The News Ain’t The News

FBI photo of Boston Marathon bombing suspectsHow much time did you spend last week watching the news out of Boston?

America was glued to our screens. TV screens at home, smart phone screens everywhere else. I was having dinner with friends who were staring at their smartphones, reading tweets aloud from other people who were sitting at home staring at their TV, quoting the reporter on CNN, who in all likelihood was just quoting a tweet quoting someone else’s tweet.

We were ravenous for more information. We didn’t seem to care if it was accurate, intelligent or useful. We just wanted more.

But that’s thing. By definition if it’s inaccurate, unintelligent and useless, it isn’t information, it’s noise. And that’s what the news is. It’s noise.

Now it would be easy for me to blame this on the 24 hour new cycle, citizen journalism via twitter, and our entire everything we want, right now on demand, fast food, quick buck culture, but the truth is the news has always just been noise, not in the loud cover your eardrums sense of the word, although most everything on TV is noisy like that too.

But news is noise in the information theory sense of the word: random, meaningless, irrelevant data. Information theorists use the signal to noise ratio to discuss the balance between useful information and irrelevant data.

The news is irrelevant, and always has been.

In Journalism 101 they teach the standard definition of news. If the dog bites the man, that’s not news. It happens thousands of times a day. It’s commonplace. But if the man bites the dog, that’s news. And it’s news precisely because it’s out of the ordinary. If men were biting dogs by the thousands, you wouldn’t need a reporter to tell you about it.

It’s irrelevant to your life. It’s a sideshow. An oddity. It provides no other benefit to you other than to satisfy your morbid curiosity and innate voyeurism.

If the news being irrelevant was its worst side-effect, it might be ok. But it’s not.

terrorist TV cartoonThe news skews your view of the world.

The news has an inherent bias towards big splashy events just like Boston. But this bias and the constant beating of the drum leads us to overestimate the danger from such events.

A few years ago, the media declared the summer of the shark because of all the shark attacks off America’s coastlines. Virtually every newscast lead with a reporter standing on a beach, Gerald Riviera style, detailing another atrocity. But at summer’s end, the statisticians went to work and the accurate, intelligent useful information was that shark attacks, and deaths were BELOW average for the year. The summer of the shark was a media invention.

The news is inaccurate.

In their never ending rush to be first with the story, accuracy falls by the wayside. Last week, reports out of Boston dramatically inflated the death toll and wrongly named innocent people as suspects.

The news is biased.

Back to Journalsim 101, they talk a lot about fair, balanced and unbiased coverage. Well, first of all, there’s no such thing as fair, but that’s an entirely different rant. Every human being has biases, most of which we aren’t even aware of, you know, because we’re biased. Every story a reporter covers, every decision a news director makes, every “fact” an editor accepts as truth is a function of their own bias. The news is biased, at its best.

Korean Central News AgencyAt its worst, the news is propaganda.

We love to boast about our free press and the first amendment while condemning the state-controlled media in other less evolved cultures. Our media may jump through a few more hurdles to give the appearance of free, fair and balanced, but make no mistake, every report you see on the news, every article you read is there because it’s in someone’s economic or political interest for it to be there. Spin doctors, PR gurus and publicists are pulling the strings of the media, the same way that lobbyists and fundraisers are pulling the strings of the politiicians.

They don’t even try to hide it. The media corporations are the some of the largest corporations in the world. And corporations exists for only one reason: to make a profit.

The news is marketing. Pure and simple.

It’s a shiny package to wrap around the advertising. It’s sole purpose is to attract your attention and keep it long enough to rent out to the highest bidder. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I sell ads for living. But when one of my big loud ass car commercials come on TV, at least you know it’s an ad. The news is like product placement in your favorite TV show. It makes you think all the cool kids are drinking Vitamin Water, and you don’t even know you just got sold.

But the absolutely, positively worst thing about the news is that it is a giant, useless, black hole of time suck.

They’ve convinced you that you need to stay up to date on current affairs, that you need to be in the know so you’ll watch hours of their drivel every day. Between the local news at 6 and 10, the national news, your facebook and twitter feed, god forbid an actual newspaper or newspaper magazine and then the countless dinner conversations about the news that you get sucked into. It’s easy to waste 2 even 3 hours a day on the “news.”

And the news ain’t the news.

That’s a full day of every week, wasted, keeping up with things that have absolutely no bearing on your life.

Yes, what happened in Boston was a tragedy. A horror and a crime. And I feel for those who were affected. But it all honesty, that doesn’t include me. And unless you personally know one of the people injured or killed last week in Boston, it probably doesn’t include you either.

The only major effect it had was to waste valuable time that you could have spent living your actual life.

I understand the attraction. I’ve got a degree in journalism and I am a reformed news junkie, but junkie is the correct word. The news is a drug that never satisfies your thirst for knowledge. It only scratches the itch and leaves you wanting more.

I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time I watched a newscast. I’ve opted out.

Block out the noise so you can hear the signal.

Turn off the TV. Put down the remote. And get busy leading a life worth reporting.

Terry LancasterTerry Lancaster is the VP of Making S#!% Happen at Instant Events Automotive Advertising, father of 3 teenage daughters and a Beer League Hockey All Star, as if there could ever be such a thing.

You can connect with Terry on FaceBook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Google+.