President Trump addressed Congress on March 1st, and as soon as it was over, headlines popped up at every major news outlet in the country.
And they were all very, very different. Despite covering the exact same event.
Here's Huffington Post:
And here's Fox News:
Which headline would you click?
And that's sortof the problem.
Back in Yon Day
Back in yon day, people primarily made decisions about the news they read based on a few things:
- What was locally available
- What was in front of them at the store
- What their friends read
Ultimately, most newspapers relied on subscribers, who committed to getting a lot of news for monthly fees. And subscribers use a certain part of their brain to make a decision: generally, logical ones. They might reach for the left-wing or right-wing paper, but these bigger transactions (and even smaller ones where you bought a single newspaper), engage the rational part of the brain in which one chooses to exchange hard-earned dough for a piece of paper.
For TV network news, you didn't need to exchange money, but you did need to commit to a whole hour in order to get the news without getting lost. You didn't know what was coming. And, with only an hour to give you the news, there was only so much prattle that could be part of the equation. They got to the point, and they were done. Once again, you're using a fairly rational part of the brain.
The Times, They Are a'Changin'
Cable news proliferated as cable TV became a thing, and they needed to fill up 24 hours of news cycles. As they got creative about pumping in the filler, they found that the stuff that works pretty well is the rage-inducing, bias-confirming drivel we've grown accustomed to. We talk about this more in Wedged. But in short, the parts of our brain that got engaged by these, and the parts used to make decisions, were the tribal, in-group / out-group ones. The rational brain started to take a back seat.
The internet age is where things got really interesting. Even in the Cable News age, we decided on what information we consumed primarily by choosing a channel we liked and sticking around. It confirmed our biases, but we made a decision before knowing precisely what it was telling us. We "paid" with our cable subscription and watching advertisements over longer periods.
How do most of us get our news now--especially political news? We have one-off interactions with news sites, clicking on headlines we like. Often, we see these headlines shared by friends on social media, as we're scrolling through pictures of cats. The decision to read an article is instant, based entirely on 3 things:
- The headline and deck
- The picture
- The friend who shared it
The last of these has some long-term brain component to it. But the first two are instantaneous, automatic. We don't think about them as much as we react instinctively, just as we decide whether to click on a six-second gif to see it roll. The part of the brain that is engaged is the one controlled by dopamine, rather than logic.
These news sites depend on you clicking through to bump up their visits--and thus ad views. So their job--something absolutely necessary to their survival--is to trigger your dopamine response. They want to create a very instinctual, instant craving in your brain to click through to something. And there's a science to it. That's why there's clickbait.
News has to be at least somewhat clickbaitey in order to get a large amount of clicks. There are some news outlets that depend more on subscription (think Foreign Affairs or The Economist), but even these are trying to get revenue by competing for clicks online.
When you're making decisions about which news to read based on dopamine, you're using a very different part of your brain than the one that decides which news subscription to read. In fact, it's pretty crappy at making decisions: it gives us instant gratification at the cost of future utility, just like grabbing a donut, or browsing reddit rather than working out. It may not be good for us, but it's hard to fight.
That, I think, is why news sucks.
Worse, wanna guess which emotion most triggers the dopamine response?