Consuming the news: Is knowing harder than dieting?

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Oh no! More suggestion, in an article I’m reading, that gaining reliable knowledge from the media might be even harder than sticking to a diet! Just as we’re assaulted with tempting displays of candy and chocolate as we head for the supermarket check-out, we’re faced with screaming headlines, awful photos, and our own fear and excitement as we open the news. Alas! I’ve never been a fan of that smug term “delayed gratification”, and I’ve long felt morose about advice – getting it or giving it – to pause, and think… to counter first intuitions and impulses with the slower responses of reason. Nevertheless, a current analysis of “the terror news cycle” confronts me, yet again, with the importance of not grabbing on impulse but paying attention to what I take in. Resolution for the week: not to go instantly for the tasty or flashy. TOK teachers, beware: this is a spoiler alert!

The article I’m recommending is in the blog of the London Review of Books: “The Terror News Cycle”. Amid all the articles in the media by the media about the media these days, it focuses specifically on reporting terror attacks – the rush to get the news out first even if it’s sketchy and laced with speculation, the appetite for intimate details of destruction and pain that can overwhelm sensitivity and restraint, and the human tendency of both commentators and readers to fill in the missing bits with their own assumptions and prejudices. Confirmation bias goes galloping again! The author of this analysis, Des Freeman, also points out that “there are also papers and commentators who lose no time in using atrocities to whip up anger and to identify potential scapegoats.” By then, misinformation and extreme views have entered our minds and are hard to dislodge.

As Freeman notes, “We would all benefit from a slower journalism that didn’t resort to tired stereotypes and sought to expand, not to contaminate, our understanding of a violent world. The trouble is that there is neither the business model nor the political will to foster such an approach.”

But Freeman exaggerates. Good journalism does exist, despite market forces and political will, just as the food that sustains us exists on supermarket aisles beyond the ones that give us the fast sugar fix. But we have to direct ourselves the right way to find it. We have to develop – and practise! – skills of thinking critically about the media. But I won’t rehash what I wrote in this blog on March 27:  TOK and “fake news”: 3 tips, 2 downloads, and 3 resources.

Altogether, Freeman’s article on the terror news cycle does reinforce, for me, four ideas core to Theory of Knowledge teaching. Would you pick out similar ones?

  1. Ways of knowing don’t necessarily lead to reliable knowledge. We have to become self-aware over how we use them and be on guard against strong emotional appeals that satisfy our biases.
  2. The perspectives we notice are often the extreme views, neither representative nor well informed. They get undue attention in the media and our minds.
  3. Methodologies of areas of knowledge – methods of gaining, sharing and evaluating knowledge with care – have been developed for a reason. They place checks on our human tendencies to error, and guide us toward more reliable conclusions, collectively.
  4. Knowing isn’t easy. We have to know ourselves and the ways we think, and be thoughtfully critical of the conclusions we reach.

For me, finally, one urgent question remains. Will practice in consuming the news with attention and control, with concern for where it comes from and what’s in it, help me develop better reflexes in face of the ultimate challenge – chocolate mousse? Dieting, I fear, may turn out to be harder than knowing after all.

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Des Freedman, “The Terror News Cycle”, LRB Blog, London Review of Books. May 24, 2017.

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