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Linking news and action

Swiss author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli recently published a provocative essay titled “News is Bad for You” in The Guardian. The essay describes news – particularly fast-breaking, rapidly updated news – as an addictive drug, inhibiting our thinking, damaging our bodies and wasting our time. Dobelli is so concerned with the negative effects of news that he’s cut himself off from consuming news for the past four years and urges that you do the same.

His arguments attracted angry responses within The Guardian‘s newsroom. Madeleine Bunting writes, “As Dobelli described his four-year news purdah to a group of Guardian journalists last week, there was a sharp intake of collective breath, nervous laughter and complete astonishment. How could someone suggest such a thing to a journalist?”

I had a different reaction to Dobelli’s provocation. I found it pretty persuasive. I shared the article with students in a class I teach called “News and Participatory Media”, and asked the students for their reactions. Many found Dobelli’s case compelling, especially those students who were mid-career journalists. Much of what frustrated them about their profession was bluntly identified in Dobelli’s piece: too often, news is a set of disconnected snippets that promises to inform and empower, but merely entertains, distracts and ultimately misleads.

While Dobelli offers a persuasive set of problems, his proposed solution – stop reading news – strikes me as unhelpful and selfish. You personally may benefit from the time you reclaim in kicking the news habit, but there is likely a societal cost in encouraging people to opt out of consuming the news. A democratic form of government presumes an informed populace that can select appropriate representatives and identify issues that merit public debate. As Bunting notes in her response, a happy, docile and ill-informed citizenry is the precursor to a Huxleian vision of totalitarianism.

Dobelli might accept the accusations of selfishness. His essay is adapted from his new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, which is an odd example of a self-help book. Deeply inspired by Naseem Taleb’s work linking cognitive science and economics, Dobelli outlines 99 cognitive shortcomings, errors and fallacies in an attempt either to steer us towards smarter decisionmaking or, more likely, to bludgeon us into a realization that human beings are pretty lousy at making rational decisions. By the end of the book, Dobelli admits that he rarely considers all these errors and fallacies in making decisions and simply goes with his gut – however, he wants us to have these tools handy for the really important decisions. Those decisions, his examples suggest, generally have to do with making investments as wisely as Warren Buffet or getting good deals on expensive cars. His is not a book about civics – it’s a book about maximizing your personal gains.

If we take Dobelli’s criticism seriously but reject his proposed solution, one next step is to look for ways to address the shortcomings of contemporary journalism. If we don’t like the sort of repetitive, click-seeking, shallow journalism that Pablo Boczkowski identifies in his book “News at Work“, we need to find ways to support “slow news” that focuses on investigation and contextualization of breaking news. If we are dismayed by how both new and old media got many details of the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt for the bombers wrong, we need either to slow newsrooms down, or to build better tools to help both newsrooms and readers cross-check and verify breaking news reports.

I can (and frequently do) point to people and projects focused on solving the problems Dobelli poses , but I’m left with two of his challenges that I can’t ignore or solve. They are related points: “News is irrelevant” and “News makes us passive.” These intertwined problems strike me as uncomfortably hard to address.

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Sasha Costanza Chock at Sun Yat Sen University

Friend and colleague Sasha Costanza-Chock leads off the morning at Sun Yat Sen University’s conference on Civic Media with a talk titled, “Transmedia Organizing: Social Media Practices in Occupy Wall Street and the Immigrant Rights Movement”. Sasha begins with his personal journey towards a scholar of activism. He started his story with his work as an electronic musician in Boston as a student at Harvard, working to create multiracial and multicultural spaces around electronic music as a way of addressing some of the long-term cultural divides in Boston. That work led him to work on film audio for the Independent Media Center and work with Indymedia, documenting

This work on filmmaking turned into an investigation of distribution methods, which led him to work with the Transmission Network, a group focused on bringing independent media from around the world, especially to Southeast Asia to global audiences. He moved on to UPenn Annenberg, where he focused on media policy and went on to work with Free Press, an international NGO focused on participatory interventions into media policy.

Pursuing his PhD at USC Annenberg, Sasha found himself working with the immigrant rights community, a key community in LA, which has a massive immigrant population. His work with immigrant groups led to the Mobile Voices project, which has gone on to become vojo.co. This platform, which allows people to share their stories via mobile phones, is an example of a tool for transmedia activism, activism that uses a variety of media tools to seek change.

Sasha suggests that a broad view of media ecology suggests we take the new affordances of digital media seriously. Social movements have always used new media to express their identity and articulate their issues. But we need to look beyond tools and platforms, and consider the political economy of media systems. What companies are involved with these new spaces, how are they regulated, who benefits from these new systems? What are the new affordances of these tools? Who has access to tools and skills in these new spaces?Read More »Sasha Costanza Chock at Sun Yat Sen University