should social scientists stop reading the news?

A long time ago, in graduate school, my television was stolen and it changed my life. I now had lots of free time. I never understood on a gut level what I was missing until my tv was gone. There was a whole world beyond my living room low rent studio apartment. Jacob Levy once told me during a party, “Fabio, if you don’t watch tv, you had better be very well read.” Indeed, fair ranger, I am now quite well read.

I learned a second lesson. Most television is garbage. Once you unplug and then start watching later, you are immediately confronted with this truth. Ever since childhood, I was accustomed to watching whatever came on. Sure, I had preferences. Some shows are better than others, but I was letting someone throw rubbish at my face every night for hours at a time. For free!

Later, I realized that the issue wasn’t drama or comedy. Ultimately, there’s no harm in having an abnormally thorough knowledge of the Jeffersons and its catchy theme song. There real issue is television news.  As a social scientist in training, I began to believe that I am seeking the truth about social life. It’s my calling. It is what I have decided to dedicate my life to at  the expense of more remunerative careers. Therefore, it is unethical for me to consume or support cultural products that are misleading depictions on the social world.

You don’t need to be a die hard Chomskian who believes that the media is a mere tool of corporate and state interests, although that does happen to fair degree. Rather, you need to compare social science 101 to what happens on the news.

Example 1: Local television news is driven by “if it bleeds, it leads.” That gives the impression that crime is ubiquitous. Instead, much evidence shows a long term decrease in criminal violence in Western society. Steven Pinker’s recent book on violence merely documents what historical criminologists have known for a while.

Example 2: Election coverage is highly misleading. Journalists (and many historians) will regale you with stories about how this debate or that scandal totally changed the election. A common finding among political scientists is that speeches, scandals, media buys, and other electioneering events don’t affect a lot of elections. National elections are driven by the economy and war casualties. Smaller elections are run on somewhat different principles, but on the average, not affected by daily electioneering. Brendan Nyhan uses his twitter feed to point readers to political science research that corrects the non-stop misleading coverage of elections.

Example 3: Let’s stick one of my research areas – higher education. Every year, we get horror stories about how it is impossible it is to get into college. This is a false. Most institutions of higher education have an acceptance rate of over 50%. This finding goes back decades (e.g., economists William Manski and David Wise covered this in their great1982 book “College Choice in America”). There’s only about 50-100 schools (out of thousands) that might be considered competitive. These schools are the ones you expect – Ivy League, flagships, the service academies, about 20-30 of the liberal arts schools, plus a few others (e.g., Duke or Stanford). Basically, unless you want to go to a really elite school, just about any high school graduate in America can find a legitimate college that will accept them.

The news is rife with stories that are at best misleading and at worst factually incorrect. I can’t blame the journalists because sensationalism and short deadlines drive their salaries. I can’t blame viewers because most aren’t trained in research and it isn’t their job to care. However, social scientists should know better. If it is your job to search for truth, then turn off the tv during the news hour.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 16, 2012 at 12:16 am

Posted in academia, ethics, fabio

16 Responses

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  1. Did I really? I don’t remember that.

    I’m without TV for a couple of months and don’t miss it, though there will be things I catch up on by Netflix or similar later. But broadcast news and I have been strangers except for election nights and happening-right-this-minute crisis events for many years– I hate even having CNN-Airport running in the background while I’m waiting for a flight.

    Why is the post titled “reading the news” rather than “watching the news”? The focus seems to be on broadcast media, not print.


    Jacob T. Levy

    January 16, 2012 at 3:12 am

  2. @Jacob: Print is a bit better, but many of the same issues pop up in print. And yes, you did say that.



    January 16, 2012 at 3:29 am

  3. Sounds like something I would say; just didn’t recall.

    The great advantage of print is that the reader can quickly decide to ignore stories that he or she is pretty sure will count as subtractions from knowledge, and move on to other things. With broadcast, you’re stuck– if you’re watching The News, you’re at the mercy of how long the producers decide to linger on knowledge-destroying stories.


    Jacob T. Levy

    January 16, 2012 at 3:37 am

  4. As someone who studies politics, I find it necessary to watch the news (even Fox News) so that I know how voters and potential voters are getting their information.

    Liked by 1 person

    Rory McVeigh

    January 16, 2012 at 1:13 pm

  5. @Rory: Fair enough – media as data source. But media as source of knowledge – blech.



    January 16, 2012 at 5:41 pm

  6. News coverage can be misleading, for sure, but misleading information can be consequential. What’s worse, knowing when people are misled versus well-informed isn’t always straightforward. When news is prognostication (e.g, who appears to be gaining traction) versus reporting of past facts (e.g., who said or did what to whom), stories with even flimsy foundations may still have an effect, especially among those who like to spot and follow a winner.

    So while I’m sure turning off or delaying a data stream makes it easier to be skeptical about the veracity of reports it contains, there may be good reason to pay attention to even the voluminous drivel increasingly masquerading as news. Also, I suspect a good many social scientists are already skeptical enough to take their grain of salt with the news as it is dispensed.

    For me, indulging at least some real-time consumption of the news makes it easier to do hindsight-free speculation about and subsequent checking on (I wouldn’t say proper “testing”, at least not yet) features of stories likely to produce information cascades, even if they’re factually incorrect.

    I’m thinking just maybe, this hobby will turn into a paper at some point. To that end, I’ve been tracking candidate-issue co-mentions in Florida newspaper coverage of the Republican nomination race, and as you might imagine, the changes evident in these graphs have been substantial and perhaps even diagnostic of shifts in the race. If Romney wins SC, however, the fun may well be up, and the chance to discover any bigger surprises could well be gone, too.

    Alas, if (when?) that happens, it just might bring me round to waiting until I know more about how a story is unfolding before attempting to treat media coverage as data. :-)



    January 18, 2012 at 12:00 am

  7. i refuse to watch local news, I refer to it as “the nightly death toll”. Here in Buffalo, they even pimp fear about the weather to goose the ratings.



    January 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm

  8. I got rid of my TV in order to study for a chemistyr class (so I would focus) but I never got one back and I agree with your sentiments, esp[ecially the part about what it feels like to watch TV after a long separation. TV is waaaaay too overstimulating, and when you do NOT watch TV, it is also easy to see how TYV shapes the culture… people talk about things and make references to TV all. the. time! I am also better read now too. Just finished Doctor Zhivago!



    January 20, 2012 at 2:52 pm

  9. […] From […]


  10. @Jacob: Yes, you said that. That wasn’t even the most memorable exchange of the afternoon. Shelley had an anecdote about living with raccoons that had Dan Drezner laughing so hard that he cried.



    January 20, 2012 at 3:34 pm

  11. “Fair enough – media as data source. But media as source of knowledge – blech.”

    We probably all share the same idea of the nightly news, or FOX News. But, using fabio’s distinction, the more interesting question might be: The New York Times — data source, or source of knowledge?



    January 24, 2012 at 9:04 pm

  12. Austen, I’m guessing you don’t mean to imply that your knowledge of politics is data-free, but rather than it is not, or perhaps should not be, based on what you see in the media, or at least in certain outlets.

    For all of us, however, having an informed sense of political currents depends quite crucially on traditional media—print and broadcast. This goes even for the principals in elections, or the candidates themselves. Even if a lot of television coverage is bad infotainment in which pundits whose only qualification is too often that they are either easy on the eyes or effective but provocateurs with little or no expertise behind their prognostications (that’s my take anyway), the fact is that many voters are still either reading newspapers (more and more often online) and watching television, or both. For me, it’s a bit like the voodoo of technical analysis in the stock market. When enough people hold superstitions that affect their decisions, their beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. Since this is arguably the foundational insight behind sociologists’ tendency to see social structures as constraints that direct individual attention and action, I figure I’m preaching to the converted here, so to speak.

    Before too hastily dismissing the data that media coverage offers, therefore, witness what just happened in South Carolina. The conventional wisdom is television coverage of the (and print/online analysis of it, no doubt) of the final South Carolina debate made a large contribution to the dramatic shift in opinion which dropped Romney from a substantial lead in the polls to an embarrassingly distant second place.

    Of course, it’s possible to learn of these events without witnessing them firsthand—that is, without watching TV yourself. But then you’re relying heavily on data that is, in part, secondary rather than primary, and this is not something a good ethnographer would do.

    So to me, the impulse to unplug is a misguided expression of frustration with media institutions that need our attention because we really can’t very easily live without them. Rather than unplugging, I see the need for the kind of engagement that could lead to a movement which suggests and demands the kind of changes to media institutions that would make them bona fide servants not only of public discourse, but more importantly, of the public interest.

    I realize I’m coming across as the guy with no sense of humor here, but seriously, that’s because I believe these institutions are overdue for profound change. And I think sociologists are well positioned to offer theory and evidence relevant to making such change constructive.

    Liked by 1 person


    January 24, 2012 at 11:32 pm

  13. I think Mark may be talking past Fabio and Austen here. Consider an analogy: two astronomers are sitting on the porch one night and look up at the night sky. “I’d almost forgotten how beautiful the stars are,” says one. “What?” says the other, “you never look up at the stars? You’re an astronomer!”

    Surely it’s the non-star-gazing astronomer who’d be right here. No useful information comes from the night sky seen with the naked eye. It is true that the same *light* can be studied and then used to revise astronomical theories, but to do so it must be gathered using specialized equipment and, importantly, in great quantities over long periods of time.

    Yes, the light and sound that escapes from TV screens all over the world contains information about society. But sociologists must gather this light in much more rigorous ways than merely watching TV. Gathering the information in those rigorous ways is not usually what sociologists who claim that watching TV is part of the job mean. They’re like the astronomer who thinks it is important to look up every now and then to behold the beauty of the night sky.

    It’s a nice romance. But it’s got nothing to do with science.



    January 25, 2012 at 11:43 am

  14. Thomas, Except that I’m not in love with my subject, and would rather like to see it look a lot different. If I’m a romantic about it, it’s in my notion that academics might give encouragement to citizens of affairs in ways that enable them together to change important institutions.



    January 25, 2012 at 8:40 pm

  15. Another analogy: a sociologist watching TV is like a doctor infecting himself with typhoid in an attempt to experience the object under study. He’s not in love with the fever, of course, and he’d like to see it “look a lot different” (i.e., cure it) but he’s not willing to rely “secondary data”. He wants to witness the disease at “first hand”.

    That’s also obviously nonsense. To be clear: I’m not advocating that sociologist ignore the news media as an object of study. I’m just arguing that studying, say, television news is something altogether different than watching it. Studying these institutions in an attempt to change them is also a perfectly good idea. But, again, one does not need to make them part of one’s life to do so.



    January 26, 2012 at 11:20 am

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