Why the daily news tends to be irrelevant

By Joern Fischer

With so much room for improvement in today’s world, I often feel I should be up to speed with current affairs. To contribute useful things to the world, you need to know what’s going on. And so keeping up to date with the daily news seems really important.

But then I watch the news (or listen to it, or read it), and usually there’s nothing new at all. Or rather, it’s just factoids that change on a daily basis. The important things tend to change much more slowly (if at all), and they typically don’t get reported on in the news. (The video below is different, by the way — it’s not CNN, but CNNNN, an Australian parody of CNN…)

If you’re the kind of person who gets frustrated by watching daily news, perhaps you’ll find Resilience Thinking an interesting way to look at this. According to resilience scholars, systems have “fast variables” (things that change rapidly, somewhat frequently, and can cause great disturbance in the process), and systems have “slow variables” (things that don’t change very fast at all but underpin some of the big patterns and trends). The slow variables are really important drivers of sustainability problems. They might be things like human population growth, climate change, global injustices stemming back from colonial times, dietary choices as people get wealthier. These kinds of variables are critically important to understand, and address, sustainability problems.

But the daily news focuses almost exclusively on fast variables. The weather, the latest events, the stock market. I’d go even further though: if people are informed by the news, then there will be a feedback effects back to politics — watching the news means you end up thinking that lots of these fast variables are important; thereby putting implicit pressure on politicians to think even more in terms of immediate impacts. Yet again, our culture of speed stops us from thinking about underlying issues — even though those are the issues we should be dealing with to create lasting changes (assuming we are seeking to improve sustainability outcomes).

So, is there a chance to change modern culture, so that slow, important variables receive more attention, relative to fast, less important variables? Is this already happening, just not in the daily news?  Could and should the profile of slow variables be increased, and if so, how?

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3 thoughts on “Why the daily news tends to be irrelevant

  1. Hi Joern – this is a very nice post and promote thinking/reflection (at least for me at this nice morning). It is that ‘basin of attraction’ which keep everything in it. TV and other mass media and unfortunately part of the modern science, our thinking etc. is trapped in this basin like in a black hole.

    This basin (its shape, deepness etc) is determined by a number of slow variables interacting with fast variables (and some may re-inforce each other). You mentioned part of them already. I see a re-inforcing loop in the mass media and people. Mass media see that people have less time to reflect, so they have brain space only for superficial things (i.e. this politician do this or that, this guy abused this or that etc. etc.). With this they at the same time re-inforce a latent variable which is the thinking platform of the big population. And this select back to shows which promote this.

    To ‘think outside the box’ (in this case – outside the ‘basin’:)) ) may be difficult adventure because people may not even perceive you, or they perceive you as a crazy person or why not, they may even like you.

    Be outsider? Well – the basin is a huge attractor…and a strong one. Plus, very hard to realize when you are outside:)

  2. ps: a last possibility as you mentioned also, and I repeat it in other words (to be in line with the previous comment) may be to shape this basin. Drive the change. But how? I intuitively say that there are two important ingredients of this: (i) show that you can be the best [in science or whatever]. People will like you then:)) and (ii) Slowly change your approach and attitude and people will follow you and will not even realize this – exactly because you may contribute to the change of this basin of thinking.

    ‘You’ = every individual:)

  3. I think your post is brilliant, Joern. I guess the slow variables in Resilience thinking also refer to values, mindsets, and simply social capital. So watching fast changing news is like the negative outcome of (Western) societal development. It’s a self-reinforcing process whose end nobody knows. I’m no biologist, but I assume it can at least partly be explained by the human ‘nature’. We are strongly built on (short term) ‘sucess’ or ‘achievement’. Endorphin and dopamin are produced following emotional information, raising optimism and self-assurance. Thus short information pieces seem to keep us going; it makes us happy when we hear that a murderer has been arrested. While insecure/ complex processes that are constantly running ‘behind the scene’ do not trigger the same (set of) emotions. Instead of being constantly worried or questionning processes, it seems easier/more comfortable for most people to watch the news or soap operas. Intervening here is certainly not an easy task, as it means that the very fundaments of human nature are ‘attacked’. As TV cannot be simply prohibited (unfortunately), one way out would be to have more scientific/education programs during prime time. Radio/TV broadcasters would have to be politically forced or given incentives- such as raising their reputation by putting a ‘sustainability label’. Of course people could still switch programmes or turn their computer on and play counterstrike. But it would be better than nothing.

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