A Modest Cure For The Overload of What Looks Like Information

I have a confession to make. I have not watched television news for more than a year. Not the so-called cable news stations, not regular network programs (morning or night), and not the local broadcasts.

Not only do I feel better, I think I’m also better informed than the people who binge on that stuff. Certainly better than anyone who watches Fox “news”.

It started just before the 2016 election when I took off for a week in Cuba that just happened to include election day. After learning of the results (the family we were staying with was very sympathetic), I decided I needed a new media diet, one that actually contained useful information, instead of hour after hour of “analysts” with little information and grids full of screaming heads.

My information stream may not work for you but it might give you some ideas on how to craft your own break from TV.

I start with suggested content from a few curated sources. Curation is that thing editors of television news, newspapers, and magazines used to do when they had 24 hours or more to consider events and decide which ones were worth including in their limited space. They didn’t always get it right, but trying to find instant value as you watch the stream is even worse.

My current favorite curators include Next Draft (by one person Dave Pell) and Quartz’ Daily Brief. Every weekday, both deliver a short collection of links to the stories they consider most important, along with some interesting stuff of less import. Plus very brief and sometimes humorous commentary.

I also receive a few weekly collections. From writer and edtech critic Audrey Watters (for a jolt of reality and much to consider), writer and artist Austin Kleon (for some inspiration), and UK-based educator Doug Belshaw (for education-related ideas).

None of these sources takes long to scan through, and I certainly don’t read the stories at the end of every single link. Very often the commentary is enough to get a general idea, especially when it comes to political news.

The articles and posts I do want to read usually get sent to Instapaper, an incredible service that aggregates anything I send to it and then delivers the information in a simplified format (re: no ads!) on any device I happen to be holding when time allows for some reading. It also offers some good highlighting and note taking features for when I want to rant about something in this space.

So, there it is. My simple, curated flow that takes less time and delivers more information than whatever passes for news on television. Chances are, if there is something worth viewing, one of these sources will link to the video anyway.

And what, you say, about “breaking news”?

I maintain that there’s no such thing. Most of what is given that label by the news channels is not of immediate importance and they often have very incomplete (often incorrect) details on what happened anyway. They offer even less on why it’s important. Besides, my Twitter feed will tell me if something big has happened in the world, and I can then choose to follow one of the tweeted links. More curation.

Anyway, that’s my system of keeping up with the news. As I said, it may not work for you. However, I would argue that most people would be far better informed with a buffer of time and thought between the actual event and the report of it. And a few good curators.


The graphic is by Jessica Hagy who has been posting these wonderfully insightful charts every weekday morning at her site This is Indexed for more than decade.

Day Old News

I have a confession to make.

I haven’t watched TV news since sometime back in September. Not the 24-hour talking heads channels, not the broadcast network’s evening summaries, not even 60 Minutes.

Pogo

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping up with current events, in all their crappyness.

Instead of suffering through all the faux debates and BREAKING NEWS!!, I returned to only consuming day-old news.

Some of it comes from the old fashioned paper delivered to the door every morning. Some on websites that write about events from several days or even weeks ago. Maybe a video or two when appropriate.

Information sources like the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The Guardian (UK) whose writers and editors go beyond just relating what happened but also why it matters.

Of course, that doesn’t mean those day-old sources are 100% accurate. Even with the extra time to develop some context for events, they sometimes make mistakes. Occasionally they create misleading, even stupid, headlines. Even so, day-old is a whole lot more accurate than up-to-the-minute.

I’m not sure I’m a better informed person for this change. And the extra effort required may not be for everyone.

But I feel better.1

Science Says! Or Maybe It Doesn’t!

There are many reasons why science reporting in the popular media, especially television, is crap. But one major problem, according to a writer in Vox, comes from the fact that “half of the studies you read about in the news are wrong”.

At least it’s a fact according to a new study. Which means there’s a 50-50 chance that this particular research is wrong?

Breaking news blog

Maybe. But let’s continue anyway.

Yet as researchers in PLOS One recently found, journalists typically only cover those initial papers — and skip over writing about the clarifying meta-reviews that come later on.

What’s more, the study finds, journalists “rarely inform the public when [initial studies] are disconfirmed” — despite the fact around half of the studies journalists write about are later rebutted by follow-up studies.

What’s more, journalists really, really like to report on studies that deliver positive results — even though studies that deliver negative results are equally valuable.

And although journalists gravitate toward covering single studies concerning lifestyle choices such as diet or exercise, these were actually the least likely to be confirmed by a meta-review (as opposed to non-lifestyle papers on topics like genetics).

What do the researchers suggest could be done to improve the quality of the science reporting most people are likely to consume? The article offers one suggestion:

Pick up the phone, and ask researchers whether it is an initial finding, and, if so, they should inform the public that this discovery is still tentative and must be validated by subsequent studies.

Which is likely too complicated for both the journalists, most of whom probably studied very little science in school, and their audience’s attention span.

So, I have another approach to the matter: How about if we teach the process of analyzing scientific reporting to our students in K12? Not just in “science” class but as part of critical reading, media studies, and social studies instruction.

We want students to graduate with a fundamental understanding of the concepts of science. But that understanding should include the necessary skills to intelligently evaluate and question the reporting done on science issues presented in the media they consume. At the very least, they need to learn this very basic fact: “in science, truth takes time”.

Maybe, if we educate a more scientifically literate population, they would demand better quality science reporting.

However, that will also take time.

What Doesn’t Work In Education Reporting

School House2

Rather than asking what works in education, NPR asked “education researcher John Hattie” about ideas that don’t work. His answers are not based on his own work but on a review of “more than 1,000 ‘meta-analyses’”, whatever that is.

Anyway, I wish the writer had started by asking Mr. Hattie what he means by “works”. Of course, I know the answer. Works means improving scores on standardized tests, even though his number two non-working solution is standardized testing.

High-performing schools, and countries, don’t necessarily give more standardized tests than low performers. They often give fewer.

The alternative: testing that emphasizes giving teachers immediate, actionable feedback to improve teaching.

Having said that, his final item, in which he says the US spends too much money on public education, is based on the fact that other countries spend much less while their students score higher than American kids on an international standardized test (the PISA).

He also says that smaller class sizes don’t work because countries like Japan and Korea have relatively large classes and are “high performing”, again on those standardized tests.

It’s too bad NPR just transcribed the executive summary of Hattie’s paper, instead doing some research of their own and asking some informed questions.

The worst part about stories like this is the failure to recognize that there are major differences between American society and our approach to education with those of other countries. Start with the fact that, instead of national education goals, we have 51 educational policies, plus around 31,000 local school boards.

Then review the level of public support for public education in the US compared to Finland, Japan, and the rest. How many of their government leaders are working hard to demonize teachers and privatize schools?

Finally, look at the societal support systems for children in each country, especially rankings of child poverty rates (anywhere from 20% to 33% of all children, depending on the definition of “poverty”). I’ll bet “making America great again” has nothing to do with improving those dismal statistics.

And anyone who says poverty has nothing to do with learning, has never tried to teach math to a class of hungry middle school students.

Finding History in the Pile

Thanks to TV

This quote is on a wall in the Newseum, a museum in Washington DC dedicated to news, information (not always the same), and the First Amendment.2

However, with all due respect to Ms. Mead, I don’t think her optimism for television was ever warranted. Even in it’s early days, the medium was controlled by a few corporations run by those elders and the world being viewed by kids, and everyone else, was heavily edited (a nicer way of saying censored) by them. Today that’s even more true, even with hundreds of cable channels, most run by a few large media companies.

So, is Ms. Mead’s quote any more valid if we replace television with “the web”?

It’s too early to say. The possibility is still there. But only if “the young”, not to mention their elders, learn to filter the crap (see Sturgeon’s Law) on the web from the history being made. Developing that crap detector should be at the core of every school’s curriculum.