News has a filter problem: we judge the whole on the little we see

I reckon I read 10 per cent of what a news org produces on a given day; more on some days, less on others, and some days none at all.

So my perception of ‘the news’ as a whole is based on this small amount I see of what the world’s news orgs produce – my daily 10 per cent.

I was thinking about this recently when someone framed the issue of the quality of news in a new way for me.

Rather than asking whether the quality of news was declining, as is commonly discussed among us future-of-news types, he asked whether people’s perception of the quality of news was changing and what effect that was having on society.

What follows is a kind of note to self about that idea (a rather incomplete one).

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard someone say – or said myself in a fit of pique – that ‘the news is rubbish’, ‘we need more investigative journalism’, ‘we need better analysis’, ‘who cares about that celebrity nonsense’ or ‘if I see one more crime story under the heading of National News I’m going to spit.’

These go hand in glove with our belief that if more people were better ‘informed’ our democracies would be healthier, our economies more productive, our crime rates lower, our nation’s health improved and the world a lovelier place altogether.

We tend to talk as though these goals would be more readily achievable if only there were more, better-quality journalism – and I suppose by implication less lower-quality journalism. Then we get mired down in angst over how it’s all going to be paid for.

I’m less sure about the assumptions here.

I find myself wanting to spend more time quantifying what we’ve already got that’s good and being clearer about what we think is missing, before thinking about what to replace it with and how to foot the bill.

And I find myself thinking about how to better curate and distribute what we’re already producing so it reaches more people in a way that works for them. To my mind, if content is king, distribution infrastructure is kingdom.

It’s easy to skate over the fact that there’s already a lot of good journalism around, albeit scattered across multiple outlets and platforms, across days and months and years, and across countries, so that no one of us is aware of it all.

We have a filter problem.

We have a tendency to look at a handful of stories – on a homepage, for example – and pass judgement on the basis of those. I know I do. If the first six stories in my daily news email are all about crime, I get cross and move on. If I turn on a TV current affairs show and see a commentator I don’t respect, or a story I think is lightweight and irrelevant, I get cross and move on. If it happens several times in a  row, I write off the whole show, or the news judgement of the whole news site, at least temporarily.

My criticisms much of the time are justified, I think. There is a lot of lightweight news that I find irrelevant (stories based on Facebook polls or surveys conducted by PR companies, for example) and there are a lot of commentators pronouncing tiredly on dated issues, churning out a column a week regardless of whether they have anything much to say.

But sometimes I come across stories and videos and slide shows and commentary – often well after they were published and often via a link on Twitter or in a blog – that I think are great. Stories that interest me or make me think or make me feel connected with the world or understand it better. And I spend a fortune every year on long-form journalism in the form of paperbacks.

Yet I tend not to think about these great stories when I’m making my snap judgements about how good ‘the news’ is these days.

That’s partly human nature, I guess: a tendency to remember the negative. But it’s also because these stories rarely seem to make their way into my daily news email, and once they are no longer current they’re pushed off the front page and puff boxes and effectively become invisible.

In other words, news orgs aren’t getting these great stories in front of my eyeballs regularly: they’re not showing up in my daily 10 per cent. Or maybe they are, but I don’t get to them that day because I’m busy and I never get round to going back.

I wonder how much our perception of ‘the news’ would change if news stories as a whole were curated, packaged and distributed differently. If there was slightly less obsession with currency and stories were made available for longer and resurfaced from time to time, so readers were no longer punished for being late to a story and forced to go on an archaeological dig to find it. If the news values underlying what goes on the homepage or in the daily email were updated from whenever they were forged (The 1970s?).

With better curation and filtering tools (easier said than done, I know), we’d more successfully tune out the gunk that turns us off and see more in our daily 10 per cent of what switches us on. We’d have less reason to write off the whole lot in a fit of pique. Our perception of ‘the news’ would be more positive, and our faith in it would be stronger.

There’s an uncomfortable truth in here, of course, in that we, the audience, can be hopelessly lazy about ‘staying informed’ and the best filtering tools in the world won’t help us if we don’t take the time to set them up.

The battle to get us to pay for news is as much a battle to get us to want to read much of it in the first place.  Same goes for a more informed citizenry.

We have lots of reasons for not reading as much news as we might, and for being selective about what we do read:

  • We’re busy.
  • We can only take in so much information in one sitting.
  • We like to stick with our own worldview so we focus on the stuff that we find interesting and validating and filter out the rest.
  • Life goes on even if you don’t read the news: the mail’s still delivered whether or not you know who’s running NZ Post, the traffic lights still work, pubs still open, lattes still get poured with foamy little flourishes.
  • Some people have an incentive to read the news because it gives them a competitive edge in their work. Others don’t. Why plod through acres of words when you don’t get a discernable payoff?
  • Some days the news feels like an assault; a slew of problems that we feel powerless to solve. War, starvation, infant mortality, corruption, piracy, sex trafficking and slavery. Must I know of every misery in the world every day?

Imagine if money trees started sprouting in the middle of newsrooms all the world over, and large numbers of clever well-adjusted journalists were employed on cracking salaries and put to work investigating and writing spirited but balanced prose based on meticulous research.

Every day the news sites and blogs and radio and TV bulletins and papers and podcasts would brim with excellently interesting and considered stories.


Now, how many hours a week would you spend reading news? About the same as now? An hour more? Five more? Ten more? Or ten less because you actually preferred the lightweight stuff that took less time and energy to consume?

Would you read more or less news about the economy than before? Sport? Fashion? Astrophysics? Astroturfing? Justin Bieber?

Would the better quality journalism make you twice as well informed? Three times? Ten? Could you measure the difference to your life? To society? Would people who don’t read news now start reading it? Would they stick with it?

Who knows. I may be more reliably informed by what I read but I suspect I wouldn’t read too much more than I do now, and nor would many others. There are only so many hours in the day.

There are no money trees, of course, so we’re not going to answer these questions easily.

Maybe, then, we future-of-news types should focus on how to better get the ‘news we approve of’ out to people in a format, time and place that makes them interested. Maybe we should focus on how to get that daily 10 per cent working better for people now – before we throw buckets of money at funding ‘better journalism’ that may only get lost in the mix.

Maybe we should think more about the idea that there’s just too much news to use. As Josh Benton explores in this lovely post about the role of the journalist – and novelist – in shrinking the world for us, my problem is not that I need more news and information but that I’m drowning in it.

These ideas and many others are more eloquently explored in the Neiman Lab special report: The Digital Landscape: What’s Next for News? which is a highly recommended read.