. 

John Marshall is a quant geek at heart. He has been a serial tech entrepreneur — and, in one of those ventures, built a very popular web analytics platform. He also has intimate knowledge of how the sausages are made in the ad-tech business. He knows sketchy advertising practices when he sees them. 

Given all of this, Marshall was able to undertake a fascinating analysis of the ads we see on various news platforms that dovetails nicely with the Ad Fontes chart. 

Marshall created the Ad Shenanigans chart. Basically, he did a forensic analysis of the advertising approaches of various online news platforms. He was looking for those that gathered data about their users, sold traffic to multiple networks, featured clickbait chumboxes and other unsavory practices. Then he ranked them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between reputable reporting and business ethics. Highly biased and less reputable sites on the Ad Fontes Bias Chart (Breitbart, NewsMax, and Fox News) all can also be found near the top of Marshall’s Ad Shenanigans Chart. Those that do seem to have some ethics when it comes to the types of ads they run also seem to take objective journalism seriously. Case in point, The Guardian in the UK and ProPublica in the U.S.

The one anomaly in the group seems to be CNN. While it does fare relatively well on reputable reporting according to Ad Fontes, CNN appears to be willing to do just about anything to turn a buck. It ranks just a few slots below Fox in terms of “ad shenanigans.”

Marshall also breaks out those platforms that have a mix of paid firewalls and advertising. While there are some culprits in the mix such as the Daily Caller, Slate and the National Review, most sites that have some sort of subscription model seem to be far less likely to fling the gates of their walled gardens open to the ethically challenged advertising hordes. 

All of this drives home Marshall’s message: When it comes to the quality of your news sources, free is bad. As soon as something costs you nothing, you are no longer the customer. You’re the product. Invisible hand market forces are no longer working for you. They are working for the advertiser. And that means they’re working against you if you’re looking for an unbiased, quality news source.

How to Look Past the Nearest Crisis

I was talking to someone the other day who was trying to make plans for 2021. Those plans were dependent on the plans of others. In the course of our conversation, she said something interesting: “It’s so hard to plan because most of the people I’m talking to can’t see past COVID.” 

If anything sums up our current reality, it might be that. We’re all having a lot of trouble seeing past COVID. Or the upcoming U.S. election. Or catastrophic weather events. Or an impending economic crisis. Take your pick. There are so many looming storm clouds on the horizon that it’s difficult to even make out that horizon any more. 

We humans are pretty dependent on the past to tell us what may be happening in the future. We evolved in an environment that — thanks to its stability — was reasonably predictable. In evolutionary survival terms, it was smart to hedge our bets on the future by glancing over our shoulders at the past. If a saber-toothed tiger was likely to eat you yesterday, the odds were very much in favor of it also wanting to eat you tomorrow. 

But our ability to predict things gets thrown for a loop in the face of uncertainty like we’re currently processing. There are just too many variables forced into the equation for us to be able to rely on what has happened in the past. Both the number of variables and the range of variation pushes our prediction probability of error past the breaking point. 

When it comes to planning for the future, we become functionally paralyzed and start living day to day, waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop.” 

The bigger problem, however, is that when the world is going to hell in a hand basket, we don’t realize that the past is a poor foundation on which to build our future. Evolved habits die hard, and so we continue to use hindsight to try to move forward. 

And by “we,” I mean everyone — most especially the leaders we elect and the experts we rely on to point us in the right direction.  Many seem to think that a post-COVID world will snap back to be very much like a pre-COVID world.

And that, I’m afraid, may be the biggest problem. You’d think that when worrying about an uncertain future is above our pay grade, there would be someone wiser and smarter than us to rely on and save our collective asses. But if common folk tend to consistently bet on the past as a guide to our future, it’s been shown that people we think of as “experts” double down on that bet. 

A famous study by Philip Tetlock showed just how excruciatingly awful experts were at predicting the future. He assembled a group of 284 experts and got them to make predictions about future events, including those that fell into their area of expertise. Across the board, he found their track record of being correct was only slightly ahead of a random coin toss or a troupe of chimpanzees throwing darts. The more famous the expert, the worse their track record.

Expertise is rooted in experience. Both words spring from the same root: The Latin experiri for “try.” Experience is gained in the past. For experts, their worth comes from their experience in one particular area, so they are highly unlikely to ignore it when predicting the future. They are like the hedgehog in Isiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and The Fox“: They “know one important thing.”

But when it comes to predicting the future, Tetlock found it’s better to be a fox: to “know many little things.” In a complex, highly uncertain world, it’s the generalist  who thrives. 

The reason is pretty simple. In an uncertain world, we have to be more open to sense making in the classic cognitive sense. We have to be attuned to the signals that are playing out in real time and not be afraid to consider new information that may conflict with our current beliefs.

This is how generalists operate. It’s also how science is supposed to operate. Our view of the future should be no more than a hypothesis that we’re willing to have proven wrong. Hedgehogs dig in when their expertise about “one big thing” is questioned. Foxes use it as an opportunity to update their take on reality. 

Foxes have another advantage over hedgehogs. They tend to be dilettantes, spreading their interest over a wide range of topics without diving too deeply into any of them. This keeps their network diverse and expansive, giving them the opportunity to synthesize their sense of reality from the broadest range of signals possible. 

In a world that depends on being nimble enough to shift directions depending on the input your receive, this stacks the odds in favor of the fox. 

Still, it’s against human nature to be so cavalier about our future. We like certainty. We crave predictability. We are big fans of transparent causes and effects. If those things are clouded by complexity and uncertainty, we start constructing our own narratives. Hence the current spike of conspiracy theories, as I noted previously. This is especially true when the stakes are as high as they are now. 

I don’t blame those having a very hard time looking past COVID — or any other imminent disaster. But someone should be. 

It’s time to start honing those fox instincts. 

Tired of Reality? Take 2 Full-Strength Schitt’s Creeks

“Schitt’s Creek” stormed the Emmys by winning awards in every comedy series category — a new record. It was co-creators Dan and Eugene Levy’s gift to the world: a warm bowl of hot cultural soup, brimming with life-affirming values, acceptance and big-hearted Canadian corniness.

It was the perfect entertainment solution to an imperfect time. It was good for what ails us.

It’s not the first time we’ve turned to entertainment for comfort. In fact, if there is anything as predictable as death and taxes, it’s that during times of trial, we need to be entertained.

There is a direct correlation between feel-good fantasy and feeling-shitty reality. The worse things get, the more we want to escape it.

But the ways we choose to be entertained have changed. And maybe — just maybe — the media channels we’re looking to for our entertainment are adding to the problem. 

The Immersiveness of Media

A medium’s ability to distract us from reality depends on how much it removes us from that reality.

Our media channels have historically been quite separate from the real world. Each channel offered its own opportunity to escape. But as the technology we rely on to be entertained has become more capable of doing multiple things, that escape from the real world has become more difficult.

Books, for example, require a cognitive commitment unlike any other form of entertainment. When we read a book, we — in effect — enter into a co-work partnership with the author. Our brains have to pick up where theirs left off, and we together build a fictional world to which we can escape. 

As the science of interpreting our brain’s behavior has advanced, we have discovered that our brains actually change while we read.

Maryanne Wolf explains in her book, “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain”: “Human beings invented reading only a few thousand years ago. And with this invention, we rearranged the very organization of our brain, which in turn expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species. . . . Our ancestors’ invention could come about only because of the human brain’s extraordinary ability to make new connections among its existing structures, a process made possible by the brain’s ability to be reshaped by experience.”

Even movies, which dramatically lowered the bar for the cognitive commitments they ask by supplying content specifically designed for two of our senses, do so by immersing us in a dedicated single-purpose environment. The distraction of the real world is locked outside the theater doors.

But today’s entertainment media platforms not only live in the real world, they are the very same platforms we use to function in said world. They are our laptops, our tablets, our phones and our connected TVs.

It’s hard to ignore that world when the flotsam and jetsam of reality is constantly bumping into us. And that brings us to the problem of the multitasking myth.

Multitasking Anxiety

The problem is not so much that we can’t escape from the real world for a brief reprise in a fictional one. It’s that we don’t want to. 

Even if we’re watching our entertainment in our home theater room on a big screen, the odds are very good that we have a small screen in our hands at the same time. We mistakenly believe we can successfully multitask, and our mental health is paying the price for that mistake.

Research has found that trying to multitask brings on a toxic mix of social anxiety, depression, a lessening of our ability to focus attention, and a sociopsychological impairment that impacts our ability to have rewarding relationships. 

When we use the same technology to be entertained that we use to stay on top of our social networks we fall prey to the fear of missing out.

It’s called Internet Communication Disorder, and it’s an addictive need to continually scroll through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and our other social media platforms. It’s these same platforms that are feeding us a constant stream of the very things we’re looking to escape from. 

It may be that laughter is the best medicine, but the efficacy of that medicine is wholly dependent on where we get our laughs.

The ability for entertainment to smooth the jagged edges of reality depend on our being able to shift our minds off the track that leads to chronic anxiety and depression — and successfully escape into a fictional kinder, gentler, funnier world.

For entertainment to be a beneficial distraction, we first have to mentally disengage from the real world, and then fully engage in the fictional one.

That doesn’t work nearly as well when our entertainment delivery channel also happens to be the same addictive channel that is constantly tempting us to tiptoe through the anxiety-strewn landscape that is our social media feed. 

In other words, before going to “Schitt’s Creek,” unpack your other shit and leave it behind. I guarantee it will be waiting for you when you get back.

Our Brain And Its Junk News Habit

Today, I’m going to return to the Reuter’s Digital News Report and look at the relationship between us, news and social media. But what I’m going to talk about is probably not what you think I’m going to talk about.

Forget all the many, many problems that come with relying on social media to be informed. Forget about filter bubbles and echo chambers. Forget about misleading or outright false stories. Forget about algorithmic targeting. Forget about the gaping vulnerabilities that leave social media open to nefarious manipulation. Forget all that (but just for the moment, because those are all horrible and very real problems that we need to focus on).

Today, I want to talk about one specific problem that comes when we get our news through social media. When we do that, our brains don’t work the way they should if we want to be well informed.

First, let’s talk about the scope of the issue here. According to the Reuter’s study, in the U.S. more people — 72% — turn online for news than any other source. Television comes in second at 59%. If we single out social media, it comes in third at 48%. Trailing the pack is print media at just 20%.

Reuters Digital News Study 2020 – Sources of News in US

If we plot this on a chart over the last seven years, print and social media basically swapped spots, with their respective lines crossing each other in 2014; one trending up and one trending down. In 2013, 47% of us turned to print as a primary news source and just 27% of us went to social media.

If we further look at those under 35, accessing news through social media jumps to the number-one spot by a fairly wide margin. And because they’re young, we’re not talking Facebook here. Those aged 18 to 24 are getting their news through Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

The point, if it’s not clear by now, is that many of us get our news through a social media channel — and the younger we are, the more that’s true. The paradox is that the vast majority of us — over 70% — don’t trust the news we see on our social media feeds. If we were to pick an information source we trusted, we would never go to social media.

This brings up an interesting juxtaposition in how we’re being informed about the world: almost all of us are getting our news through social media, but almost none of us are looking for it when we do.

According to the Reuter’s Report, 72% of us (all ages, all markets) get our news through the “side door.” This means we are delivered news — primarily through social media and search — without us intentionally going directly to the source of the information. For those aged 18 to 24, “side door” access jumps to 84% and, of that, access through social media jumps to 38%.

Our loyalty to the brand and quality of an information provider is slipping between our fingers and we don’t seem to care. We say we want objective, non-biased, quality news sources, but in practice we lap up whatever dubious crap is spoon-fed to us by Facebook or Instagram. It’s the difference between telling our doctor what we intend to eat and what we actually eat when we get home to the leftover pizza and the pint of Häagen-Dazs in our fridge.

The difference between looking for and passively receiving information is key to understanding how our brain works. Let’s talk a little bit about “top-down” and “bottom-up” activation and the “priming” of our brain.

When our brain has a goal — like looking for COVID-19 information — it behaves significantly differently than when it is just bored and wanting to be entertained.

The goal sets a “top down” intent. It’s like an executive order to the various bits and pieces of our brain to get their shit together and start working as a team. Suddenly the entire brain focuses on the task at hand and things like reliability of information become much more important to us. If we’re going to go directly to a information source we trust, this is going to be when we do it.

If the brain isn’t actively engaged in a goal, then information has to initiate a “bottom-up” activation. And that is an entirely different animal.

We never go to social media looking for a specific piece of news. That’s not how social media works. We go to our preferred social channels either out of sheer boredom or a need for social affirmation. We hope there’s something in the highly addictive endlessly scrolling format that will catch our attention.

For a news piece to do that, it has to somehow find a “hook” in our brain.  Often, that “hook” is an existing belief. The parts of our brain that act as gatekeepers against unreliable information are bypassed because no one bothered to wake them up.

There is a further brain-related problem with relying on social media, and that’s the “priming” issue. This is where one stimulus sets a subconscious “lens” that will impact subsequent stimuli. Priming sets the brain on a track we’re not aware of, which makes it difficult to control.

Social media is the perfect priming platform. One post sets the stage for the next, even if they’re completely unrelated.

These are just two factors that make social media an inherently dangerous platform to rely on for being informed.

The third is that social media makes information digestion much too easy. Our brain barely needs to work at all. And if it does need to work, we quickly click back and scroll down to the next post. Because we’re looking to be entertained, not informed, the brain is reluctant to do any unnecessary heavy lifting.   

This is a big reason why we may know the news we get through social media channels is probably not good for us, but we gulp it down anyway, destroying our appetite for more trustworthy information sources.

These three things create a perfect cognitive storm for huge portions of the population to be continually and willingly misinformed. That’s not even factoring in all the other problems with social media that I mentioned at the outset of this column. We need to rethink this — soon!

Playing Fast and Loose with the Truth

A few months ago, I was having a conversation with someone and they said something that I was pretty sure was not true. I don’t know if it was a deliberate lie. It may have just been that this particular person was uninformed. But they said it with the full confidence that what they said was true. I pushed back a little and they instantly defended their position.

My first instinct was just to let it go. I typically don’t go out of my way to cause friction in social settings. Besides, it was an inconsequential thing. I didn’t really care about it. But I was feeling a little pissy at the time, so I fact checked her by looking it up on my phone. And I was right. She had stated something that wasn’t true and then doubled down on it.

Like I said, it was inconsequential – a trivial conversation point. But what if it wasn’t? What if there was a lot riding on whether or not what they said was true? What if this person was in a position of power, like – oh, I don’t know – the President of the United States?

The role of truth in our social environment is currently a thing in flux. I cannot remember a time when we have been more suspicious of what we see, read and hear on a daily basis. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, less than 40% of us trust what we hear on the news. And when that news comes through our social media feed, the level of distrust jumps to a staggering 80%

Catching someone in a lie has significant social and cognitive implications. We humans like to start from a default position of trust. If we can do that, it eliminates a lot of social friction and cognitive effort. We only go to not trusting when we have to protect ourselves.

Our proclivity for trust is what has made a global commerce and human advancement possible. But, unfortunately, it does leave us vulnerable. Collectively, we usually play by the same playbook I was initially going to use in my opening example. It’s just easier to go along with what people say, even if we may doubt that it’s true. This is especially so if the untruth is delivered with confidence. We humans love confidence in others because it means we don’t have to work as hard. Confidence is a signal we use to decide to trust and trust is always easier than distrust. The more confident the delivery, the less likely we are to question it.

It’s this natural human tendency that put the “con” in “con artist.” “Con” is short for confidence, and it originates with an individual named William Thompson, who plied the streets of New York in the 1840’s. He would walk up to a total stranger who was obviously well off and greet them like a long-lost friend. After a few minutes of friendly conversation during which the target would be desperately trying to place this individual, Thompson would ask for the loan of something of value. He would then set his hook with this, “Do you have confidence in me to loan me this [item] til tomorrow?”  The success of this scam was totally dependent on an imbalance of confidence; extreme confidence on the part of the con artist and a lack of confidence on the part of the target.

It is ironic that in an era where it’s easier than ever to fact check, we are seeing increasing disregard for the truth. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump passed a misinformation milestone on July 9, making 20,000 false or misleading claims since he became President. He surged past that particular post when he lied 62 times on that day alone. I don’t even think I talk 62 times per day.

This habit of playing fast and loose with the truth is not Trump’s alone. Unfortunately, egregious lying has been normalized in today’s world. We have now entered an era where full time fact checking is necessary. On July 7, NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman said we need a Biden-Trump debate, but only on two conditions: First, only if Trump releases his tax returns, and second, only if there is a non-partisan real-time fact-checking team keeping the debaters accountable.

We have accepted this as the new normal. But we shouldn’t. There is an unacceptable cost we’re paying by doing so. And that cost becomes apparent when we think about the consequence of lying on a personal basis.

If we catch an acquaintance in a deliberate lie, we put them in the untrustworthy column. We are forced into a default position of suspicion whenever we deal with them in the future. This puts a huge cognitive load on us. As I said before, it takes much more effort to not trust someone. It makes it exponentially harder to do business with them. It makes it more difficult to enjoy their company. It introduces friction into our relationship with them.

Even if the lie is not deliberate but stated with confidence, we label them as uninformed. Again, we trust them less.

Now multiply this effort by everyone. You quickly see where the model breaks down. Lying may give the liar a temporary advantage, but it’s akin to a self-limiting predator-prey model. If it went unchecked, soon the liars would only have other liars to deal with. It’s just not sustainable.

Truth exists for a reason. It’s the best social strategy for the long term. We should fight harder for it.

What Would Aaron Do?

I am a big Aaron Sorkin fan. And before you rain on my parade, I say that fully understanding that he epitomizes the liberal intellectual elitist, sanctimonious cabal that has helped cleave American culture in two. I get that. And I don’t care.

I get that his message is from the left side of the ideological divide. I get that he is preaching to the choir. And I get that I am part of the choir. Still, given the times, I felt that a little Sorkin sermon was just what I needed. So I started rewatching Sorkin’s HBO series “The Newsroom.”

If you aren’t part of this particular choir, let me bring you up to speed. The Newsroom in this case is at the fictional cable network ACN. One of the primary characters is lead anchor Will McEvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), who has built his audience by being noncontroversial and affable — the Jay Leno of journalism. 

This brings us to the entrance of the second main character: Mackenzie McHale, played by Emily Mortimer. Exhausted from years as an embedded journalist covering multiple conflicts in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, she comes on board as McEvoy’s new executive producer (and also happens to be his ex-girlfriend). 

In typical Sorkin fashion, she goads everyone to do better. She wants to reimagine the news by “reclaiming journalism as an honorable profession,” with “civility, respect, and a return to what’s important; the death of bitchiness; the death of gossip and voyeurism; speaking truth to stupid.”

I made it to episode 3 before becoming profoundly sad and world-weary. Sorkin’s sermon from 2012—– just eight years ago —  did not age well. It certainly didn’t foreshadow what was to come. 

Instead of trying to be better, the news business — especially cable news — has gone in exactly the opposite direction, heading straight for Aaron Sorkin’s worst-case scenario. This scenario formed part of a Will McEvoy speech in that third episode: “I’m a leader in an industry that miscalled election results, hyped up terror scares, ginned up controversy, and failed to report on tectonic shifts in our country — from the collapse of the financial system to the truths about how strong we are to the dangers we actually face.”

That pretty much sums up where we are. But even Sorkin couldn’t anticipate what horrors social media would throw into the mix. The reality is actually worse than his worst-case scenario. 

Sorkin’s appeal for me was that he always showed what “better” could be. That was certainly true in his breakthrough political hit “The West Wing.” 

He brought the same message to the jaded world of journalism in “The Newsroom. He was saying, “Yes, we are flawed people working in a flawed system set in a flawed nation. But it can be better….Our future is in our hands. And whatever that future may be, we will be held accountable for it when it happens.”

This message is not new. It was the blood and bones of Abraham Lincoln’s annual address to Congress on December 1, 1862, just one month before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law. Lincoln was preparing the nation for the choice of a path which may have been unprecedented and unimaginably difficult, but would ultimately be proven to be the more moral one: “It is not ‘can any of us imagine better?’ but, ‘can we all do better?’ The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion.”

“The Newsroom” was Sorkin’s last involvement with a continuing TV series. He was working on his directorial movie debut, “Molly’s World,” when Trump got elected. 

Since then, he has adapted Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” for Broadway, with “The Newsroom’”s Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch. 

Sorkin being Sorkin, he ran into a legal dispute with Lee’s estate when he updated the source material to be a little more open about the racial tension that underlies the story. Aaron Sorkin is not one to let sleeping dogmas lie. 

Aaron Sorkin also wrote a letter to his daughter and wife on the day after the 2016 election, a letter than perhaps says it all. 

It began, “Well the world changed late last night in a way I couldn’t protect us from.”

He was saying that as a husband and father. But I think it was a message for us all — a message of frustration and sadness. He closed the letter by saying “I will not hand [my daughter] a country shaped by hateful and stupid men. Your tears last night woke me up, and I’ll never go to sleep on you again.”

Yes, Sorkin was preaching when he was scripting “The Newsroom.” But he was right. We should do better. 

In that spirit, I’ll continue to dissect the Reuters study on the current state of journalism I mentioned last week. And I’ll do this because I think we have to hold our information sources to “doing better.” We have to do a better job of supporting those journalists that are doing better. We have to be willing to reject the “dogmas of the quiet past.” 

One of those dogmas is news supported by advertising. The two are mutually incompatible. Ad-supported journalism is a popularity contest, with the end product a huge audience custom sliced, diced and delivered to advertisers — instead of a well-informed populace.

We have to do better than that.

How We Forage for the News We Want

Reuters Institute out of the UK just released a comprehensive study looking at how people around the world are finding their news. There is a lot here, so I’ll break it into pieces over a few columns and look at the most interesting aspects. Today, I’ll look at the 50,000-foot view, which can best be summarized as a dysfunctional relationship between our news sources and ourselves. And like most dysfunctional relationships, the culprit here is a lack of trust.

Before we dive in, we should spend some time looking at how the way we access news has changed over the last several years.

Over my lifetime, we have trended in two general directions – less cognitively demanding news channels and less destination specific news sources. The most obvious shift has been away from print. According to Journalism.org and the Pew Research Center, circulation of U.S. Daily newspapers peaked around 1990, at about 62 and a half million. That’s one subscription for every 4 people in the country at that time.

In 2018, it was projected that circulation had dropped more than 50%, to less than 30 million. That would have been one subscription for every 10 people. We were no longer reading our news in a non-digital format. And that may have significant impact on our understanding of the news. I’ll return to this in another column, but for now, let’s just understand that our brain operates in a significantly different way when it’s reading rather than watching or listening.

Up the end of the last century, we generally trusted news destinations. Whether it be a daily newspaper like the New York Times, a news magazine like Time or a nightly newscast such as any of the network news shows, each was a destination that offered one thing above all others – the news. And whether you agreed with them or not, each had an editorial process that governed what news was shared. We had a loyalty to our chosen news destinations that was built on trust.

Over the past two decades, this trust has broken down due to one primary factor – our continuing use of social media. And that has dramatically shifted how we get our news.

In the US, three out of every four people use online sources to get their news. One in two use social media.  Those aged 18 to 24 are more than twice as likely to rely on social media. In the UK, under-35s get more of their news from Social Media than any other source.

Also, influencers have become a source of news, particularly amongst young people. In the US, a quarter of those 18 to 24 used Instagram as a source of news about COVID.

This means that most times, we’re getting our news through a social media lens. Let’s set aside for a moment the filtering and information veracity problems that introduces. Let’s just talk about intent for a moment.

I have talked extensively in the past about information foraging when it comes to search. When information is “patchy” and spread diversely, the brain has to make a quickly calculated guess about which patch it’s most likely to find the information in it’s looking for. With Information Foraging, the intent we have frames everything that comes after.

In today’s digital world, information sources have disaggregated into profoundly patchy environments. We still go to news-first destinations like CNN or Fox News but we also get much of our information about the world through our social media feeds. What was interesting about the Reuters report was that it was started before the COVID pandemic, but the second part of the study was conducted during COVID. And it highlights a fascinating truth about our relationship with the news when it comes to trust.

The study shows that the majority of us don’t trust the news we get through social media but most times, we’re okay with that. Less than 40% of people trust the news in general, and even when we pick a source, less than half of us trust that particular channel. Only 22% indicated they trust the news they see in social media. Yet half of us admit we use social media to get our news. The younger we are, the more reliant we are on social media for news. The fastest growing sources for news amongst all age groups – but especially those under 30 – are Instagram, SnapChat and WhatsApp.

Here’s another troubling fact that fell out of the study. Social platforms, especially Instagram and SnapChat, are dominated by influencers. That means that much of our news comes to us by way of a celebrity influencer reposting it on their feed. This is a far cry from the editorial review process that used to act as a gate keeper on our trusted news sources.

So why do we continue to use news sources we admit we don’t trust? I suspect it may have to do with something called the Meaning Maintenance Model. Proposed in 2006 by Heine, Proulx and Vohs, the model speculates that a primary driver for us is to maintain our beliefs in how the world works. This is related to the sense making loop (Klein, Moon and Hoffman) I’ve also talked about in the past. We make sense of the world by first starting with the existing frame of what we believe to be true. If what we’re experiencing is significantly different from what we believe, we will update our frame to align with the new evidence.

What the Meaning Maintenance Model suggests is that we will go to great lengths to avoid updating our frame. It’s much easier just to find supposed evidence that supports our current beliefs. So, if our intent is to get news that supports our existing world view, social media is the perfect source. It’s algorithmically filtered to match our current frame. Even if we believe the information is suspect, it still comforts us to have our beliefs confirmed. This works well for news about politics, societal concerns and other ideologically polarized topics.

We don’t like to admit this is the case. According to the Reuter’s study, 60% of us indicate we want news sources that are objective and not biased to any particular point of view. But this doesn’t jive with reality at all. As I wrote about in a previous column, almost all mainstream news sources in the US appear to have a significant bias to the right or left. If we’re talking about news that comes through social media channels, that bias is doubled down on. In practice, we are quite happy foraging from news sources that are biased, as long as that bias matches our own.

But then something like COVID comes along. Suddenly, we all have skin in the game in a very real and immediate way. Our information foraging intent changes and our minimum threshold for the reliability of our news sources goes way up. The Reuters study found that when it comes to sourcing COVID information, the most trusted sources are official sites of health and scientific organizations. The least trusted sources are random strangers, social media and messaging apps.

It requires some reading between the lines, but the Reuters study paints a troubling picture of the state of journalism and our relationship with it. Where we get our information directly impacts what we believe. And what we believe determines what we do.

These are high stakes in an all-in game of survival.