Is the News Making Us Dumb?

If you’ve been following the news the past few days you may believe that an Elvis impersonator from Mississippi is being held for mailing ricin-laced letters to President Obama, that more than 60 people died in a fertilizer plant explosion in Texas, and that two Eastern Orthodox bishops were kidnapped by terrorists and released the same day. But while each of those items contains a grain of truth, they are mostly false. The bishops were abducted, but major news agencies were fooled into believing they had been released; the death toll in the West, Texas, explosion is 15; and Paul Kevin Curtis was released by investigators who believe he might have been framed. The irony is that the people who were blissfully unaware of the latest news would be accused of being uninformed, when news hounds were likely to be the most ill-informed of all.

The problem isn’t merely that the latest news is inaccurate—that is an inevitable feature of daily news—but that most news is largely irrelevant to our lives as Christians. Most of us realize that the events of last week’s news cycle—just like the previous 51 other news cycles this year—will probably not have a significant effect on how we live. Indeed, if we’re being honest with ourselves, most of us would have to admit that what is sold as news—on newspaper pages, the Internet, or cable news programs—is rarely newsworthy at all. For those news-junkies who disagree, I suggest pondering this question: Why is Dan Rather not considered one of the wisest men in America?

We could substitute “intelligent” or “knowledgeable” for wisest, though I suspect the reaction would be the same. The question appears random, even absurd. But consider Rather’s 56 year tenure as a reporter and broadcaster. His career spanned from the assassination of JFK to the Iraq conflict. He covered eight U.S. presidents and hundreds of global leaders. He witnessed hundreds of conflicts, from Cold War battles abroad to civil rights struggles a home. A conservative estimate would be that he spent roughly 75,000 hours reporting, researching, or reading about current events.

If that level of intimacy with the news does not make Rather notably more wise, intelligent, or knowledgeable, then what exactly is the benefit? And what do we expect to gain by spending an hour or two a day keeping up with the latest headlines?

Another question we should ask ourselves is what makes any particular story important to us and what distinguishes it from mere gossip or trivia?

One aspect of any answer would have to include an explanation of how the story fits into a broader narrative or has an air of permanence. But how often does this apply to our weekly, much less daily, news? How much of what happens every day is truly that important? How many have ever stopped to question the fact we even have daily news, much less the effect it is having on our culture?

C. John Sommerville is one brave soul who has dared to ask such questions. In the October 1991 issue of First Things, Sommerville explained “Why the News Makes Us Dumb“:

What happens when you sell information on a daily basis? You have to make each day’s report seem important, and you do this primarily by reducing the importance of its context. What you are selling is change, and if readers were aware of the bigger story, that would tend to diminish today’s contribution. The industry has to convince its consumers of the significance of today’s News, and it has to make them want to come back tomorrow for more News—more change. The implication will then be that today’s report can now be forgotten. So News involves a radical devaluation of the past, and short-circuits any kind of debate.

In the book based on the article, Sommerville points out:

The product of the news business is change, not wisdom. Wisdom has to do with seeing things in their largest context, whereas news is structured in a way that destroys the larger context. You have to do certain things to information if you want to sell it on a daily basis. You have to make each day’s report seem important. And you do that by reducing the importance of its context.

The late media critic Neil Postman once wrote that the media has given us the conjunction, “Now . . . this,” which “does not connect anything to anything but does the opposite: separates everything from everything.”

“Now . . . this” is commonly used on radio and television newscasts to indicate that what one has just heard or seen has no relevance to what one is about to hear or see, or possibly to anything one is ever likely to hear or see. The phrase is a means of acknowledging the fact that the world as mapped by the speeded-up electronic media has no order or meaning and is not to be taken seriously. There is no murder so brutal, no earthquake so devastating, no political blunder so costly—for that matter, no ball score so tantalizing or weather report so threatening—that it cannot be erased from our minds by a newscaster saying, “Now . . . this.”

This focus on change, devoid of context and connection to a greater reality, has a deleterious effect on all forms of public life—whether cultural, political, or religious. Many Christians once considered change to be something to be undertaken slowly and with prayerful reflection. After all, the important institutions—family, church, government—shouldn’t change on a whim. But the focus on dailiness has led many of us to adopt attitudes of hyper-progressivism. For instance, we don’t just ask what our church or government has done for us lately, we ask what they have done for us today. We don’t just ask for change when it is needed, we ask for it to change—for the better presumably—on a daily basis. We are addicted to the process of change.

The most disconcerting consequence of this addiction is the belief that it is normal, and that those who aren’t tuned into a daily news feed are ill-informed. Take, for example, an article Steve Outing wrote a few years ago for the Poynter Institute in which he describes an “experiment in mainstream-media deprivation.”

Outing documents how Steve Rubel, a blogger and public relations executive, conducted a news experiment in which he gave up his regular media habits and learned what was going on in the world solely by checking blogs. Rubel claims that he “definitely lacked the depth of knowledge of current events” gained in a normal week. “I felt a little naked,” he says, “having received the basics of the week’s news from blogs, but not getting the real meat.”

What was this “real meat” Rubel missed out on? Outing gave him a quiz:

While knowing why President Bush hired a criminal lawyer last week, and the official reasons cited for George Tenet’s resignation from the CIA, Rubel missed actor Daniel Radcliffe’s statement that he thinks his Harry Potter character will die at the end of the J.K. Rowling book series. He didn’t catch ex-Beatle Paul McCartney’s admission that he tried heroin and was a cocaine user. And he missed more obscure stories, such as one of Seattle’s famed monorail trains catching fire.

Nine years after that article was published, how much of that information would now be considered newsworthy? Who truly believes that Rubel was ill-informed for not being aware of such trivia?

But it isn’t just gossip-type “news” that is unimportant. Most of what occurs on a daily basis is inconsequential. At the end of his article Sommerville concluded:

Still dubious about all this? Consider the proposition: If it is no longer worth your while to go back and read the News of, oh, September 22, 1976, then it was never worthwhile doing so. And why should today be any different?

As Christians, we’re expected to take an eternal perspective, viewing events not only in their historical but also in their eschatological context. But I can’t do that while focusing on the churning events of the last 24 hours. Events that are truly important are rarely those captured on the front page of a daily paper. As Malcolm Muggeridge, himself a journalist, admitted, “I’ve often thought that if I’d been a journalist in the Holy Land at the time of our Lord’s ministry, I should have spent my time looking into what was happening in Herod’s court. I’d be wanting to sign Salome for her exclusive memoirs, and finding out what Pilate was up to, and—I would have missed completely the most important event there ever was.”

Addendum: Constantly in search of a sensational story, the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst once sent a telegram to a leading astronomer that read: “Is there life on Mars? Please cable 1,000 words.” The scientist responded “Nobody knows”—repeated 500 times.

Most days bloggers and journalists (like me) are like Hearst, always looking for material to fill empty space (and often we are like the astronomer, repeating what we have to say to the point of absurdity). One of the reasons TGC created the You Should Know section was to attempt to provide a space to discuss the broader context of news and stories we hear every day. Let us know if you find this feature helpful and how we might do a better job countering the decontextualization of our “Now . . . this” culture.

  • Doug Davis

    Wonderful post. Keep up the good work.

  • marko

    that pic is perfect for the heading “Is the news making us dumb?”

    I just noticed how they misspelled the word sentencing.


  • Brian Vawter

    Anyone who has turned a critical thought to the news media industry, Television news and 24 hour news in particular would know that it is rubbish and that good pieces are more of an accident than anything else.

  • Michael Snow

    And there are more reasons to avoid headlines than just “the effect it is having on our culture.” What about our kids?
    Decades ago, as a news junkie, I swore off TV news because of what my kids were seeing, not just on the news but the advertisements.

  • Michael Snow

    Decades ago, before his bout with bitterness bested him, Franky Schaeffer recommended a book on the need to eliminate television. It was not a Christian book. The valid reasons were aesthetic, not ascetic.

    I phoned the local bookstore and inquired about the title. “Do you have ‘Five Reasons for the Elimination of Television?'”

    Without missing a beat, the manager replied, “No, but I can give you two.”

    If we cannot eliminate TV news for our own good, can we do it for our children?

  • Brian Watson


    The “9 Things You Should Know About…” series is helpful. It’s a thoughtful and careful digest of stories that have been around for a few days, and it tries to tie together all the relevant material. Notice how mainstream media outlets rarely do that. And, of course, you’re coming from a Christian worldview, and it’s helpful for us to understand how, as Christians, we should think about the news.

    Thanks for your work.

    • Matt Smethurst

      Dear Brian,

      Four of TGC’s five most-read posts of all time have been written by Joe. In 2013.

      ‘Nuff said.

      Grace and peace,

  • John Caprine

    Absolutely love and appreciate the news (9 Things) breakdowns! Thank you for putting all of that together. As a news-junkie who has had to crucify that side of “what’s happening” – I totally agree with the article and would rather not waste my life slogging through news. Keeping a broad sense of what’s happening has been most helpful.
    So thank you.

  • Josh Postema

    I agree with the conclusions of the article – that constant updates about the news is generally bad in terms of our actual knowledge, especially of permanent things – but I don’t agree with every premise, particularly this:

    “Still dubious about all this? Consider the proposition: If it is no longer worth your while to go back and read the News of, oh, September 22, 1976, then it was never worthwhile doing so. And why should today be any different?”

    There have been several floods in my area this past week. In twenty years, I might not need to go back and read what roads are closed, events are cancelled, and potential damages might be, but at the time, this was extremely valuable. I would wager that there are plenty of things that were important at one time that no longer are, and this doesn’t negate their temporal value.

    Still a good article, I just wish some of this more questionable stuff had been replaced with a more robust critique of the sort of obsession with change our culture has (an argument I whole-heartedly support).

  • Mark Z

    This is a terrific article. Reminds me a lot of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.

  • Andrew

    TV is making us dumb. Try reading folks! :)

  • JohnM

    Maybe dumb is making us watch TV :)

  • http://WFMZ.COM Rob Vaughn

    Well! As a TV news anchor, and a believer (who considers TGC a critically-important gift of God to the Church), I feel a little…beat up! I agree with much of what Joe has written here, actually — and with Postman. Still, I say (meekly!) that TV news has a place. It’s just that it’s a limited place: it’s a quick-sketch view of what’s happening outside our doors. We have to be careful not to make inflated promises about what we’re delivering!

    I tell my viewers that if they want wisdom, if they want the big picture, then they have to do the work of fitting the data we deliver into their worldviews; that data doesn’t carry a lot of meaning on its own.

    Much that we report is trivial and will be forgotten — but it’s helpful to know that the interstate has been closed by a landslide, or that the mayor has resigned. It helps you get through the day. It doesn’t do much to help you get through your life. For that, a Bible is really handy.

    Keep up the good work!

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  • Chase

    I really enjoy the 9 things you should know stories.

  • Katie

    I disagree somewhat with this article. I used to be one of those people who didn’t watch the news. I started watching more during the 2008 election and have continued to watch. What I’ve learned since then about what is going on in this country is appalling. Just now, I read an article that stated that the US military has restricted access by military personal to the Southern Baptist Conference website listing it as a hostile site. (I’m assuming during working hours)And there are reports from more than one source that Evangelical Christians have been placed #1 on a list of religions that are considered extreme by some admins. in our military. Higher even than the Muslim brotherhood. I think if these kinds of stories continue, and we lose our religious freedom, that someone 25 years in the future might look back at the news in this time in history and wonder why nobody said anything or tried to stop it. (kind of like with Hitler and the Nazi’s) Evil prevails when good men do nothing and good men won’t know what is going on if they do not keep themselves informed. I agree that not all news is important and that one can experience information overload, but the future of our country, our freedoms and our families are at stake and we won’t be able to affect any kind of positive change, or prevent negative change if we don’t know what is going on.

  • DLE

    I wonder if the conclusion is wrong.

    The problem with the media is that they feel a need to report everything because no one knows what will ultimately develop into something newsworthy. Our weakness is that we lack a crystal ball to know which event happening now is most critical to our future. Only in hindsight are some events shown to be importance.

    The news doesn’t so much reinforce our “dumbness” as it drives home the point that we are creatures limited by time. We do not know the future, so we cannot process the present with any certainty of that future. Our conjecture defines us in the present, but it is a deeply flawed prescience, if it exists at all.

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  • Rick Austin

    “Now all the Athenians and the strangers visiting there used to spend their time in nothing other than telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21 NASB)

    I gave up watching and listening to the news several years ago and have never looked back. The result is that I have redeemed a significant amount of time that I can use in more profitable ways and have reduced the anxiety that results from knowing about events that are completely out of my control and out of my jurisdiction.

    Some friends simply can’t understand how it is possible to go without knowing the “news of the day”. The term “head in the sand” is frequently mentioned. I respond that much of what passes for news is speculation about the possible impact of events that might not happen. I don’t think there is another time in the day to participate in such idol speculation.

    Recently, I have begun to wonder if the reason people immerse themselves in various forms of news or entertainment is that they are afraid to be alone with their own thoughts and the potential that solitude has for introspection.

    • DCW

      I think your last point is definitely relevant. How strange that it is the moments of silence and introspection that can transform us, awaken us, and lead us toward sanctification while many of us choose the opposite, even though it is rarely life-giving, almost always produces indifference, and leads us away from peace. I think I’ve let my consumption of media get the best of me lately, and I need to corral it in. It’s only the world, right?

  • Deanna King

    Really good thoughts – I came here based on a link from challies – will plan to read those You Should Know blogs! Any other suggestions you have for concise, context-based news stories on worthy topics would be wonderful!

  • Christopher Lee

    I think that to a certain extent what the author is saying is true. However, it also depends on where you get your news source from.
    If the author is simply referring to MSNBC, and CNN, then yes, I would agree with what he is saying.
    However, there are still some solid news and talk show websites that give information that the main stream media will not report. And it is this information that people need to see but they dont.
    These sites are not Christian but they do give information that isn’t considered useless daily blather and does have effects on Christians.
    -For instance, have you heard of how DHS has bought over 2 billion rounds of ammunition? Why would they need 100 years worth of ammunition? This isnt reported on CNN.
    -Have you heard about how Barack Obama went to sleep after he was told about the attacks on Benghazi? Did you know that 1 admiral and 1 general were fired for trying to send aid to help the consulate in Benghazi?
    -In the main stream media, have you heard about the purchase of Al Gore’s Current TV by Al Jazeera, which is based out of Qatar, which is associated with various terror groups?
    -Have you heard about the Muslim connections and other insidious details about the Boston bombers from the main stream media? have you heard how they have been on welfare and living off the fat of the land when they came to the US? Have you heard about the Saudi national that was associated with these crimes?
    -Have you heard about the Amish beard cutting case that involves issues of religious freedom?

    All of these stories and more are not being reported and these have direct effect to us as Americans and also as Christians.

    Part of the daily blather comes from the fact that the proper news sources aren’t being looked at. and bring you news and information that even Fox news doesnt report.

    Keep being informed! There is too many things going on for us not to be informed! Too many assaults on us as Americans and us as Christians!

  • DCW

    Great article, and by the way, the “Things you Should Know” section is usually my favorite section of the whole TGC website. I love how it’s current news, but it’s always based on the deeper, more real issues not just of our time but of times gone by. Yet they’re all built around the Truth of Christ and redemption in the world. As Christians, we know how it all ends, so we can rest comfortably in knowing that good news of Christ and His Truth in everyday living for billions of people always outweighs the bad news most often picked up by the media.

  • Eric Schuster

    I think maybe just do everything in moderation. If I give up the news and TV and spend hours a day playing video games, then what good is that? I like the article, don’t get me wrong. Maybe we should focus more on good things to fill our time and minds, rather than just avoiding a lot of bad stuff.

    • Rick Austin

      Pursue “good things” until they crowd out the “bad stuff”. Perhaps Psalm 101:3a has application here.

      “I will set no worthless thing before my eyes.”

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