The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect and not noticing that news is a consumer product
Plus some memories of doing really terrible journalism
Consuming 'news' from the perspectives of two countries quickly reveals how contaminated it is by the need to make it interesting to your particular market.
A current example is the row over Australia cancelling its order for 12 French-built submarines. I live near Cherbourg, where a large chunk of the €50 billion euro deal would have been earned. So when I hear a BBC 'analysis' which talks of France (or Macron specifically) 'losing face' I notice a familiar principle being applied. 'News is people'. Especially people you’ve heard of. It's one of the first things you're taught when you train as a journalist.1
This is why UK media has focused so much on government ministers and other political figures commenting on it, rather than the substance of the matter; strategic allies falling out over a big contract and whether these particular submarines were or weren't the best approach to holding China at bay in a far away region. And how much of a penalty Australia is going to have to pay the company 20 minutes down the road from me. It's also been quite obviously shaped by UK media so that a large component in the drama is about Britain yet again in France's crosshairs and the good old 'best of enemies' being at it again.
In French media I see Britain described as a bit part player in a dispute between France on one side and Australia and Joe Biden (they've likened him to Trump, over here) on the other. The suggested insignificance here of Britain was cheekily underlined by the continued presence of the French ambassador in London, while the ones in Canberra and Washington were recalled. In the early days of this mess the French Foreign Minister brushed Britain off as 'the third wheel' and limited his analysis of Britain's role with the remark 'we know their constant opportunism...so there is no need to bring our ambassador back to explain'.
The point here isn't that the media on one side is factually incorrect while the other is telling it like it is. It's that two quite different stories are being told to suit distinct audiences. French people do love to look down on Britain. I didn't really appreciate this until I lived here. And British people love to recapitulate all the times Britain beat France at war and then eventually saved them in a bigger war.
So far, so obvious. We all think we know the biases that shape news and current affairs, but typically we think of them as ideologically-oriented. Which, of course, they often are. But there's another, arguably equally insidious, quality to news, which would possibly surprise anyone who has never worked in the field. It's the quality that colours it as a consumer product designed to stimulate or please rather than inform. (Also, see the Rarely Certain piece about news blind spots).
Over the past week I kept thinking about the 'Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect'. It sounds like one of those cool insights into human cognition gleaned by scientists but it's actually just a funky name that was chosen to label something we all do by an author giving a speech once.2
The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect refers to those moments when we read something and notice that it's not really reliable because we happen to have some prior insight into the issue. But then we turn the page or click the next link and read about something else. And because this time we have no priors, we don't think to really question it.
A fun experiment to try at home is to read the news about a foreign region in your favourite news outlet, then find the local media covering the same stories. Guaranteed surprises.
Years ago a friend introduced me to this approach with news from the Middle East and it was an eye-opener. If you're stuck knowing where to start, Israel's longest-running print journal Haaretz is good value on Middle Eastern affairs. This is not to endorse Haaretz as 'right'. I am in no position to know. But it is telling completely different stories about exactly the same events that you're seeing reported in The Guardian, Politico or The Telegraph. Their coverage leading up to the Afghanistan withdrawal debacle was *very* different from US and European media. Haaretz readers will have been less surprised than Europeans or Americans when it played out as it did.
Everyone who has strong opinions about the quality of journalism (reporting and analysis - not those opinion essays known as think pieces) thinks it's easy. All you have to do is check your facts, reflect all sides and leave your own biases at the door. This is the idealistic view I imagine most of us also bring into the profession. My dream was to provide an information service. Particularly about things 'they' (wrong 'uns in general) wouldn't want other people to know about.
Then we learn that news isn't the same as what's been happening and why. It's a subtly different thing. It's a depressingly prosaic thing.
It was the late 80s and I was a reporter on a big regional daily in the north of England. There had been a national story about a food contamination case and suddenly the news desk was receiving calls all the time from people claiming to have found things in food. Baby food was a particular theme here. Things like razor blades or rusty tacks were suddenly turning up in jars of stewed apple or beef purée and we were duly reporting on these claims. They were good picture stories. Because. Cute babies.
We all knew (reporters are as cynical as you imagine) there was a much greater than even chance that most of these claims were lies. There was an incentive for lying because the claimants typically ended up with refunds and free food and, frankly, these alleged near-misses, in which tiny tots narrowly dodged an alarming bullet, always seemed to happen to the type of reader who needed a freebie.
This was going on all over the country and there was some evidence of organised extortion threatening genuine peril for some consumers. But it was also obvious that most of the calls we were getting were almost certainly hoaxes. However, for a while, we reported on them all because it made good copy.
This was shortly after I'd attended an exorcism. A ghost was fondling the tenant of a council flat in her bed. The woman in question was quite a character and the council quietly told us that she had been angling to be rehoused for a while, for reasons unrelated to a haunting.
Again, we knew this wasn't news but it was a good story.
This kind of harmless nonsense for entertainment is one thing, but there are other ways that current affairs is shaped as entertainment that I'm guessing many people might be surprised by.
In the 90s there were widespread fears of an impending and catastrophic long-term water shortage in Britain. I was working for a 'flagship' national radio current affairs documentary strand and was tasked with researching for a programme about it. So (pre-internet still) I hit the phones and spoke to as many experts on water supply as I could find. In each case I wanted their opinion on whether the problem was genuine and, if so, the best way Britain could avert it.
The problem was real (in their view) and the solution was apparently more efficient use of water. I was fascinated to discover how much water was being 'lost' everywhere. I was also fascinated to learn of all the ways this unsustainable waste could be stopped. This was going to be a really interesting documentary and I presented my research to the producer.
He hated it. He wanted more water. From new reservoirs. New reservoirs are sexy and controversial. Big capital spending on huge engineering projects that would involve flooding rural townships and displacing farmers in environmentally sensitive areas was the key to an interesting programme. I was instructed to find someone who wanted new reservoirs to supply more water. The angle we were to take was pre-determined.
Naive as it sounds, this was the moment I realised that 'serious' news and current affairs was just a less fish n chippy version of sex pest ghosts and cute tots almost ingesting a pin.
Legislating for different toilet cisterns = boring. Flooding a valley = entertaining. That's how it worked on this highly respectable show.
This is the filter we often receive our information through. The entertainment filter. Via rules governing 'news values' such as 'news is people' and 'what bleeds leads'.
It's one of those things that's so obvious that we forget about it because ... what are you going to do? Stop consuming news?
But it's worth remembering, as often as possible. Like mindfulness practice. Whether the filter is someone else's idea of what should be interesting to you or the cacophony of thoughts in your own head, it still represents a gap between you and 'reality'. And if you're interested in closing that gap - at least in the case of news - it's best to look further afield for perspectives on the stories served to you by your usual sources.
Postscript: I tried to sell the ghost story to the Daily Sport. Reporters often do this and the tip-off fees are sometimes substantial. They didn't want it. The guy on the phone said 'we've had a sexy ghost already'.
It was always going to be hard to find anything new to offer a paper that had already splashed 'Aliens Turned Our Son Into A Fish Finger'.
This may no longer be true. I trained in 1985/86.