On "The Media"

On “The Media”

“The media” is a  term that is frequently used to categorize journalists, newspapers, and broadcast news shows. We often use “the media” in a negative way, complaining about coverage of events in unfair and oversimplified ways. “The media” always seems to have an agenda, a narrative, and a specific concern plucked from the zeitgeist that will fade away without a real resolution. But this idea is a bit misleading. Categorizing only news sources as “the media” misses out on a lot of media consumption that we engage with every day. It also lumps together news organizations and sources that have vastly different ways of operating, different profit motives, and different general beliefs. Even within a single news or media source there can be things that are terrible, things that are marvelous, and things that we barely notice.
Challenges with “the media” have existed as long as news and media have existed. Books, even fiction books, have been burned and banned almost as long as books have existed. People expressing heretical views against churches or governments have also received the same fate across human history.  But “the media” has been a lens through which we have understood the world past and present. Expanding our view of media to include books, movies, podcasts, and even TikTok videos shows us how media consumption can be cultural cornerstones of our highest values and simultaneously cesspools of rot.
In the George Herriman biography Krazy, author Michael Tisserand includes a quote from a critique written by Gilbert Seldes in the Pittsburgh Sun in the 1920’s. Tisserand’s passage reads:
“In his initial appraisal of Krazy Kat [George Herriman’s celebrated comic strip], he wrote that the cult of the genius of the comic strip who has created the fantastic little monster is a growing one. He added if we have to condemn utterly the press which demoralizes all thought and makes ugly all things capable of beauty, we must still be gentle with it, because Krazy Kat, the invincible and joyous, is a creature of the press, inconceivable without its foundation of cheapness and stupidity. He is there to enliven and encourage and to give much delight.
I really like this quote when viewed through the lens of “the media” that I have been trying to lay out in this post, even though Seldes uses “the press” in the quote above. Categorizing “the media” as entirely worthless or negative or alternatively categorizing “the media” as a cornerstone of democracy is an overly broad brush with which to paint news and information ecosystems. There are things we may hate about “the media” but there are also things we may find invaluable and necessary. Thinking clearly about the media requires that we delve into the particulars, understand the profit motives, understand the competition, and understand the forces that drive the things we like and dislike.
Individually, we are probably powerless to change the course of “the media” or how we talk about “the media.” However, we can think about the choices we make in relation to “the media” and to our friends, family, and colleagues. We can engage in meaningful and deep topics, or we can become enraged over shallow and meaningless topics. We can enjoy the cultural reflections of the shallow or we can criticize them. Ultimately, “the media” is a product of our humanity, and we can project onto it what we want, but we shouldn’t categorize an entire institution as rotten or democracy saving as a whole. “The Media” is complex and has multiple layers running throughout each interconnected element.
Prioritizing Bad News

Prioritizing Bad News

I hear a lot of criticism of news and the tendency of news organizations to operate under a model of “if it bleeds, it leads.” The idea is that news is too negative, that it focuses too much on violent crime, corruption, and scandal rather than important but often somewhat boring news and developments. The negativity bias within the news is cited for our misunderstandings of violent crime, for tainting our views of politics, and for making us more cynical. But research that Daniel Kahneman presents in his book Thinking Fast and Slow suggests that maybe we shouldn’t blame news organizations for prioritizing bad news.

 

Kahneman writes, “the brains of humans and other animals contain a mechanism that is designed to give priority to bad news.” There appears to be physiological structures in the brain that allow our brains to react at super speeds to threats and injuries. If you hear a lion roar, your body is going to react to the threat immediately, before you consciously recognize exactly what you just heard. Similarly, if you touch a hot stove your body is going to react by jerking your hand back before you even feel the pain from the burn.

 

There is an evolutionary psychology explanation to the immediate reaction of our brain to threats and injuries. If you are deep at work and concentrating intensely on something, you don’t want your brain to be slow to shift gears and respond to the sound of an approaching predator. You want your brain and body to begin reacting to a dangerous sound immediately, to help you survive a potentially fatal attack. Animals, and early human ancestors, that could respond at a subconscious level to threats and injuries were more likely to survive and and reproduce, passing their super quick response system to the next generation.

 

Today we don’t have to run from lions as often as our ancestors, and despite what we might sense from action movies and the news, violent crime is actually rather low compared to historic levels. Our super quick threat detection system is still with us, but many of the evolutionary pressures that built it have been left in the past. Our threat and injury detectors are still operating, and Kahneman’s quote suggests that we see their influence in our lives reflected in the news we prioritize. Bad news may activate the same threat responses in our brain, and we may have an instinctual drive to know about understand threats and dangers. “If it bleeds, it leads” is not a grim decision made by news executives, it is a driving force of our evolutionary past, a part of our brain which once served us well, but now prioritizes bad news and biases our media.
The First Value of Deep Work

The First Value of Deep Work

“Deep work is not some nostalgic affectation of writers and early-twentieth-century Philosophers,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “It’s instead a skill that has great value today.”

 

A tension that I think a lot of us face (I know its true for me) is that we are pulled in two different directions when it comes to media and information. The news cycle moves so fast today that it feels hard to keep on top of whats happening in the world. We all want to feel connected and feel like we are in the know, and we like being the person at the water-cooler who has the latest information about some nationwide or global event. We have a drive to constantly stay on top of what is happening right now.

 

Pulling against this urge is the desire to know interesting things and to consume media that is thoughtful, thorough, and interesting. It is one thing to know what is happening in the world right now, but it is an entirely different thing to truly understand the context and antecedents that gave rise to the current news cycle.

 

The first desire we have is to know new things about the world, the second desire is to truly understand the world. One desire encourages shallow quick headlines, while the other desire encourages deep thoughtful engagement. It is very challenging to do both.

 

Cal Newport’s suggestion is to shoot for the latter. Learning and engaging with complex topics requires real focus and deep work. The value from the second will far outlast the first. The first value of deep work that Newport shares in his book reads, “We have an information economy that’s dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. … To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things.”

 

Staying on top of the news simply requires that we flutter around on Twitter, absentmindedly distracting ourselves and taking in a few headlines and quotes without thinking critically about how it all links together and exactly why people are reaching the conclusions they reach. This is does not develop the skills that are necessary for quick learning, even thought it is a quick way to sort through information.

 

Learning complex things quickly requires that we be able to engage in deep work and focus on the most important items. Failing to build these skills and abilities means that you won’t be able to truly master changing technologies and markets. You will be left behind reading headlines about changes, without actually understanding changes and adapting to them. Deep work is valuable because learning and critical thinking are both becoming more valuable, and both require deep work in order to be done well and timely. The answer then to how we should handle the tension I mentioned above is to more or less abandon the headlines and give up on staying on top of the news. We might look a little uninformed to others about current world events, but we will have a better background and understanding of what is shaping the world today than the others around us, and we will be able to learn the important lessons faster.