Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Press' Priorities, And Ours

Caption: The first Stanhope press for the German newspaper Iserlohner Kreisanzeiger und Zeitung

Image credit: Bubo/Wikimedia

Dan Hind makes an interesting point about the priorities of the press, and the relationship of those priorities to those of the public in an a column at Al Jazeera:

There is no evidence that the public would only want stories about Rihanna if they were given some say in shaping the editorial agenda of news organisations. There is no evidence that people would spend most of any research funds they controlled on psychic pets and cancer-curing vegetables. I am sure that neither of these people would dream of making a similar, unfounded generalisations about any group of adults in society. Imagine for a moment the uproar if they did. But they are happy to assert that the public as a whole is so witless that it cannot decide how to spend its own money.

Fear of the people: A critique of scientific orthodoxy

There are a few points I can think of making here:

First, I have no idea who Rihanna is. My guess is she's a celebrity of some sort, probably in show business. Yes, she's a singer, or so MTV and a fairly large swath of the English-speaking public seem to believe. She's trending on Twitter, or was. I've never trended on Twitter, so I guess you could say that's another thing I don't have personal experience of.

Still, there's something I do have experience of, and that's the public's priorities. I don't blame Ben Goldacre, a science journalist Hind criticizes in that column, for writing that much of what the public would do with research funds, if given the chance, would be trivial or nonsensical. Still, as Hind points out, there's plenty of trivial research that's funded by supposedly serious organizations. That's the nature of the beast. Someone was fascinated with why hair, amber, and gold leaf stuck together sometimes, and a couple of centuries later I can write to the world on a preternaturally complex device in a coffee shop miles from any big communications centers.

So, my guess is that it might benefit us to put a small amount of research funding into the hands of amateurs, because every once in a great while, they'd come up with something few others would. Most of it would be pure nonsense, though. If that's elitism, sue me.

The other point is this one - why do we talk about things like Rihanna, or the Phillies, or any other bits of trivial nonsense that seem to lead the "most popular news" lists most days? I can tell you one thing: it's something to talk about with people you have nothing else in common. Back when I worked among conservatives, that was something you could usually talk about with no more than mildly spirited disagreement. In fact, it's sometimes a good insight into peoples' thinking on other issues. Conservatives tend to be much more likely to give up on a sports star when it looks like his skills are waning, for instance.

Which brings us to a reason that all that trivia is so popular - many of us are at least somewhat interested, even if only in self-defense. It's hard to say that about politics, economics, most science, or just about anything else, particularly if it requires a lot of time and some smarts to understand. And, as Hind says, that's not a reason to think that it's really a priority with us. It's just something we can talk about without killing each other.

This is a reason I discount the idea that the press' priorities are their readers' priorities. They're not. The press, mostly, is motivated by profit. We readers are motivated by wanting to know about the things we want to know about. Sometimes those motivations coincide, but I think it's safe to say that they don't at least as often.

UPDATE: I corrected the spelling of Dan Hind's name. In the initial version of this article, I'd spelled it right three times, and wrong once.

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