Is there a rational justification for reading the news?

Spoiler alert: no, there isn’t.

A news story can be characterized by the following formula:

M + A = C

Where M is momentousness, or the nontrivial-ness of the events described; A is the actionability, or the degree to which the events described are likely to be something the reader can personally use or do something about; and C is the criticality, or how much the reader has a justifiable interest in consuming the story and really ought to make sure he does so.

This formula leaves out the X factor of how much the reader merely derives enjoyment or amusement from consuming the story, but I left that out because it isn’t particularly specific to journalism products. And I think it more describes the subconscious (“revealed”) reason why people consume journalism, rather than the (“expressed”) reasons people claim to consume it. More about that later.

I posit that M and A tend to be inversely correlated: the more momentous a news story, the less likely the reader can do anything either about or with the information in it, whereas news reports about minutia (a change in a particular stock price, whether it will rain tomorrow, the recall of a certain product, etc.) are usually pretty immediately helpful — though not having the information is rarely a big deal, partly because the information can often be easily found elsewhere, often without even looking for it. (For example, the weather later in the day can usually be predicted earlier in the day to a certain extent just by looking outside; product recalls are often communicated by the manufacturers to the customers in as direct a way possible; etc.)

C is therefore almost always near zero. There isn’t a justifiable reason to consume journalism that’s substantially different from the justification for watching reality shows or reading romance novels, although an additional justification for consuming journalism (this is what I was going to write more about later) is being “in the know” for unarticulated social status reasons: it makes people feel good to know things others don’t, or at least to know the same latest stuff as what others know, even if what’s known about is completely irrelevant and useless.

Journalism is gossip, and instead of consuming it you’re better off spending your time doing something else. If you need a status boost, go do something productive instead. (And that’s before even getting into how reading/watching/listening to the news makes people anxious, angry, frustrated, more tribal, etc.)


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