I know there are readers waiting for me to publish the speech I gave in Canberra last month on '10 lessons from 5 years of political blogging'. The speech was partly ex tempore, so I'm still refining the final text. But having published two lessons already, here's another extract, prompted by the XKCD cartoon I just saw (reproduced below) about the US presidential election. This lesson is on 'the difference between news and history'.
On first impressions, it's trite to say that 'news and history are not the same thing', and I don't intend to offer yet another scolding to the news media for being superficial and celebrity-obsessed rather than focusing on important issues. In fact, this 'lesson' is more about media consumers than about the media itself.
The distinction between news and history hit home to me again on US election day in early November when I wasted a good part of my day following the US election result. I refreshed my browser, I checked Twitter and my favourite blogs, and watched snatches of TV news. Why did I do this? Why didn't I just wait a few hours until the result was known?
My theory (or really, an intuition) is that the little psychological thrill I got from each new piece of information, the tiny high that comes from learning something new, is why I did it. And that thrill, that high, is no different to the one felt by, say, a fifteen year old girl when she reads the latest tweet from Kim Kardashian. The emotions and the motivations are the same. We kid ourselves if we think our interest in public affairs is purely noble and democratic, that we want to know the news out of a sense of citizenship or even for narrow, self-interested reasons to do with our economic future or our security. Those are factors, but also, we just like to hear stories about other people.
To reinforce this point, consider the format of the evening TV news, still the way most people get their daily news and more or less unchanged in my lifetime. Whether it's commercial TV or the ABC and SBS, the running order is the same: news, finance, sport, weather.
What's striking about an average bulletin is how dominated it is by talking heads, and how little data is presented. If the news really was all about presenting information, you'd think there would be a lot more data. And TV is perfectly suited to conveying certain types of information visually. Consider the humble map. If you want to give someone directions, you don't write a long narrative starting with 'turn left out of your driveway'. No, you draw a map. Or think of a bar graph displaying something as simple as monthly milk consumption figures for a given city – how much harder would it be to explain the data in that bar graph if you had to do it in narrative form?
And yet, on an average news broadcast, the first bar graph you see is in the finance segment. And the only map you will see is during the weather segment. In fact, those two segments are consistently the most data-rich portions of the broadcast, and they're also the shortest! By far the biggest proportion of the broadcast is devoted to talking, which in most cases is the least efficient way to convey information.
The conclusion I draw is that news producers and editors know something about us which we would perhaps prefer not to tell ourselves, which is that we don't watch the news simply to get information, we watch it to hear stories.