Tuesday, August 05, 2014

What's worth reading in the news?

We like to think that, of course, keeping up with the news is important. “Citizens of a democracy need to stay informed about current events.” But how well informed are you after reading the news?

For example, let’s say there’s a plane crash and you spend a few hours that week watching and reading the most up-to-date accounts. Nearly all of that news will be speculation: about the cause of the accident, the number of casualties, how it might be prevented, etc. Eventually, perhaps years later, somebody will write up a thorough report of what actually happened. The whole thing will be summarized in a Wikipedia article that you can read in a few minutes — and you will be better-informed than you were for the hours spent on the speculation during the time of the event.

I wanted to get a rough estimate for how much of the news is like this. One way to tell is to compare the past with the present. Of the news you read in the past, how much of it actually turned out to matter? So I looked at a copy of The Economist from this date in 2007 to see how many of the articles actually mattered. Here is the section on Politics This Week, their summary of the supposedly most-important items of that week. 

  • An investigation of Alaska political corruption. None of the people or events highlighted are relevant today, except perhaps the brief reference to Sarah Palin — who was a political unknown at the time.
  • Black vs Hispanic race relations: could have been written yesterday, including the quote from “Presidential Candidate Barack Obama”, who it notes was outpolled by a crushing 46 percentage points by candidate Hillary Clinton.
  • A sidebar about gangs in Los Angeles:  mostly still relevant.
  • The US Attorney General is under fire over the questionable legality of a terrorist surveillance program. Not much has changed, though now the US political parties have switched sides over who is on the hot seat.
  • An article about lending for student loans laments the overall political ineffectiveness and divisiveness of Congress, though again by now the parties have switched sides. Tuition costs keep rising and student debt is getting out of hand. Blah blah blah.
  • Some cities are issuing ID cards for illegal immigrants. I’m not sure how this whole trend turned out, so it would be interesting to see a follow-up article.
  • A discussion of Republican presidential candidates thinks Newt Gringrich has a chance at the nomination. Waste of time to read this.
  • A Lexington discussion of the announced sale of the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch is as relevant a discussion today as it was then. That is, those who opposed the sale probably can claim they were right; ditto for those who thought it wasn’t a big deal.

The Economist is a pretty high-brow news source, so many of these articles are based around facts and trends that don’t change a lot. In fact, other than the speculation about the upcoming Presidential election, I’m impressed at how much is worth re-reading.

Still, were you better off reading this issue, or should you have spent your time on something else?