Episode One – Information Environments

It is nearly impossible to avoid the news in modern life. It’s there on your commute, it’s there when you get home, it’s on your facebook feed, on your twitter feed… for many of us, it’s there before we even get out of bed.

Yet many of us are dissatisfied with the news. It is often criticized as failing to cover important issues, or injecting too much bias and slant. Though, without the time to do a ton of independent research, most of us have a hard time explaining exactly what that bias is, or what’s missing. We just have the sense that our news is …incomplete.

And if you’re like most people, the only thing more disturbing than the news you listen to is the news your neighbors listen to. Or maybe your dad listens to. Or your kids.

There was a time where all of America listened to the same news – we had a lodestone where we would all meet – at 6PM every weeknight – and we all got a baseline of information that we could all share, and against which we would all compare notes.

That time is long gone – and you can go your entire life watching news, and yet never once listen to the particular type of news that your neighbor spends HER life watching.

We know that’s doing something to us, as communities, as families, as a nation. But what?

We are going to attempt to tackle that question. But more importantly, we will be giving you the tools to tackle that question for yourself.. Decode the News is not a news digest where we rehash all of the stories of the week one more time through one more perspective, it’s a toolbox that we will build together to help you critically consume information in your life. These tools will be coming from the best of what modern social science has to offer.

My name is Meagan Zurn, but people know me as Zee. I hold a PhD from the London School of Economics where I studied the media coverage of the 2008 Financial Crisis and compared that to how average Americans understood the recession and the economy. What I found was people could be attuned to the news, yet know very little about the actual policies and events that impact our daily lives.

Many people I spoke to had lost their homes, their businesses, and their jobs to the financial crisis, but they couldn’t explain what the financial crisis was. Not even in a really basic way.

Again, this wasn’t because they weren’t watching the news – they all watched it nightly and read the papers. There was a question here that needed to be answered.

Part of that answer became clear when I looked into the news during the financial crisis. Hardly any of the stories during that time actually explained what the crisis was, or who had caused it. Even fewer stories explained potential solutions to the crisis, or things we could do to help prevent such a thing from happening again.

The news has our attention – but what is that attention being awarded with?

This is the question my doctoral work led me to, and that question is still nagging at me. So I am starting this show. This is not the first Podcast I’ve been a part of. Some of you may know me as the co-producer of the British History Podcast, and the creator of that show, Jamie, will be a part of this show as well, though this time he will be my co-producer using his legal background to help me drill down into the issues.

Every week, we will bring you a major story covered in the news – and we are going to break it down together.

This show will also talk about what social science has to say about what the news does to us as individuals and as a society, and what it has to say about the social and economic forces which are shaping modern journalism. There are very smart people doing groundbreaking work on these questions, but hardly anyone knows what they’ve discovered. We will try to fix that problem by bringing you cutting edge research.

My goal for this, again, is that you go to the next week – to your regular news habits – with a new tool you can use to critically consume the news.

And to begin, I want to introduce two important concepts that are going to stay with us week after week.

The first concept is the information environment.

There has been a lot of talk about media “bias,” and more recently about information “bubbles,” A term for our tendency to create news silos for ourselves where we only access information that confirms our existing worldviews.

And then since the election of 2016, we have had a lot of talk about “fake news” – we’re going to get to that in more detail very soon.

But for now I want you to start to think in terms of an information environment.

Everybody has one – and the news media is often a big part of it. But your personal habits and practices are also a part of it.

When we think of media “bias” we tend to declare that this or that news source is “biased” – we suspect that we aren’t getting the whole story because there is some sort of particular agenda, and thus we declare it “bad” and write it off as a news source.

The problem with this is that everything is biased, one way or another. Everything and everyone has a particular perspective which will highlight some information over other information. If we try to get rid of all information which comes from a biased source, we won’t have any information at all.

The problem with thinking of news in terms of bias isn’t that there is no such thing as bias, it’s that asking “is this news biased” doesn’t tend to lead us in any useful direction.

But if we think of an information environment, it leads us to a lot of useful questions – no matter what source of information you’re looking at.

Your information environment is built off of the choices and habits you have every day. Do you get your news from CNN? From your friends on Facebook? Journalists on Twitter? Maybe you still read your local paper. All of these add up to your personal information environment.

Your information environment is also shaped by the choices that news organizations make everyday. It’s built off of which stories they pursue, which facts they highlight, and what sources they consider.

In the end, you have a finite set of facts – packaged in particular ways – which you rely on to make sense of the world around you.

Thought of this way, we can ask better questions like:

What sort of information do you get a lot of?

What sort of information is plentiful or easy to get, but you never get because of where you get your news?

What sort of information is hard to get, no matter how hard you try to find it?

And finally, what sort of information can we never get because it simply doesn’t exist yet?

See how those are better questions than trying to ask which news channel is more or less “biased?’

Information environments are important because information has an ideological impact. The facts we have at our disposal makes some opinions and beliefs easy to hold and it makes other opinions and beliefs harder to hold.

As we go through this show, we’re going to teach ourselves how to be aware of the information environment we build for ourselves, and that the news builds for us.

The second concept you need before we dive in is what I’m going to call the story.

By this I mean – for any given piece of news – who are the characters? What is defined as a problem? What is offered as a viable solution to that problem? What isn’t considered as a solution?

These are questions of ideology – and forget the political left and right. If we are going to move ahead we need to let go of these terms a bit. Ideology is much bigger than the current U.S. two party system. Some ideologies span both the modern left and right. Others are held by neither.

Ideologies – the stories that underpin our understanding of our world at all times – can come and go as we move through history. Many have gone extinct, Others are brand new. Many more wax and wane as eras come and go.

You’re born into prevailing ideology – into a common cultural story. Often we refer to this as “common sense” and we will return to that concept many times in the show.

Rarely do you consciously adopt an ideology, and if you do, it’s usually only a handful of times throughout your life – and the transition is never complete.

These ideologies mix with each other, they combine, they reproduce, and often all of this activity is largely invisible – we don’t notice they are there, we barely notice when they shift.

And all of this is happening in the news. Every single day.

This show is not about advocating for any particular ideology. It’s about trying to give you the tools to see them for yourself as they are presented in the news.

Now that you have your first two tools, information environments and stories, let’s get started. In the next episodes you will hear a breakdown of real news stories that were covered this week – we will discuss what was covered, what wasn’t covered, and discuss why it matters. And, if you would like to interact with the show during the week, you can find myself and co-producer Jamie on Twitter, handle @DecodetheNews.

I’ll see you in the next episode.

  8 comments for “Episode One – Information Environments

    March 8, 2017 at 6:46 am

    This is going to be good!

  2. Chuck
    March 10, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    I’m looking forward to this podcast. I’ve enjoyed and learned from your and Jaime’s discussions in BHP members-only podcasts, especially when you reviewed or applied your thesis. But the density of info was such that I struggled to identify, organize and apply the concepts. So I can’t wait to get into the next episode!

  3. Gerry
    March 11, 2017 at 12:15 am

    I listened to your presentation on your Ph.D on BHP. Liked it a lot. That’s why I’m here. I want tools both to hear the news better, and to better understand why others like my highly educated cousin have rejected all main stream media as “just selling advertising” and will adopt the most bizarre conspiracy theories about the US government coming from unknown email sources.

    On a technical note: I download the BHP episodes so I can listen to them later without eating up my mobile phone limit on data by streaming. If that’s possible here, I haven’t figured out how.

    • Jamie Jeffers
      March 11, 2017 at 2:01 am

      You can totally do that. I can’t walk you through how to do it specifically on your app because there’s like a billion podcast apps, but it should be pretty straight forward. Just search for Decode the News on your Podcast app and subscribe to it the way you did with the BHP, and the episodes should download for you. If they don’t, check in with their customer support for how to turn on downloading.

  4. Vince
    March 11, 2017 at 5:18 am

    Really pleased you are doing this. I really enjoy your contributions to the BHP and really appreciate your view of news media and news consumption. You articulate ideas I’ve long had far better than I could and I really look forward to learning to better use those ideas. The presentation of your thesis on the BHP was very enlightening and surprising. I really hadn’t thought things were as bad as you presented them, but then I talked to people I thought knew more and found out how right you were.

    If you set up a membership like the BHP I’ll be one of the first to subscribe.

  5. Bram
    March 15, 2017 at 9:22 am

    Since the Book Report and Shop Talk on the BHP-site I was looking for a source just like this (how to analyse/critically watch the news). That it is you (the BHP-team) that actually make it, makes it so much better :-D. Love that you’re doing this.

  6. April 19, 2017 at 9:02 pm

    Also joining you because of your work on the BHP. I thoroughly enjoyed your PhD discussion there.

  7. Christopher Young
    February 17, 2018 at 3:32 pm

    I am yet another BHP alum who discovered you there. I waited until I had methodically proceeded through the
    BHP series twice, pausing often to get deeper background on points made in Jamie’s podcast. (I’m the nerd who actually read the footnote cases in Casebooks, and pondered the questions at the end of the chapter). I finished my second runthrough yesterday, and now turn eagerly to your podcast, having looked forward to that treat since it was announced on BHP.

    As a starting point, I recall vaguely the adage purportedly given of a major Fleet Street tycoon in the mid to late 19th century as advice to a tyro aspiring journalist;:First, simplify. Second exaggerate”.

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