Sam Uretsky

No Time Out for News

In 1956, Theodore Sturgeon wrote a classic short story “And Now the News”. It is a story, at least at first, about a man fixated on news reports, who can go from newspaper to radio, trying, with the technology of the time, to reach the 24 hour news cycle of today. The story is much more than that, but the fact that we do have a 24 hour cycle, whether it’s news or a sort of pseudo-news, CNN and Fox and MSNBC, local news with traffic and weather on the 1’s – implies that there is a measurable market for people who care about news, even to the extent of watching speeches on the Senate floor on C-SPAN.

Microsoft performed a survey of the news reading habits of Americans. They explain: “Scholars and pundits have argued that the growth of social media and personalized web search increases political segregation by fostering so-called filter bubbles, in which individuals are only exposed to ideologically similar perspectives.” In other words, if a person reads a newspaper article because it was liked by a friend, there’s a fair chance that the article will reflect a shared bias, either left or right wing, which will emphasize and increase the degree of political polarization in our society. They found several studies that confirmed this idea, that people read reports, news and opinion, that confirms their already held beliefs.

To study this they “ investigate(d) this question by examining detailed web browsing records of 1.2 million anonymized US-located Internet users. We have a nearly complete record of every web page viewed by these individuals over the three-month period between March and May of 2013, a total of 2.3 billion page views.” They used established computer programs to distinguish between hard news and sports, fashion, or opinion articles. They found that most people rely on centrist sources, or visit a variety of sources, but people “who almost exclusively read articles from The New York Times or Fox News” will show increased bias. The selection of the New York Times as a model of the left may be unreasonable, per Paul Krugman “the facts have a well known liberal bias.”

What may be the most interesting finding is that they considered an active news reader anyone who read at least ten hard news articles and two opinion pieces in a three month period. The bar couldn’t get much lower. Also, by its nature, they were looking at internet habits, and real news followers seem likely to read real newspapers. One key question in the study was the percentage of people who read the news at all. Although the study participants were using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, usually a sign of an older age group, and previous studies had shown that older people, boomers more than Xers more than millennials, were inclined to follow the news, the Microsoft study found that only 14% of the participants were active news readers. In contrast, a Poynter Institute summary of a 2012 Pew Research study reported “ Gen Xers (33-47 years old) and Millennials (18-31 years old), who spent less time than older people following the news at the outset of their adulthood, have so far shown little indication that that they will become heavier news consumers as they age.” There have been other studies examining the news knowledge of people who relied on television as their primary source. PBS viewers and those who watched the Sunday morning news shows (are there really people who watch “Face The Nation” and “Meet the Press” and never read a newspaper?) scored highest. Fox viewers routinely scored worse than random chance on both foreign and domestic news. MSNBC did well on domestic issues but fell behind PBS on international affairs.

This may explain at least some of the vagaries of electoral politics. Professional commentators, and politicians commonly find the behaviors of individual candidates highly significant and grounds for public outrage and resignation, predicting that a specific statement will reverberate at the ballot box, actual responses are rare. While Senator George Allen’s (R-Va) re-election campaign was effectively undone by calling an observer of Indian descent “macaca” other representatives appear to perform absurdly on the national stage, and win re-election. In some cases, statements that seem superficially outrageous, such as Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) advocacy of a flat tax as a fair tax (it’s not) and his proposal for raising taxes on the poor: “What if you’re so poor the only money you have is what the government gives you? And I’ve wondered, you know, isn’t that wasted money, you give it and you take it back? No, it gives you an investment in the country. And we need that.” Statements like that, made at a Tea Party Patriots event in South Carolina, may impress the politician’s base, while going unnoticed by the 86% of the population which doesn’t follow the news. The saying goes “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” – and in this, we’re falling badly behind.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2014

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