Before we focus on the news, consider how we work out the facts around high-stakes events in court:
Courtrooms in the U.S. employ layers of investigation and interpretation to attempt to connect the dots around a crime as objectively as possible: first-hand witness accounts, expert testimony, opposing lawyers, jury by peers, and more.
Yet the measure of proof for a guilty verdict is still “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Why? Because we know that no matter how slowly, carefully, and expensively we seek out the facts, we can’t entirely trust them when the truth counts.
Now let’s shift our attention back to the news:
Is the average story you come across in your Twitter feed or newspaper crafted with anything so slow, careful, or expensive as the average court case? Clearly not.
So how much should we rely on it? Let’s consider how the news gets created:
1) Stories begin as partial, filtered observations
The moment a newsworthy event surfaces, reporters begin to connect the dots from meager second or third-hand observations.
The pattern they trace becomes the story:
But no reporter connects the dots perfectly; Biases, limited experience, time constraints, and pressure to tell a popular story limits their view.
Even the best reporter’s story is a filtered fraction of a partial observation of what actually happened.
But we – the readers – don’t even get that much in the news.
2) The news is a sensational cut of a story
If our reporter’s story makes the cut, then an editor cuts it further still.
They sprinkle on a spicy headline, trim the fat, and dollop on an easily shareable morsel or two to feed the ad-driven media machine.
The “news” trims and sensationalizes a story further.
Our published story is now a sensational fragment of a filtered fraction of a partial observation.
But that’s not the worst of it.
3) From here, the news holds our attention hostage
These days, published stories are only as successful as they are shared widely on social media.
As the social-media machine gears up, multiple accounts of a story combine into trending topics; Then armchair experts, pundits, and opportunists further fragment, decontextualize, amplify, and connect the story into thousands of new patterns competing for niche attention.
The amplified, cobbled-together social-media impression of a news story reminds me of a kidnapper's ransom note from the movies where each letter is cut from a different magazine and newspapers pages; Except on social media, it our attention that's held hostage for view$ and click$.
So, what do we do with the news?
Besides all the flaws pictured above, another fact stands out: for most of us, 95% of the news has zero substantive connection to our personal, work, social, or spiritual life.
We have no influence over the troubling or sensational events beamed into our faces, yet they continually sap our emotional energy away from areas we have substantial influence over: our family, friends, work, and community.
News can be addicting, especially when it connects perfectly with or expands on our prized narratives. But if we keep the whole messy process pictured above in mind, I hope we'll have an easier time giving the news its proper intellectual and emotional weight: almost none at all.
Credits: This essay expands on an idea about history from Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book.