There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the media. Some people are worried about local newspapers dying out while others accuse the mainstream media of delivering fake news.
What is the reality nowadays, is that only a handful of mega-corporations own the majority of privately-run newspapers and TV channels. Their business plan is not primarily to inform people but to generate income by selling ads. Sometimes they also push a political agenda that is in the interest of the owners or shareholders.
The more people read a newspaper or watch a news channel, the more relevant it becomes. Thus the first goal of any media corporation must always be to attract readers and viewers.
I don’t run this blog as a full-time business but I also have advertisements on the blog to finance the hosting and software cost. So it is of my best interest to attract as many readers as possible to offer services to my readers like, for example, a faster server to reduce the time it takes to load my website.
So how do I attract readers? At its core, this is a food blog. For recipes, the recipe picture is the main point of focus for many readers. If you see a plate of spätzle or German pancakes on your screen, I hope you get hungry and click on the recipe.
For the non-recipe articles, I don’t focus too much on the headline. A lot of blogs nowadays are designed to be search engine friendly. The blog posts get stuffed with keywords so that they appear on the first page of Google. Articles are often not written because they interest the author but because there’s a lot of search traffic for a certain topic.
I can’t blame people who do this. If you have to rely on search engine traffic and advertisement income to make a living, attracting readers is your key business.
The business model of media corporations
Media companies are in a similar position. They need to attract as many readers as possible to survive. We live in a world with an oversupply of information. Our attention has become a valuable good.
Innovations like the printing press, television broadcasting, and the internet have revolutionized our communication. Nowadays, we can be informed in real-time about what’s happening on the other side of the world. We don’t even need to leave the comfort of our own home for that.
What we suffer from nowadays is that, despite the large influx of information, we are not informed. We have become passive consumers of news that are quickly forgotten.
You don’t have to hold a degree in marketing to know that scandalous, sensational, and shocking news receive the most attention. Clickbaity titles and provoking pictures do attract the most viewers.
News are not simply a piece of information. Succesful news organizations are storytellers. They often use people-related stories to convey their content.
When it comes to showing the danger of the COVID-19 virus, often people are interviewed who had serious complications or who have family members that have died during the pandemic. On the other hand, if the news corporation is against stricter civil rights restrictions, it might show shop owners who got bankrupted because they had to close their business during the pandemic.
These stories don’t personally affect us. We usually don’t know the people shown on the news. Yet we are humans. We show emotions. We suffer together with the protagonist of a story. Information presented in an emotional story-format is highly engaging for us.
Almost no one enjoys reading academic journals in a recreational setting. No emotions are shown in a scientific text. There is no story constructed around the information.
The news media needs to entertain us to grab our attention. After work, many people are mentally exhausted and don’t want to engage in deep thinking. Way too often we mindlessly become passive consumers of media.
Information that we only consume passively is of no use for us
Information that we only consume passively has a very low retention rate in our memory. Everyone knows this from studying for an exam. It’s usually not enough to just listen to a professor’s lectures to pass a test.
You can easily verify this claim by a little experiment. Try to write down at least five topics that were in the news four weeks ago. Be as specific as possible. Was a new law passed in parliament? Was there a shooting somewhere in the country? Did some celebrities get a divorce?
If you’re like me, this is a very challenging task.
If you forgot a lot of the information, it probably means that they are of no relevance to your life. Does it really affect your life if a hurricane hits Haiti, the Polish population elects a new president, or that a new law was passed that guarantees a minimum wage for restaurant workers (unless you’re in the industry)?
Especially nation-wide news channels are horrible in this regard. They make it seem like every topic is of relevance to your life and that being “uninformed” is a horrible state to be in. But this is not true.
First, you don’t get informed by watching the news. Getting informed requires work in the form of extensive reading, research, and deep thought. Consuming 30 seconds of a news segment that might even be opinionated can never reward you with a deep understanding of a certain topic.
Second, consuming more information doesn’t give us a better understanding. A lot of people think that the more information they have, the better they are equipped to make a decision. This is usually not the case. Too much information overwhelms our brain.
The more information we have available, the harder it becomes to make a decision. We tend to overthink minor details and lose sight of the bigger picture.
The Western disease of trying to make sense of everything
Some people claim that the news can be used to predict the future. Maybe you have invested in stocks and want to foresee the economic development in the upcoming months.
According to the linear Western logic that every effect has its cause, we should be able to make accurate predictions of the stock market based on experiences from the past. Western logic dictates that the same circumstances and actions always lead to the same result.
If we can characterize the current situation, then we can look for comparable patterns in the past to predict the future. Yet this strategy doesn’t work. No one in this world can accurately predict the stock market.
We cannot reliably foresee economic recessions. Neither can we foresee wars, pandemics, or democratic elections. Experts are most often horribly wrong with their predictions.
The Western mind is flawed in the way that it tries to make sense of everything. We get educated to believe that for every effect there is a specific cause.
But what is the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic? You might insist that it was a bat that first carried the virus. But is that really the underlying reason for a worldwide pandemic? Why did the virus come into existence in the first place? It was maybe a random mutation. But why did this mutation occur in China?
As you can see, you can endlessly go down the road of why questions. In the end, you always end up at the question: But why does life and our universe in its current state exist? No one can answer that.
Thinking strictly in cause-effect patterns is a trademark of the Western mind
Asking why and looking for a cause for everything is the Western way to make sense of this world. We always want to understand the reason for everything and have a hard time dealing with uncertainties.
This phenomenon is not so prevalent in traditional African cultures. Africans believe that we cannot change the present. We have to adapt to certain environments and a catastrophe like the COVID-19 pandemic can not be predicted from the past.
Africans are very accepting of the statement that we cannot control the world. From a Western point of view, it is hard to admit that we don’t know why certain things happen. The fact that most predictions of the future are wrong shows us that our world is not as rational and ordered as we often assume.
One can say that watching journalists predict the next election is a waste of time. The same is true for watching economic news. We can’t predict how the stock of a certain company will develop based on current data. A lot of experts claim they can do that. But they are overestimating themselves.
The best way to make a profit in the stock market is to simply diversify one’s portfolio. If the general economy develops in a positive way, you probably have more winners in your portfolio than losers. It would be stupid to diversify your portfolio if you could predict the future. With an accurate prediction, you could simply buy the stock with the largest profit margin avoiding all losses.
I hope you got my main points by now that:
- news often doesn’t affect our personal lives
- news don’t inform or enlighten us because we are passive consumers
- news is no tool to explain the present or predict the future
Adding to that, most news portrays the world in a very negative way. We can see war, catastrophes, and scandals every day because that is what grabs our attention. We thus might live under the impression that the world is filled with hate and crime whereas this is simply not true.
We project hate onto celebrities or politicians which are often portrayed in a negative way. What we should recognize is that we don’t know these people. We have never met most people on TV in real life. We construct a picture in our mind about them that might be far from the truth. The media manipulates our minds.
There is a much better alternative to get informed than watching the news
Instead of watching breaking news, infotainment, and advertiser-friendly content, we would all benefit more from regularly practicing extensive reading. A book is much more complex and challenging to our mind than a newspaper or TV news. A book requires concentration and an active mind to understand, process, and interpret the information conveyed.
You can’t read through a book in 5 minutes because a book not only scratches the surface of a topic. The information and background knowledge conveyed in a book are much more in-depth than anything we can experience from a TV show.
A common complaint about movies that have been adapted from literature is that the book is much better. Books feature a complex character development and we need to make up our own pictures in our mind. Thus we feel more involved in the story. Reading a book requires active participation and thus we retain the information conveyed much better.
Books are usually written with positive intent. Even if they are about war and crime there is usually a happy end. Even the bad characters usually possess at least some positive and likable traits. They often suffer from an internal struggle. In a well-written book, there is no clear separation between good and bad.
Compare that to the modern-day media which portrays the world in an oversimplified form. Way too often the debate centers around us vs. them. Russia and China are displayed as our enemies while we in the Western world are the good guys. This just spreads hate and toxicity. The worst about all of this is that most of the debates in current-day media don’t affect our life. From a rational point of view, it’s senseless to project our hate on people we don’t know and that we will never meet.
You might not like the Russian leader Putin but how does he influence your everyday life? Not at all. In Germany, anti-Americanism is spreading again. However, most of the population is not significantly affected by what is happening in a country far away from us. Hating a country based on the propaganda from the media is senseless and irrational.
People here get enraged and claim moral superiority when it comes to China’s internal policies. We demand freedom and democracy for Hong Kong. Yet how does an independent Hong Kong influence your everyday life unless you’re a rich businessman that travels there to avoid paying taxes? It’s not worth to be enraged about issues that we cannot influence ourselves. The average Joe in Germany and the US has no political influence and cannot contribute to solving these issues. Is it really worth to spend even a minute worrying about such things that are out of our reach?
If we are interested in these issues nevertheless it is a smarter decision to just pick up a book, might it be a historical novel or non-fiction. That will provide us with a better understanding and challenge our minds to engage in critical and deep thinking. We should call advertiser-friendly and sensationalist news segments by what they really are: entertainment.