We collaborate with the media every day; we give it our time and attention in exchange for information. We invest our resources in the media because we believe that not knowing what it says will put us at a disadvantage in the world. We believe that the media is the best way to stay updated with the ever-changing landscape that we must navigate in our lives and careers.
When we decide to learn from the media, we don’t simply collaborate with them; we also decide to collaborate with the people and organizations that the media talks about. When the media interviews a particular author, or talks about a celebrity, or gives the front page to what a politician said in her speech, it’s telling us that those are the things that matter. It follows that it’s also telling us what doesn’t matter.
We invest in what we know is out there and neglect what we ignore.
The incentive to follow what the media says is a good one; we SHOULD strive to stay up to speed with the changes. But the premise is wrong; the changes in the world are not accurately portrayed by the media. We are doing the wrong thing for the right reason.
I believe that we have reached a point where the media does more harm than good. I believe that the more attention we give it, the lower our chances of finding the collaboration opportunities that can help us reach our goals. And I contend that the same connectivity that has made the media ubiquitous also allows for more customized and optimal ways to stay informed.
The Price of Free
When information became abundant, people stopped paying for news. Basic economics. Most media businesses now survive by amassing readers/viewers and “selling access” to that audience to advertisers. In his bestselling book Trust me, I’m lying, Ryan Holiday explains the incentives and dynamics that rule the media (online and offline), and the specific ways he has exploited them to promote individuals or companies he was working for. He describes in detail how journalists, bloggers, and those that want to be seen as leaders in social media, conferences, etc. will spread any content as long as it brings them clicks or eyeballs. As Ryan explains, we all lose:
“You cannot have your news instantly and have it done well. You cannot have your news reduced to 140 characters or less without losing large parts of it. You cannot manipulate the news but not expect it to be manipulated against you. You cannot have your news for free; you can only obscure the costs.”
Most information online today is free, but it comes at the expense of quality. By design, free news have to be cheap and misleading because the real customer is no longer the reader/viewer. The goal is no longer to get people’s money because people won’t pay. The goal is to get their attention. And it turns out that true, relevant, precise information is NOT what gets the most attention. Quality information with proper contextualization comes at a worth-paying price. As Holiday puts it: “No marketer is ever going to push something with the stink of reasonableness, complexity, or mixed emotions.”
Any business that needs to generate attention over quality is a marketing-driven business. In the age of free information, journalists have become marketers.
Does it spread?
For the media, the most valuable action the audience can take is to share what they read or saw. To tell others about it, to email the video to a friend, to post the news on Facebook, to like it and tag others to see it. Every aspect of the media is designed to increase shareability and popularity, because that’s the only way to draw enough attention to sustain the business. If the media gives valuable information but people don’t share it, their business fails.
If every article is engineered to increase its chances of being passed around, it follows that we ask ourselves: what makes people share online content? It turns out it’s not quality, but a very particular set of emotions. Holiday expands:
“Things must be negative but not too negative. Hopelessness, despair—these drive us to do nothing. Pity, empathy—those drive us to do something, like get up from our computers to act. But anger, fear, excitement, or laughter—these drive us to spread. They drive us to do something that makes us feel as if we are doing something, when in reality we are only contributing to what is probably a superficial and utterly meaningless conversation.”
And Holiday stresses this point over and over: “The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger.”
The media doesn’t want to inform us. It wants to make us laugh and get angry, and excited, and afraid, so we feel enthralled with the story and tell others about it. Similar to when we see a movie. The media and the entertainment industry are driven by the same need for attention, and quite often we should treat them alike: semi-fictional and vague representations of events.
World-famous professor and statistician Hans Rosling recently had a heated debate with the TV host about the media’s misportrayal of the world. The whole video is worth watching, but this quote explains the problem perfectly:
“You can’t trust the news outlet if you want to understand the world. […] News outlets only care about a small part, but you call it the world. You can choose to only show my shoe, which is very ugly, but that is only a small part of me.”
Is the media worthless?
No. The role of the media in shaping and improving the world is unquestionable. It’s only recently that the media, with the advent of new technologies, found new competition for attention and lost its way. I’m skeptical that the current system can evolve, it’s too polluted. I can see signs of new systems being developed today that will replace traditional media as our source of information. When that happens the world will be a better place.
In the meantime, we should be strategic about how we approach the media, so we can benefit without playing directly into its agenda and suffering heavy consequences:
1) Trace the incentives
A known fact about getting on TV and on stage is that the fastest way is to know the right people in the industry and give them the kind of content that can capture the most attention. In other words, the fastest way to become “famous” is not to give accurate information, but the type of fast, simplistic, emotional content the media likes to publish. As a member of an audience that pays with either time or money, I ask you: are you ok with that system? Do you feel you are being taken care of?
Every time a person or an organization (let’s call it “X”) is promoting some other person/product/story (let’s call it “Y”), there is an incentive for X to pick Y over other options. We can only trust the media’s choice of what’s important and what’s irrelevant if we trust the process as well. If the process is corrupted, and we don’t know it, we can’t defend ourselves against the its biased choices. Ask yourself:
Why is X promoting Y?
How did X choose to promote Y over other options?
What does success look like for X?
What does success look like for Y?
Is it in the best interest of X that Y is true and high quality?
If so, how does X guarantee the veracity or quality of Y?
2) Share responsibly
Life is a podium. Everything we say may reach more people that we can imagine. Quoting what we read as a fact without knowing if the source is trustworthy is how inaccurate information gets passed around. Sharing without questioning is exactly what the media wants us to do. When we spread bad ideas, we are hurting ourselves by making our own social context more ignorant. On the contrary, when we are ambassadors of a few but well understood ideas, we improve the intelligence of our network.
3) Look for ideas, not truths
My former mentor Gerry Garbulsky says that an idea is “a lens to see the world”. That’s how we should approach every article we read, every interview we watch, every conference we attend. To doubt is to remain free. We should not immediately dismiss what we hear, but rather use them as lenses and triggers to think about those topics and come to our own conclusions. The moment we become passive followers of any channel or personality, we lost.
Teacher, leave us kids alone
We live in the world that we build in our minds. If we only read about other cultures, we will have a different notion of those cultures than those that have visited them. If we think that people are selfish and that the world is dangerous, then we will live scared. The future is yet to be created, and it will be the result of what we think is possible.
The media has the power to create self-fulfilling prophecies; if every week there’s a new article about how artificial intelligence will take over all jobs, people may stop imagining how they could build a different, better future. Optimism and independent thinking are more than hopeful perspectives; they are the fuel we need to build the world we want. When the media reduces the world to a few topics and simple ideas, it also discourages its audience to create something different and better.
When we decided that the media was worth paying attention to, we gave it permission to create the world we live in. As Alain de Botton explains on his book “The News: A User’s Manual”, the news is our teacher:
“Once our formal education has finished, the news is the teacher. It is the single most significant force setting the tone of public life and shaping our impressions of the community beyond our own walls. It is the prime creator of political and social reality. As revolutionaries well know, if you want to change the mentality of a country, you don’t head to the art gallery, the department of education or the homes of famous novelists; you drive the tanks straight to the nerve center of the body politic, the news HQ.”
Uncle Ben taught us that “with great power comes great responsibility.” The biggest problem I have with the media is that it neglects and abuses the permission that people give it to learn what the world is like. To survive as a business, the media looks for spreads, no matter how paralyzing, confusing or irrelevant it may be for the success and daily life of its audience (you). The most dangerous design flaw of the media industry is that it can’t be a responsible teacher.
To make smart bets, we must teach ourselves to see the world as accurately as possible. Reading things that anger or scare us every day is a great way to make dumb bets. Life is more mundane and boring than the media would like us to believe, and the road to fulfillment is quiet, slow, and personal.As Alain de Botton says, we must always be ready to walk away:
“A flourishing life requires a capacity to recognize the times when the news no longer has anything original or important to teach us; periods when we should refuse imaginative connection with strangers, when we must leave the business of governing, triumphing, failing, creating or killing to others, in the knowledge that we have our own objectives to honour in the brief time still allotted to us.”