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Why News is Dead

A Brief Coroner's Report

Created: 2020-06-02
Wordcount: 0.7k

Most people I know no longer really trust the news.

By this I mean they do not trust traditional TV news, newspapers, websites which that ostensibly produce 'news', or generally anything produced by someone whose job title includes "journalist."

And generally, the remaining trust I observe is diminishing by the year and month and sometimes day, and I expect it to diminish further. The small prestige remaining in even the most august of news organizations shrinks, and at some point not only will no-one trust the news but everyone will know that no-one trusts the news.

I'll take this for granted. I want to examine some reasons commonly given as to why no one trusts the news.

1. The Internet has Made News Worse

This is the big one, the obvious one, the one that inevitably must be true to some degree. I'll cover it quickly.

On the internet, everyone competes for clicks, views, time, and attention. If you fail to worship these gods, you lose users and advertisers and die. If you fail to sacrifice every other value to them, you lose users and advertisers and die.

Portraying events truly, according to some theoretical objective relevance, or in their correct context -- well, these are other values. So they are sacrificed.

There's a lot more that could be said here, but I'll move on.

2. How News Works Is More Obvious

News has three possible components: Distributing information, discovering information, and distinguishing what information to distribute.

The internet has made it relevant that the chief thing many news sources do, though, is distinguish what information they should show, in service of a narrative.

It's made this obvious because anyone can start a news website. You set up a filter, a narrative to sell, an editorial board with an axe to grind, and bam: you have a news site. You can do it if you're a pro-life Catholic trad, if you're a hardcore marxist tankie, if you're a libertarian techno-utopian, or whatever you want.

This filtering, I think, used to be something you could ignore. You could pretend there was no man behind the curtain, that the stories were chosen by some oracle indifferent to people's narratives. You cannot really pretend this any more.

This is a way in which the badness of news has merely been made manifest -- although news has gotten worse in this respect, this has always been a seed of corruption within it.

3. There Are Actually Easily Available Good Sources of Information

News has always been bad, in some ways, because events in the world are often part of some ongoing chain of cause-and-effect to which you could devote a lifetime of study, but these events were written about by journalists who had only the most cursory knowledge of them.

Now, generally speaking, though, when something happens, if you actually wish to locate an expert on the kind of thing that happened, it's easy enough to find one.

Journalists always screw up quantum mechanics, but now if I'm interested in an informed opinion I just go to Scott Aaronson's blog. Journalists also always screw up machine learning, but that's fine with me because I usually just read the paper on ArXiV. If something happens in China, I'll usually read about it from a blog from an academic who has devoted his life to understanding what China is like and who translates Xi Jingping's works in his spare time. If some protest happens somewhere, I can find unedited, multiple videos from people who were at it, usually cut less deceptively than the clips played in news sources.

In short, at least part of my perception of news as an entirely unreliable source of information is that actually reliable sources of information are now available.

4. These Cycles Reinforce Each Other

The king of all these, of course, is that these trends reinforce each other.

If news deceives more because of competition for clicks, then people who actually care about finding the truth read it less. Thus, there's less reason to try to attract them, then, and the news gets worse at a faster rate.

If people read blogs by experts because they are more reliable than the news, then an ecosystem of such blogs grows up and it's even easier to opt-into it instead of into the news, and people stop reading the news, and again there's even less reason for news to be constrained by reality.

And so on, and so forth.

In the future, I'd like to go into things that could replace news, but that's another question.