Making Every Day a Slow News Day
Avoiding the Information Glut
New research suggests that the presence of citations in a text often makes it look more credible.How often do we actually check them though? How often do writers check what they are citing?
Two psychologists - Joseph Latham and Gilly Koritzky - recently drew attention to how a report by biotech company Rubix Life Science was being cited.According to how it was cited, the report found that African Americans with flu-like symptoms were less likely to be given a COVID-19 test. It was cited like this in a paper by Ajilore and Thames in the peer-reviewed Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection, as well as in other articles for Medicine Journal and Nature Reviews Gastroentorology & Hepatology.
The Rubix report didn’t make that claim though. The earliest citation which did (that Latham and Koritzky could find) was in an NPR article, where it was given as evidence for racial bias in the medical profession.
One is immediately filled with questions. Did no one actually read the report they cited? Who else might have read the claim and repeated it, but without the citation? And while NPR is by no means disreputable, it is certainly not bound by the same rigours one would expect of a medical journal. Did academics copy second-hand citations out of a sloppy news report?
In The Broken Estate, Mel Bunce points out that “the influence of incorrect information cannot simply be undone by pointing out that this information was incorrect.”One of the planks of her argument is a study by de Keersmaecker and Roets which suggests the ability to adjust one’s beliefs for new information is correlated with “cognitive ability” (as measured by a ten word vocabulary test). The idea seems plausible and de Keersmaecker and Roetes put the reason very nicely: “initial impressions structure and distort the processing and interpretation of new information.”
That means that, even though NPR did the responsible thing and amended the mistake out of their article, the damage of having improperly cited it in the first place isn’t really going to go away. A correction doesn’t simply wipe out all the influence that bad information had on our beliefs. The correction - if you were even aware of it - is like all information: additive, not algebraic, with new building on top of old.
Bunce, de Keersmaecker, and Roets are all interested in this effect as it pertains to “fake news”, but its implications are much broader. “Fake news” often implies malicious intent, yet there can be honest reasons why wrong, misleading, or unsubstantiated claims spread: the author may have misunderstood his sources; his best understanding at the time could have been superseded by new information; you - the reader - could have misread what he intended to write (perhaps he isn’t a great stylist); or it could have been plain old ignorance: the author didn’t know what he was talking about, and didn’t know that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
Everyone can make these mistakes, both readers and writers. Attempts to never get into this situation, to avoid at all costs even the possibility of holding incorrect beliefs - perhaps by banning fake news - will probably end up causing more harm than good. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is, at some point mistakes will be made, and we will end up holding erroneous beliefs. We can’t make ourselves immune to bad information. We can, however, make ourselves more robust to it by changing how we engage with all information. For most of us, that means changing how we engage with the news.
We can first acknowledge that reading is not a passive act. It is not the transfer of pure knowledge into our mind by an infallible author. It requires effort on our part to contextualise and interpret, so we can render what is actually being said with an appropriate level of belief, skepticism, or indifference.
Anyone can scatter citations throughout an article.Anyone can cherry-pick numbers, observations, quotes, and statistics. You can’t judge an article’s credibility based on whether it has the outward appearance of history or science. You can check citations though, and you can attempt to understand the subject beyond the article that’s directly in front of you. This requires reading more than just the news; you have to cultivate an appetite for seeking to understand things as they are, rather than merely depending on what information a select few have already pre-digested for you.
Your curiosity might be piqued everytime the media reports on China’s latest menacing actions. Put aside - for now - whether we are right to feel threatened by Uyghur re-education camps and South Sea Spratly island spats. Can we honestly say that we’re as interested in hearing about China’s history, society, cultures, and languages as we are about their provocations on the world stage? If we don’t know even the basics of these things, how can we possibly be contextualising their actions in anything other than our own ignorance?
Reading like this is slow going. You could spend weeks (or months) chasing the citations or doing the background reading. Yet it’s the only way to properly understand something, and if we are going to bother putting pen to paper, we should make sure we aren't just pulling stuff out of our bum, just as if we're going to bother reading about something, we should make the effort to actually understand it.
“But I can’t become an expert in everything!” I hear you say. You don't have to be an expert, just willing to suspend your final judgement on what you are reading to the degree that you don’t actually understand it. Knowledge is better than ignorance, but if we don’t have that, conscious ignorance is better than unconscious certainty.
This shouldn’t make us feel uncomfortable. A lot of what we read is actually irrelevant to us, and even when it isn’t, unless you're actually adjusting your behaviour or clarifying your worldview or enriching your life - what’s the point? Even if an article promises to be the most important, life-changing thing you’ll ever read, sometimes a shrug of the shoulders is our most honest response.
Information often pretends to be far more important than it actually is. And there is more of it than we know what to do with. It pours out of every smartphone, radio, television, and podcast. Christopher Lasch describes this phenomenon in The Revolt of the Elites as an information glut, warning that “unless information is generated by sustained public debate, most of it will be irrelevant at best, misleading and manipulative at worst.”
Since the advent of free online news, journalism’s traditional revenue model has collapsed. Rag-and-bone reporters are now desperate to cash in on your attention by seducing you into clicking on their tantalising headlines. Aggressive push notifications usher us into articles that haven’t been written yet; and because the stories are written as they happen, there is no time for the journalist to think about what they are writing, much less to double-check the details or do some background research. All of this contributes to the velocity and churn of digital information. Computers and algorithms may be able to operate at this breakneck speed; humans cannot.
It doesn't matter how good a writer you are, you simply can't do a good job under these conditions. Immediacy may sell, but you can’t possibly have a complete picture of what has happened, so what’s being produced is necessarily short-sighted - it is coming from a position of near-total ignorance. And as we’ve seen, the influence of these early short-sighted stories cannot be shaken off merely by filling in the details later.
We could of course just wait for more details to emerge. We’re impatient though. By letting our curiosity get the better of us, by choosing to read low quality news in this manner, we are incentivising journalists to keep pumping out slop to fill our brains up with. This is time and energy they could instead spend producing quality work that is actually worth paying for and thinking about.
We could become smarter. We could follow the citations. We could acknowledge our ignorance. These are only reactive solutions to the fundamental problem: that the information is a flood, in need of turning down before we can properly engage with it.
To do that, we have to stop treating the news as an arena for 24-hour a day political combat. The old days of papers and the six o’clock news certainly had their own problems. But because the news came out at a consistent time of day (in the morning from the postman, at six o’clock around the family TV) it encouraged a routine and therefore a mindset: that there is a specific time in which you sit down and give your undivided attention to what’s going on in the world, and when it’s over you go back to doing other things in your life. This is in stark contrast to how we read the news now, flickering back and forth between sites throughout the day, more skimming than reading, and probably multitasking on our phone or work computer.
In opposition to fast food, there’s long been the idea of slow food, which defies convenience for the sake of fresh ingredients, local produce, regional cuisines, quality taste, and authentic recipes. In slow fashion, badly made garments mass-produced by children in the developing world are eschewed for the products of quality leatherworkers, weavers, tailors, and craftsmen, who know how to make things worth buying, and in doing so are able to make an honest living.
Why don’t we consider this when reading the news? Too much information overwhelms us and is just as bad - if not worse - than too little information. If we slowed down the information glut, we would reduce the problem of fake news and bad citations. There would be time to write a story, put it down, go to sleep, re-read it, and catch that error before it’s sent out to the world. There would be time to read an article and think about what it meant. There would be time to murder and create, and time for all the works and days of hands.
We have slow food and slow fashion. It’s time we tried slow news.
I made that up.
Joseph Latham and Gilly Koritzky. Why We Should Read What We Cite (Because It Matters). Published for Heterodox Academy, May 12, 2021. Retrieved from https://heterodoxacademy.org/blog/why-we-should-read-what-we-cite-because-it-matters/?fbclid=IwAR3Wm24qhqt_ehCQ-Jc3iuQ2QvYdhllJ18nmA4CLs6xLSN762hU9DcKVLNE
COVID-19 and Minority Health Access. Rubix Life Sciences, 2020. Retrieved from https://rubixls.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19-Minority-Health-Access-6.pdf
Mel Bunce. The Broken Estate. Published 2019 by Bridget Williams Books (NZ). p. 152.
Jonas de Keersmaecker and Arne Roets. ‘Fake News’: Incorrect, but hard to correct. The role of cognitive ability on the impact of false information on social impressions. Intelligence, 65, 107–110. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2017.10.005
Including this author in this article.
Christopher Lasch. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. Published 1996 by W. W. Norton & Company (New York). p. 174.