Saturday, November 4, 2017


'The news' is a thing that we all take for granted.  If something is 'on the news', it is invested with a certain amount of authority as an event, as though it is more important than all the other events that happen.

But I guess we have to remember that 'the news' is selected by those who make the news, in such a way that even they themselves are unsure how the selection happens.  A decision to run with something as a headline can happen on a thin premise.  For instance, if other news outlets are already running an item as a headline, then the decision can be made on that basis, which is effectively copying.  Furthermore, if a train of thought is trending, then an event that plays into the centre of that train of thought is more likely to hit the headlines.

In this way, the news industry acts a little like the fashion industry.  In some ways it appears to feed current trends and obsessions in society.  In other ways, it seeks to stir up and guide enthusiasm for new modes of thought that lend themselves to a sensational push.  The former appears to be democratic in a loose sense.  The latter somewhat autocratic.  They seem to feed each other in a kind of circle.  Those with editorial power pick up and feed trends, but also edit and refocus those trends in a biased manner.

In the fashion industry, this dual force might be seen in an attempt to sell a fashion item as 'currently hot on the street'.  In this way, a fashion editor can appear to be democratic and sensitive, with an ear close to the ground.  The second part of the dual force, however, is the fashion editor's selectivity: they choose particular elements and aspects of the fashion item to focus on and present to the public.  This in turn affects the public view, and in an ongoing cycle, the editor can then re-interview the public to see how the mutually-generated enthusiasm for a new product is going.

In the news industry, the same thing happens.  A news item is picked up as 'hot on the street'.  It is then editorialised and re-presented in a re-focused manner partly determined by the attitudes and intentions of the editor themselves.  The public is thereby influenced, and there begins a cycle of mutual feeding until one is not sure where the public begins and the editor ends.

The above system works in terms of a market.  In a sense, the owners of the means of production try to detect changes in consumer behaviour and preferences, and then try to reflect that back to the consumer, flexed with the owners' own views and approach.

However, there are certain problems.  The main ones, perhaps, are:

1. It is a self-fulfilling system.  News producer and public can end up in a strange co-dependent relationship where they create their own self-justified reality, and become blind to anything outside it.
2. The system is biased towards novelty and obsession.  Psychologically, news 'consumers' are more likely to attend to things that are either new, or feed their own temporary obsessions.  This takes the emphasis away from long-standing truths, and makes it harder to see things in the light of distant or unfashionable ideologies.
3. The system relies on powerful editors to do its job.  Editors are subject to their own biases, and can feed the news cycle with unwarranted focus on what they, albeit unconsciously, want to focus on.

The result of these problems is:

1. Countries with such news systems become conceptually closed to anything outside their own world view.  Quite quickly, fashionable ideologies can be whipped up and self-justified without reference to how different things are from the perspective of other geographic locations, cultural standpoints, and ideologies.
2. Countries with such news systems become (a) short-termist, unable to think for the long term, and (b) local, unable to think widely with all of humanity.
3. Countries with such news systems become over-influenced by an oligarchy of powerful news editors, who often do not even know what they are doing, what unconscious biases they are giving their consumers.

I would suggest three controls to avoid falling too far down this hole.

1. Allow 'foreigners' to present, edit, supply and influence the news.  By 'foreigners', I not only mean people from other countries, but people from different regions, cultures and ideologies.  Also allow 'foreigners' to be the consumers of the news.  If an editor knows that their audience is worldwide, they are less likely to follow parochial concerns, attentional biases and obsessions.
2. Dedicate a large part of reporting to things that are not new, have not changed, and are outside current local attentional focus.
3. Use a system of guest editors, who, for a time, are given complete editorial control.  Deliberately choose them to introduce a different voice, a different choice, a different attentional bias and selection focus.

We all have our own internal news system.  We have an internal editor which dips into the world and seeks out information that is novel, or fits with our current obsessions.  Partly, this is necessary.  If the novel information is a falling tree, then it helps us to move out of the way.  But it has the same drawbacks as described above.  Our internal news system is self-focused, conceptually closed, narrow, self-justifying; it is short term, un-inclusive; it is unconsciously biased.

Individually, we can open our lives to influence from different locations, cultures and ideologies.  We can remove our minds from the apparent turmoil of local events, raise our eyes, and look a little more to the horizon, to patterns that can exist over millions of years.  We can introduce 'guest editors' into our lives, allowing them to introduce a different voice, to break our selfish attentional bias, and to help us to select things for attention that we are perhaps afraid of or unaccustomed to. 

It is beyond the scope of this article, but social media has an effect on all of the above.  One could argue that it offers an alternative to traditional news channels.  However, it is also arguably subject to the same bias-reinforcement as above.  Algorithms seek to establish our preferences, and then encourage us to consume according to those preferences.  

As individuals, we can use social media to expand our horizons; but it may involve an active effort on our part to break expected cycles of information, to ensure that we are not simply living inside the same small cardboard box, and painting its unilluminated inside with ever more convoluted colours.

News is fashion.  Editors try to detect consumer preferences, and then feed them back in a hyper-selective and artifically-focused form.  This causes poverty of thought and experience.  We can break the narrowness of this cycle by becoming explorers, mentally and physically travelling through alien places, cultures and ideologies, and allowing things outside our own selfish circle to break our petty obsessions and attentional biases.