Soundbites vs. The World

“[J]ournalism may be the greatest plague we face today — as the world becomes more and more complicated… our minds are trained for more and more simplification.”

-Nassim Taleb, Fooled by Randomness, p. 39.

Most people turn to the television and the newspaper to learn about the world. At the same time, most people don’t have much time to spend consuming news. We have short attention spans. Jobs to go to. Children to raise.

More to the point, a lot of people just don’t care very much. Many journalists — and even more of their consumers — have limited intellectual curiosity. We have better things to do.

This affects the quality of news reporting. The dominant format in print and broadcast media is now the soundbite. It’s short. It’s catchy. You can listen to an entire soundbite on the morning news and still get to work on time. Several of them in fact, on a variety of topics.

But soundbites leave little room for subtlety. For nuance. For shades of gray.

This is a tragedy. Ours is a world full of not just grays, but colors. Vibrant colors, arrayed across an entire spectrum, shining through all of space and all of time. It’s beautiful.

There is little beauty in the harsh, monochrome soundbite. Worse, the soundbite crowds out analysis of anything that takes much longer than a news cycle to materialize. This is the soundbite’s biggest failure. Our world is going through slow but profound changes that a soundbite couldn’t possibly capture.

Take the economy. Because we’re probably in a recession right now, headlines are screaming about economic instability. Volatility. Crashing, churning. A recent CNN/Money article describes “jaw-dropping” market volatility. A Google search of “increasing market volatility” yields 442,000 results.

Journalists should stop screaming. The economy is actually less volatile than it used to be. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the data. Booms are longer now. Recessions are shallower. It’s right there in the data.

But we probably won’t hear about this trend in the news. That’s because it is sixty years in the making. It didn’t happen over a news cycle. It happened over generations.

You’ll hear all about the Dow’s latest ups and downs — up 62 points today, by the way. But here’s something you’ll probably never hear on CNBC or Fox News: the Dow has never had a 15-year period where it lost money. Ever. Including the Great Depression. Your IRA is safe.

If you really want to learn about our world or its economy, listen to the data. They are far more eloquent than any talking head.