Columns, Opinions

Smith GS: Turning down the cacophony

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Up until a few years ago, I began each day by reading the newspaper over morning coffee. It was a ritual I looked forward to — a pleasurable, orienting experience that left me feeling comfortable and ready to embrace the day.

But these days, I do not feel this way at all when I open my laptop in Blue State Coffee to read the news. Today’s media landscape looks nothing like the single reliable daily newspaper our parents and grandparents could count on for all their information. In the age of digital media, news comes at us from all sides, and new sources are available in just a few clicks. When I look through the news, it is a disquieting experience. There is simply too much information coming at me, and I don’t know who it’s coming from — amazingly, I’ve realized that I don’t know the names of any reporters. This generally holds true for most Americans: According to a Pew Research Center survey, only 38 percent of news readers can remember the sources every single time of articles they had read in a two-hour time span. In an age where information is increasingly politicized and contentious — and when the president can arbitrarily label a certain outlet as “fake news” — this is a terrifying statistic.

We must be more discerning, active consumers of news by re-thinking our approach to engaging with media. One way to do that is by thinking about who is writing news and how it is produced — the structures and practices that reporters and news organizations use to create content. This can help readers better wade through a divisive political climate that disorients us through the sheer amount of conflicting information.

Readers can actively engage with the news in many ways. At the most basic level, we as readers need to narrow our focus and make pointed choices about where we consume content. We can select sources we trust, follow beats that interest us and pursue a wide-range of news angles and styles — from financial perspectives in the Wall Street Journal to long-form pieces in the New Yorker. My approach has been to select individual reporters and columnists with interests that align with mine. Amid the growing national skepticism around news media, this strategy allows me to forge a more personal and trusting connection with news reporters.

It is also a way to re-think the “echo chamber” problem. Rather than replacing a cacophony of liberal voices with a cacophony of liberal and conservative voices, I’m replacing the cacophony altogether. I’m turning the volume way, way down, and listening closely to a select group of individuals from both sides of the political spectrum.

But a consequence of seeking individual writers is a sense of familiarity. If you read the same person every week, you begin to develop a relationship (albeit a one-sided one), you understand their reporting practices, their regular sources, their repeating themes. Knowing the writer in these ways both promotes a sense of comfort when reading them and makes us more critical, participatory consumers of news.

Some might argue that this approach to information limits the diversity of our perspectives. Aren’t more perspectives better than fewer? Shouldn’t we always be making an effort to get second, third and fourth opinions on a matter, so that we can understand it from as many angles as possible? To a certain degree, yes; but if we push that argument to its limit, we would still omit more perspectives than we embrace. Even if we read 20 articles written by 20 different people on the same topic, we’re neglecting to read hundreds of others — and probably confusing ourselves in the process. So should we really be striving to read more and more articles? And can we really pay attention and listen closely to each article we read with equal intensity?

Now, more than ever, we need to sort through the myriad sources of news and think more carefully about the information we absorb. We need to move beyond an abstract, impersonal relationship with news and remember that news is written by individuals with unique perspectives, backgrounds and practices. It may not appeal to everyone ­— some people might get a rush from the overload of information and enjoy the process of swinging from source to source, headline to headline. For me, it’s too much. I need to be more selective and systematic. Thus far, my approach is working. I’m finally starting to feel good after reading the news in the morning.

Benjamin Smith GS can be reached at benjamin_smith@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.