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Is it Better to Read or Watch the News?

Tes: I am enjoying our visit, and especially meeting our beautiful granddaughter Elanor.

As I sat here the past several days at your apartment, I have been wondering: do you watch the news? Don’t you want to know what is going on in the world?

Dijon: Not usually—I prefer to read about current events.

Tes: Why?

Dijon: There are several reasons. First, reading is faster.

Tes: Really? Videos can show you things that are difficult to portray with words, and news shows are quite good at selecting and summarizing stories. Also, many shows interview famous people and authors, effectively summarizing their ideas. Why do you think reading the news lets you gather information more quickly?

Dijon: I agree videos are better than text at conveying certain types of information, but I think most news stories don’t benefit from this. For example, a transcript of talk show hosts debating is nearly as good as the original, while a video of flood damage is irreplaceable. But in most cases this strength doesn’t outweighs its weaknesses.

When I watch the news, I can’t easily hone in on the stories that are relevant to me. For example, I may only care about ten minutes out of an hour of cable news. Since I can’t skim through it to find the information that is useful for me, I am stuck watching the full hour.

When I read the news, I can skim a summary of current events, and then read only the stories that are useful for me.

Tes: Some shows will give a preview of the stories at the beginning, so you can skip to the part you care about. Also, there are many shows, so you can only watch relevant ones. Finally, you can fast forward or stop watching a show if it is really irrelevant.

Dijon: Since I don’t watch television often, I am not a good television watcher, but I doubt even the most proficient television watcher could gather information as quickly as a reader can.

A weekly magazine I read has a one-page summary of business events and a one-page summary of political events. I can read through these in a few minutes. The rest of the magazine has detailed articles about the summarized events. If any would be useful for me to know more about, I can read the detailed articles. If an event is very relevant for me, I can then go online and read even more articles about it. In this way, I can often catch up on a full week’s worth of news in an hour or so.

Tes: Maybe you are right that reading can be faster. But you can’t possibly read much news in an hour! That is certainly much less time than I spend watching the news.

Dijon: You are correct that I don’t gather much information in an hour. But I can hone in on what is useful for me. If I were watching television, I would have to wade through several hours of shows to pinpoint just want I want to learn.

For example, there was an explosion in Beirut last week. Here is the summary from my magazine:

A state of emergency was declared in Lebanon, after a huge explosion at Beirut’s port. The blast was felt in Cyprus, 240km away. It killed at least 135 people, injured 5,000 and left 300,000 homeless. The cause was a fire in a warehouse building holding 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, a chemical used in fertilizer and bombs. This highly explosive stockpile had lain neglected for six years. Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, vowed that those responsible would “pay the price.” Lebanon was in an economic and political crisis even before the blast.

Even this has more detail than I need. If I watched the news, I could easily see several hours of discussions about the explosions, including interviews of experts providing their opinions and guesses.

Tes: But don’t you want to be informed?

Dijon: Why be informed about something that isn’t useful? I’m curious about the story, but satisfying ones’ curiosity is entertainment, not civic duty. Details about the explosion won’t affect how I vote, my policy positions, or how I run my business.

Tes: How do you know?

Dijon: I don’t know for sure, but I think it is likely. The media focuses on stories that people are interested in, not on stories that matter. For example, in 2005, the news shows obsessed about the disappearance of a pretty high school girl on the island Aruba. Another example is the O.J. Simpson murder trial, where every detail was picked apart for months in the news. This problem affects written news too, but its easier to avoid the fluff because you can skim.

Tes: I agree that some stories are unimportant, but you picked extreme cases. I still think being informed by more than mere summaries is important; it helps you connect with the world and the people around you.

Dijon: Many people would agree with you. But there are other ways to connect with people, like watching sports, and we don’t think people are obligated to watch sports. Why are we obligated to watch the news?

As citizens of a democracy, I think it is our duty to form opinions about public policy to vote for the candidates we think are best, and maybe donate our time and money to causes and candidates we believe in. We can also discuss the issues with our fellow citizens. But it is not clear that watching the news is the best way to form these opinions.

Tes: How else are you going to form these opinions? After all, how better to form an opinion about politicians than to watch them in interviews on TV?

Dijon: I will answer your second question first: I agree that watching interviews of politicians on TV is useful and effective—the non-verbal information can help you assess a person. Thus I do watch interviews.

Also, I don’t have any problems with watching television. I want you to know since I am your son-in-law, why I don’t watch television. I don’t want you to think I am not fulfilling my civic-duty, since I respect your opinion.

Tes: Thank you for saying that.

Dijon: Of course—it’s true! Okay, so you asked how you can form political opinions without reading the news. This is a great question, and it leads to the second reason I prefer reading the news over watching it on television. (My first reason was that I could gather information more quickly, as we have discussed.)

Tes: Okay, what is your second reason?

Dijon: I am searching for how to make my argument without sounding elitist …

Tes: Just say it out—we are family. I will give you the benefit of the doubt.

Dijon: Okay, here it goes: Do you agree that one can know the facts of an event, without understanding its cause or implications?

Tes: Of course!

Dijon: Does watching or reading the news give you a better understanding?

Tes: I don’t know. Sometimes a friend will recommend a book that I have already read. When I tell them I have read it, they ask what I thought, and I can’t remember anything. Thus, it is possible to read and not understand.

Dijon: I have also forgotten many books, although when I read actively, by pausing to think and question the author, and to write my thoughts, I remember more and my understanding deepens.

Since a television show progresses automatically, you don’t typically pause to think or critique it. Thus, the medium of television encourages the viewer to be passive, which in turn leads to pre-made opinions that can easily be repeated, but that the repeater has not thought through.

Tes: Perhaps most people watch shows passively, but most people also read passively! Why couldn’t someone watch the news actively too? It is important to think critically, but this is not a problem with television per se, but rather is a problem with how people watch television.

To actively watch television, you can use the same strategies you use when reading actively. Pause, think about what the host is saying and whether you agree. Write down your thoughts. Watch parts of the show twice, if needed.

Dijon: I had not considered this, but you are correct. I should try these strategies. I think my belief that reading produces more understanding, then watching is misguided, and what matters more is how actively you engage with the material, regardless of the medium.

Tes: Earlier, you said there are alternative, superior ways to form political opinions, other than the news. How does your discussion of active vs. passive consumption relate to this?

Dijon: Ah, yes! I had lost my train of thought. As I had mentioned, the key to actively reading or watching is to ask questions. What is the author saying? Do I agree? Who cares? Inevitably, when I ask these questions, I want to know more than the news story can give. For example, while I am not interested in the surface details surrounding the Beirut explosion, I want to know why the explosive stockpile had been neglected.

By actively questioning you move from the particulars to abstract principles—you move from the news to political philosophy and history. These principles can be used to better fulfill the civic duties we discussed.

The experts on television shows attempt to provide this sort of analysis. But they aren’t given enough time, partly because most of the audience doesn’t care to explore the issues too deeply. A quick and easy analysis is more entertaining than an in-depth study.

Furthermore, it is easier to analyze after-the-fact than in the moment. People like to know what is going on right now—it’s new and exciting. However, the principles that can be learned from particular events are more easily identified by a historian with all the evidence available. Also, political biases tend to soften over time. Thus, I could form a better opinion about the Iraq war by reading one book today, as compared to years of watching the news about it. And so, I think reading history books fulfill your civic duty better than watching the news does.

Clearly, this strategy can not always be applied! If you need to decide whether to vote for a politician that wants to pull out of the war, you must be familiar with the events. Thus, some news is important when your opinions are actionable, but I don’t believe watching the news is a good way to form an analytical basis for making opinions.

Tes: Your view is idealistic. Who has the time or energy to intensively study these issues? We can’t all be experts in everything!

I appreciate you explaining why you prefer reading the news over watching it, although I still prefer watching the news, partly because it is more entertaining and thus better holds my limited attention.

Should we wrap up our conversation so Aurelie can eat before she has to feed Elanor again?

Dijon: Good idea. Thank you for the discussion, and for the insight that one can watch the news actively. Perhaps we should read and watch the news, to take advantage of the benefits of each medium.

Tes: That would seem wise.