3 Reasons We Should Stop Watching TV News

by Benjamin Studebaker

Over the past several months, I’ve been paying increasing attention to an interesting phenomenon–voter tunnel vision. You may have noticed in recent months that mainstream media–particularly cable news networks–have devoted a remarkable amount of air time to a very narrow list of political issues:

  1. Russia/Ukraine Conflict
  2. Israel/Palestine Conflict
  3. Michael Brown Shooting/Ferguson Protests
  4. ISIS
  5. Ebola

Now, these issues are, to varying degrees, important. But why do they get so much coverage compared with more severe long-term problems like heart disease, malaria, poverty, climate change, education, and so on? Essentially, it’s because TV is a terrible medium for news, and I can show you why.

87% of Americans get their news from TV, more than from any other medium:

And yet, when you ask Americans basic questions about what’s been going on in the news, there’s very little difference between those Americans who watch TV news and those who don’t. When asked 5 questions about domestic news, Americans on average all answered between 1 and 2 of the questions correctly, regardless of whether they watched TV news or not. The network they preferred made a slight difference, but even the comparatively well-informed Daily Show viewers couldn’t get 2 questions right on average:

Bizarrely, when asked about international issues, most of which do not effect most Americans directly, performance was a little better, but still no group was able to average a 2:

When this study came out in 2011, many news organizations jumped all over the poor performance of FOX News, but what’s perhaps even more remarkable is just how poorly all groups do. Even the best informed people (which in both cases were NPR listeners, who get their news from radio, not TV) scored no higher than about 40% on average. If America’s TV news audience were in the classroom, they would all get F’s.

So what’s wrong with TV news? Here are three reasons:

1. Watching TV is a Passive Activity

When we watch TV news, we don’t have to actively participate in the news consumption process. When you read a book, magazine, or piece on a web site (like this one!), you have to actively choose to read the words to get the information. If you stop reading, you stop learning. Reading comprehension requires a small modicum of effort. We usually know when we are reading something and when we are not. This effort encourages us to engage with the material in a more critical way. By contrast, we can sit in front of a television while someone talks at us and think we’re learning something when in reality we’re not paying especially close attention to what is being said, much less critically evaluating its content.

Consider this–when we’re reading something and find something dubious or troubling in the text, we can stop what we’re doing and think about it, or even do further research. Take the study I talked about above–if you thought it was dubious, you could follow the link and look up the details of how it was conducted. Indeed, because this is on the web rather than in print, I can even put the link there for you so that this is convenient and easy. After you’ve looked up the study, you can resume reading this piece right from where you left off. By contrast, if this were a TV news report, the newscaster would summarize the findings of the study aloud for a few short sentences and then move on to something else. Your brain doesn’t get a chance to think critically about the study, because you’re already being bombarded with additional information about another topic, and it’s too much work to tape the news and pause it every time a newscaster says something we think worth questioning. By the time the news program is over, you’ve probably forgotten most of what was questionable about what was said. Even if you remember, how likely are you to go on the internet and look things up? Many people watch other TV programming after the news–it’s how David Letterman, Jimmy Fallon, and company draw their late night audiences. Others have to work, or have to go to sleep because they’ve been working all day, and so on. When you watch TV news, you hear a lot of noise, but you don’t get to process it.

2. TV News is Stuck in the News Cycle

If you go to a news website, like CNN.com, you can find links to dozens upon dozens of different news stories. There’s lots of commentary, analysis, and opinion pieces, and each of these pieces potentially has links to several external sources of information. But what happens when you turn on your TV and watch CNN? On TV, CNN can only really talk about one story at any given time. When you turn on CNN, you might hear about Ebola for 15 minutes before you’ll hear about anything else aside from commercials. Even if CNN moves on to other topics (ISIS, for instance), by the time it covers one or two other issues in any detail, it runs into a couple of problems:

  1. Most people are only going to spend so much of their days watching TV news. This means that after 30 minutes or an hour, many of the original viewers are gone.
  2. In the meantime, new viewers have been added who have not seen the previous segments and want to know about the top story.

This pushes CNN to start talking about Ebola again! As a result, even 24-news stations get trapped in “news cycles”, where they only really cover a small handful of issues in any given day. Network news stations have it just as bad, because their news programs run for a half hour or so multiple times per day. Because the audiences for the news at different times of day are usually completely different, the networks have to run more or less the same news coverage several times a day.

If there’s an update to the story in the meantime, things are made worse still–the news program feels obliged to return to a story it has already covered if there’s new information, making it even more difficult for TV news to cover a diverse set of issues in any detail.

Print media often suffers similar constraints (albeit spatial rather than temporal), but internet news is wholly liberated from this. On a website, one could in theory publish a story about every conceivable issue every day. The reader’s ability to learn about the important issues in the world are only constrained by the reader’s free time and ability to read critically.

3. TV News Thrives on Fear and Panic

In reason #1, we discussed why TV news poorly covers what it covers. In reason #2, we discussed why TV news is only able to cover a very narrow range of stories. But why does TV news choose to cover the stories it chooses?

To survive, most news organizations, regardless of medium, rely on advertisements. Advertisers want to advertise in places where their adverts will be seen. On the internet, this leads to the pernicious phenomenon known as “click bait“. People will write provocative titles to draw clicks. Often, these titles will promise readers some kind of list, because for whatever reason human beings are drawn to lists (e.g. “3 Reasons Why We Should Stop Watching TV News”).

Click bait is bad and it hurts the quality of the internet, but this advertiser influence has a far worse effect on TV news. On the internet, all a content provider needs to do is get you to click on something. Once you’ve clicked, the actual content of the piece can be utterly vapid, but it can also be a serious, meticulous look at an issue of importance (I hope this piece falls into the latter category). By contrast, a news organization like CNN needs you to do more than just turn on CNN–it needs you to watch CNN through commercial breaks. How can FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, and other networks get you to stay with them through commercial breaks? Their strategy is simple: they try to scare the pants off of you.

Why are we hearing so much about ISIS and Ebola lately? It’s not as if either acronym is killing that many people. ISIS has executed a handful of westerners travelling in the Middle East, and Ebola is a marginal disease, even in Africa:

But you’re not going to see that graphic very much on TV news (indeed, I first saw it on Vox, a news website). Why not? Because TV news networks need you to believe that Ebola is really, really scary, because they know that the more afraid people are, the more news they watch. If you believe that Ebola is a threat to you or your family, it would be irresponsible of you to turn the television off or change the channel during the next commercial break. You’ve got to wait with bated breath for the next update, and the news networks will jump all over themselves to find something new to say about Ebola, no matter how trivial, every few minutes or hours. They will find someone new to interview, something new happening somewhere, and they will try to string you along so that you stay tuned in for as long as possible. To pull this off, they need to focus on crisis stories, where situations are rapidly evolving. This means natural disasters, disease outbreaks, scandals, and violent conflicts all make for great TV news stories, but chronic diseases and long-term, complex problems don’t. TV news needs to get you afraid, emotional, and charged up. A lot of people associate this tactic with FOX, and particularly with Glenn Beck (who no longer works there), but all the TV news networks do this to varying degrees (and to the extent that they don’t, they get killed in the ratings). To thrive as a business, TV news must perpetuate a climate of constant crisis.

Because 87% of us watch TV news, most of us perceive reality in a skewed and corrupted way to varying degrees. What we don’t realize is that:

  1. We aren’t critically evaluating the information we receive on TV.
  2. We aren’t being told about most of what matters on TV.
  3. We are being manipulated to place an excessively high priority on relatively minor problems and to think about those problems in a highly emotional and nonconstructive way.

This is why when CNN conducts a poll, it finds that 70% of Americans think there are ISIS terror cells in the US and 90% think ISIS poses a real threat to America, even though the consensus view in the intelligence community is that ISIS poses no substantive threat. These news organizations don’t care if we’re well-informed. All they care about is that we watch the ads. If we rely on them for information about what’s going on, we’re going to make ill-informed decisions about what issues the government should prioritize and how it should respond to problems. We have arguably gone to war in Iraq and Syria because people believe what they see on TV. So if you’re one of the 87% of Americans who watch TV news, let’s all do each other a favor and just stop.