Mind Games

Can neuroscience explain the crisis in news?

What Is Happening to News: The Information Explosion and the Crisis in Journalism | By Jack Fuller | University of Chicago Press | 224 pages, $25

Jack Fuller is a veteran of almost four decades in journalism. He reported from Washington and Vietnam. He wrote editorials for the Chicago Tribune, some of which won him a Pulitzer Prize. He spent four years as the Tribune’s editor and publisher, and twelve more running the Tribune Publishing Company, one of the nation’s biggest. He is onto the biggest story of his life: why the news is in crisis.

In What Is Happening to News, Fuller wants to go beyond—far beyond—recounting the evident facts that advertising has deserted the tree-based, inflammable papers and that their publishers don’t know how to make money online. He wants to drill down, way down, into the territory of philosophers, historians, engineers, and more than anyone else, neuroscientists, to ask why the papers don’t appeal to readers—particularly to the young whose parents were readers.

Fuller reminds us, quite rightly, that news competes for people’s attention with uncountable zillions of alternatives. He wants to take account not only of what news organizations are doing wrong, but of what’s dysfunctional about the link between these organizations and their customers. So he starts by identifying “four separate forces that came together at the close of the twentieth century to reshape the way people take in news.” There is, first of all, popular suspicion of experts who claim to be objective. There is, second, the even deeper suspicion of whether it is possible to know anything about the world. There is, third, the emergence of information technology that “presented the human mind with unprecedented cognitive and attention challenges.”

But the force that most deeply engages the author—the one that absorbs the plurality of his pages—predates modernist skepticism, postmodernist cynicism, and Craigslist by hundreds of thousands of years. It traces back, he insists, to “Homo sapiens’ prehistoric origins on the African savannah.” What Fuller is talking about is the fact that human beings are simultaneously emotional as well as rational creatures. Thanks to natural selection, our brains are hard-wired to pay attention to novelty, especially the kind that can kill us. (Alert! Tiger ahead!) From such observations, our synapses congeal into patterns—whenever you see a moving orange-and-black blur, think Tiger!—which may save our lives but also dispose us toward prejudices, systematic cognitive errors. Moreover, the more information flies at our brains, the more we are aroused by emotions, including emotions triggered by the sheer energy it takes to navigate through a torrent of information. The more aroused we are by emotions, the more emotions it takes to drive our attention. Meanwhile, the brain gets skewed by all these efforts and the emotions they generate.

Consider the previous paragraph a set of factual dots that Fuller is trying to connect to a second set of dots, as follows: Distracted Americans are turning away from dead-tree newspapers in droves. They are now in possession of electronic devices that are better at gaining attention than newspapers. Accordingly, advertisers’ interest in spending lots of money to try to attract their attention through newspapers is declining. In the words of the Pew Research Center, “Newspapers, including online, saw ad revenue fall 26% during [2009], which brings the total loss over the last three years to 43%.”

More dots: Some news organizations are going out of business, but more are cutting costs by reducing capacity to report news. Newspapers overall have cut roughly 30 percent of their reporting and editorial payrolls since 2000. TV broadcasters have slashed core staffs as well. The more the news organization tries to cope with the loss of readers and viewers by holding on to its traditional means of making itself useful—namely, striving to cover the world objectively, as it is, not as anyone wants it to be—the more it loses readers and viewers. The only news sector that’s holding its own is cable TV, which happens to be the most opinionated.

None of the dots in my last three paragraphs deserves to be controversial, give or take a few qualifiers here and there. Neither is Fuller’s account of the philosophical-cultural climate that is melting down the news as we knew it. The truly arresting aspect of his book is not what he has to say about the rise of skepticism, the decline of authority, and the clamor of rivals for readers’ attention—solid as his arguments are. Nor is it his recognition that the more different people are, the less they are held together by traditional institutions, so that if they are to have common themes to connect them, they must look outside their families, outside their clans, to celebrities.

Even Fuller’s argument that bad news is flatly more interesting than good is less than scintillating. The brain, after all, is built to be seized by bad news. Here neuroscience intersects with sociology. Put bad news together with flashy news and celebrity news and you get the high-res, tabloid, rant stew that is rapidly rendering obsolete the quiet, balanced, fact-based, Cronkited news we used to know and love. Goodbye, al-Qaeda, fiscal meltdown, and Afghan war; hello, Tiger Woods.

No, the big story that Fuller brings is the claim that the neuroscientific facts have a great deal to do with the news industry facts. “The brains we use to deal with today’s message-saturated information environment are pretty much the same brains that our African ancestors used to outwit the big cats,” he writes. “Is it any wonder that we have lately been behaving kind of strangely toward the news?”

But it is precisely this claim—disguised as it is by a rhetorical question—that runs athwart a fundamental problem. The neurons have persisted essentially unchanged across hundreds of millennia. How, then, do enduring features of the human animal help explain a feature of social life that has cropped up over the last decade or so? This is like asking how the fact that the earth revolves around the sun helps explains why there is no peace in the Middle East. In a certain formal sense, of course, it does help—it’s a precondition. If there were no solar system, there’d be no human race to populate a Middle East in the first place. But how far does that take us, really, toward understanding?

Neuroscience is sexy stuff nowadays, partly for a reason that Fuller well comprehends. It doesn’t just talk about the brain, it shows it. Wow, does it ever. All those visuals, those captivating full-color brain scans displaying those bright patches! But again, we’re looking at essentially the same brain that paid attention to inflammatory, ad hominem news in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “objective” news in the middle of the twentieth century, and now, Rush Limbaugh and Fox.

So Fuller exaggerates the transhistorical background in attempting to explain what is going wrong in the connection between news and its customers. But his version of journalism history doesn’t tell us much about current trends either. “At the same time that the increasing demands on our old brains make us more vulnerable to emotional presentation,” he writes, “the increasing competition among media leads them to ratchet up the emotion.” Surely they were ratcheting up emotion in 1828, when party-based papers exchanged charges of pimping and bigamy during the presidential campaign pitting John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson; and in 1836, when James Gordon Bennett splashed the prostitute Helen Fuller’s murder across the front page of the New York Herald; and in the late nineteenth century, when Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World was winning readers with slum exposés; and for that matter, during the many decades when the New York Daily News was outselling The New York Times—during most of their overlapping history, in fact.

Fuller concludes with some sensible advice to journalists. Holding fast to independence, verification, and respect, he writes, “they must let loose of… neutrality, disinterestedness, and distrust of emotion.” Only thus will they appeal to the relatively ill-informed and inattentive readers who make up, in fact, the bulk of the population. Fair enough. But he didn’t need neuroscience to tell him that.

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Todd Gitlin , who teaches journalism at Columbia, is the author of a new book, Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.