Musing about news

My brother pinged me about this story today: To Infinity and Beyond. It’s about a 12-year-old autistic boy and his father carried out to sea and triumphing over the elements in miraculous ways. It’s a feel-good story. I happened to read it early this morning, before I went to work, and for sure I felt good as I went to work. Why not? It’s a good story. It’s a great story.

I like good news. I like stories that lift my spirit. I like stories about human endeavour and relationship and commitment and character and covenant and faith.

I must thank CNN as well for bothering to carry the story, against the grain as it were.

Talking about news, there were a couple of incidents over the last few weeks that have intrigued and even perplexed me. Most recently, there was the short-term 75% drop in United Airlines’ stock price based on Bloomberg carrying a six-year-old story in error, as reported here in the Washington Post. A few weeks before that, Bloomberg accidentally published an obituary of Steve Jobs, then immediately retracted it.

Why am I intrigued, even perplexed? Simple. Before the web, I’d accepted, at least in part,  the universal “truth” that people seemed to prefer bad news to good; I’d rationalised this on the basis that news editors believed this “truth”, and in an MSM world, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy as a result.

I’d also understood, personally as well as anecdotally, that the same thing was true about reputation: Negative stories travelled faster and further than positives. And this I’d rationalised away by thinking it was about human nature and risk aversion, negative stories were calls to action, that sort of thing.

Despite all this, I’d somehow expected something different when it came to the web. I’d expected a Linus’s Law to take effect on news and stories, that given enough eyeballs all “information” bugs would be shallow. For some reason this doesn’t happen; at least, it doesn’t happen as quickly as I would expect it to.

Just something I’m trying to think through. Suggestions? Views? Advice?

13 thoughts on “Musing about news”

  1. I can remember thinking that too, in the early days of blogging- the eyeballs of the people were going to lead to the reporting of truth, thus replacing unfair, biased and artificially negative & obsessive “news” media.

    Now the biased media seems just as biased. Readers group around media outlets in what I suppose is called tribes, and they don’t have a critical eye. They even want to believe stuff that isn’t true but fits their desires and expectations. It’s no fun nit-picking the Guardian for left-leaning inaccuracies! Everyone expects them anyway. It’s part of what they sell. So I read the Guardian and the Telegraph every morning, then do some news arithmetic and add a bit of scepticism before drinking the results :)

    (This isn’t a very constructive comment, just a couple of thoughts.)

  2. Working professionally as a media analyst, I have thought a lot about the role of MSM in the new media landscape. I’m still far from reaching any conclusion.

    Anyway, I think MSM has pretty much lost their privilege on delivering news… Presonally I go to die Zeit to read Johka fishers columns, but RSS feeds etc. gives me the news from any source indiscriminately.

    I think it works like this for many people. MSM don’t give the news, but they still have a privilige in defining what is the important news.

  3. Could the preference for bad news be connected to our evolutionary successful strategy of ‘progress through avoiding failure’? We adapt through avoiding the failure of others, varying on and learning from those failed strategies and actions, applying it to our own context. It is the reason applying ‘best practice’ does not work either (leaves out context, wrongly assumes predictability where there is none, and that the same thing will happen if the starting conditions are the same. Note: good practice and lessons learned are different things from ‘best practice’).

    Hearing bad news might in evolutionary terms be more instructive than good news.

  4. Alice, Daniel, Ton, thanks for your comments. You’ve probably seen me wax lyrical about Michael Power’s “The Risk Management of Everything’; when you couple the implications of his thesis with the increasing nanny-state behaviours of governments, the forecast is gloomy indeed.

    I prefer to think of evolutionary progress as “progress through adaptation in response to environmental change”. Risk is an inherent part of the way we learn and evolve, and not something we should be avoiding. Too often “risk management” equates to “risk avoidance” of second-order risks, decaying over time to “abdication of responsibilities”.

    Generation after generation, we seem to be more willing to reduce our risk appetite, have our risk appetite reduced by the state, impose lower risk appetites on generations to follow.

    Children climb trees, walk on walls, hang upside down in swings; that’s what children do.

    I sense that we’ve accelerated our bad-news-is-good culture not because the news is bad, but because our capacity to disseminate it has improved. If we allow this to affect social risk appetites, we all lose. Lose in our ability to learn, lose in our ability to teach.

    Enough said. Maybe I’ll write another post on this, a la the Scared To Death theme.

  5. Agree about risk, but it’s far more like that in the UK than the US. Here in Texas, we’re happy with the risk of ordinary people carrying guns.

    A hunch- when you take risk out of people’s lives & expectations, they go and abuse more drugs as a high-risk behaviour that doesn’t actually feel risky (due to being semi-unconscious).

  6. The question of why Linus’s law does not apply to news stories is an interesting one. I think the answer lies in how problems can be broken down and parallelized. Certain types of problem lend themselves easily to parallelization, in particular problems where the problem can be broken down into independent tasks with no or little communication required between those tasks. So, for example, SETI is easily parallelized, whereas weather prediction is not.

    The detection and fixing of bugs in software is an easily parallelized task, since, generally, each bug can be detected and fixed independently of the others. However the detection and fixing of bugs in news stories is not easily parallelize – even if I can detect a bug on my own, I still need to communicate with others to verify the facts and further communication is required get the bug fixed (and to convince the original author that I have my facts correct).

    Or to put it another way: Amdahl’s law means that Linus’s law does not apply to news and stories.


  7. The financial markets provide an interesting way to study this phenomenon. Obviously the government and the media prefer “good” rumors to “bad” rumors. Look at how much press the old UA story is getting, along with threats of investigation, etc, etc. But then you look at the markets and almost every day rumors which move the market up are coming out and eventually fading, and nobody cares. Hell, just yesterday there was a rumor floated about a take-under of Lehman which immediately popped the S&P a good 10 points. And this is after Lehman was supposed to have been acquired by Warren Buffet, Goldman Sachs, BoA, and the list goes on. Will those ever be investigated? I doubt it, they made the market move up.

    Point is, I think people would rather THINK the world is a happy-go-lucky place, and if an illusion supports that they don’t care. If an illusion destroys that idea they violently react against it. If I scream “dollar bills are falling from the sky!” people will get excited about it and then laugh when they find out I was lying. If I scream out “the building is on fire” and it’s not, they’ll get a little pissed at me.

    Anyway, thought-provoking post, thanks.


  8. Martin, Jason, Alice, thanks for your comments. There’s another post bubbling, to do with so-called perfect information and “the commons”. More later.

  9. @JP I don’t equate avoidance of failure with risk avoidance at all. Avoidance of failure rests on humans doing multiple safe-fail experiments. Risk avoidance on the other hand tries to build on fail-safe experiments, and therefore is more likely to fail. The first is an active stance in complex adaptive systems, the second a passive one.

  10. Ton, I’m not sure I get what you mean. Reducing the *cost* of failure is a good thing; increasing the *learning* that takes place as a result of failure is also a good thing; but *avoiding* failure? That I don’t understand. Running multiple experiments that are associated with low cost of failure makes sense: in my opinion that is the way the opensource community works. But there are failures, failures aren’t avoided.

    I am no expert in complex adaptive systems, but I do associate them with lots of little failures and good feedback loops and learning.

  11. @JP Maybe it is choice of words, or maybe I am not exactly clear myself what I am trying to say…..let me try again….

    The current sum of where we are as a civilization/society/species is the sum of failures avoided. The learning involved comes partly from earlier failures/other’s failures and learning to circumvent them next time, and partly comes from imagining possible failures in a new situation (e.g. learning to stay away from 1 snake after a bite, leads to approaching any other snake more cautiously until you’ve tested if it is biting/venomous strangling etc and know whether it will be safe or not)

    I agree with your description of lots of little failures and having the right feedback loops to learn from them. But we don’t just experiment blindly, we imagine dangers/possible failures and design experiments to test and in the end avoid them.

    Maybe the difficulty, as with other complexity stuff, is in that this is not a lineair line of reasoning/action. We need (affordable) failure, to learn, to test, and also need imagined failure, so that we may progress by avoiding both experienced or imagined failures. Hence my original notion that bad news may be more useful to us, evolutionary speaking, than good news.
    Progress itself is in this sense avoiding failure, but it is avoidance given the fact that you need to keep moving.
    I get to where I want to be in my car by avoiding collisions along the way as well, after all.

    I think I may be equating ‘risk avoidance’ with ‘not moving’ or standing still, where perhaps you equate avoidance in general with not moving?

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