What Is the Job of a News Story?

Over the last few months I’ve blatantly but deliberately gone off my low-information diet – not because I suddenly feel a need to be highly informed, but because I’m advising Otherweb, a startup that aims to fix the world’s information ecosystem by presenting only those news stories that are provably lacking in sensationalistic language, partisan fervor, and other manipulative techniques. (Check it out!)

As a result, it’s no surprise that I’ve been pondering the very point of the news. Or, as management thinker Clayton Christiansen would have put it: what’s the job of a news story?

First, consider that there’s such a thing as the news industry. No matter whether there’s really anything important happening, the newspaper must be published, the TV or radio show must be broadcast, etc. This implies that at least some of the news has to be manufactured or at least heavily massaged.

Second, a news outlet doesn’t make money by being especially informative, but by selling advertisements (and to a lesser extent garnering subscriptions or in some cases grants and donations). The more that people pay attention to a news outlet, the more valuable its ad space becomes. Thus a news outlet has strong incentives to grab and hold your attention by any means possible. (Although this has gotten worse in the Internet era because each news story can be individually measured for performance, the same underlying incentives have long been there.)

Third, advertisements exist because companies have products to sell. There wasn’t much if any advertising 200 years ago because people made most of what they needed at home or could source it in their local community.

By combining these three insights, we can see that the job of a news story is not to inform you, not to be accurate, and not to be true, but to do its part in convincing you to buy stuff.

But wait, it gets worse! A single news story does not have its own life to live, but needs to do its part in continually drawing you back to the news outlet where it originated. It does this by helping to keep you in a state of constant agitation about what might happen next. Cultivating emotions like fear, anger, and greed is not a secondary effect of the news, but one of its primary reasons for being. And if there is no crisis, we’d better invent one. (The end of democracy! Ecological catastrophe! Civil war! Civilizational collapse!)

This leads to a further insight about how the sausage gets made. Having worked in organizations that felt the need to manufacture news stories, I can shed a small ray of light on the matter. Consider a seemingly innocuous story about the latest medical research result – say, a study of sleep patterns. The importance of getting a good night’s sleep is a truism, so it’s not news. But the researchers need a continual stream of grant money, the medical school’s PR people get measured on “impact” in their performance appraisals, big financial donors want to be recognized, etc. Thus when the researcher’s paper is published in a medical journal, a news story about the findings gets created, with a catchy headline like “Your Sleep Patterns Could Be Killing You – Here’s Why!” Thousands of people, motivated by the ever-present fear of death, click the link and everyone in the news-creation “supply chain” is happy.

Now multiply this scenario by thousands and thousands of news sources: companies with products to sell, authors with books to promote, financiers with profits to pocket, universities with brands to burnish, celebrities with famous names to maintain, influencers with followers to amass, non-profit organizations with an imperative to survive, ideologues with axes to grind, government agencies with budgets to increase, lobbyists and pollsters with clients to please, politicians with power to gain, and all the rest.

But aren’t professional journalists of high integrity and superior objectivity supposed to protect the citizenry from these malign influences? I won’t even deign to answer that one!

The somewhat cynical conclusion I draw is that much of we read and see and hear is mental junk food that’s extruded out of a vast array of self-interested news machines, designed to manipulate our opinions and emotions, and marketed to us as informative yet providing minimal nutritional value.

These days as I read the news, I keep asking one question: “Hey little story, what’s your job?” The answers can be illuminating.

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