Political Ignorance and the Weakness of Consumer Demand for “Hard News”

Media writer Jack Shafer and economics columnist Megan McArdle have interesting pieces discussing the weakness of the market for “hard news.” Shafer notes that producing “hard news” has never been very profitable because most readers aren’t particularly interested in it and are reluctant to pay for it. McArdle points out that the hard news media’s profitability has taken a nose-dive in recent years, thanks to the increasingly competitive market created by the internet, which makes it easier than ever for readers to get the sports and entertainment news they like more, without simultaneously buying a full-service newspaper that also carries stories on political issues:

Political and international news really came into its own in the early-to-mid 20th century … ironically, because radio and television killed off the competition in most places, turning almost all of America’s cities into one-paper towns. The last paper standing effectively had a license to print money. They spent a lot of that money establishing an elaborate system of reporting norms that emphasized “objectivity” — and building up reporting capacity on the prestige beats. They did this in much the way that companies in another industry might fund a large, impressive building or a charitable trust.

Don’t get me wrong: I am very glad of this capacity. I think that hard news reporting is a great social good. But as the Internet has unbundled news, it has become clear that this isn’t a social good for which many people are willing to pay. Reporters who thought that political and international news reporters, plus a few people who write long reported series about poverty and related “serious” subjects, constituted the apex of their profession, have been humbled to learn that readers considered us a moderately interesting freebie to thumb through on the way to the important stuff in the sports section.

I would add that the rise of the internet and cable television has created numerous new entertainment options that further cut into the time that readers might otherwise devote to following politics.

I. Why Most People Aren’t Much Interested in “Hard” Political News.

It’s worth asking why most people aren’t more interested in political news than they are. After all, government policy has tremendous influence on our lives in all kinds of ways. And in our capacity as voters, we can collectively have a major impact on that policy. Politicians and parties are constantly studying public opinion polls in hopes of figuring out how they can become more popular and increasing their chances of winning the next election. If voters followed policy issues closely, they could incentivize political leaders to adopt better policies, thereby greatly benefiting most of society. In our private sector lives, we often spend time learning information that isn’t inherently interesting in order to try to make our lives better; we do it to get a better car or a more lucrative career. Why not do it to elect a better government?

The answer is that “buying” a president is very different from buying a car. When I decide what car to buy, my choice is decisive; it therefore pays to be informed. By contrast, when I decide who to vote for for president, there’s only about a 1 in 60 million chance that your vote will decide the outcome. That isn’t much of an incentive at all. Most people therefore choose to acquire little or no political knowledge, and quickly skip over the news section on the way to the sports section or the comics.

As I discuss in Chapter 7 of my new book on political ignorance, this reality makes it very difficult to increase today’s very low average levels of political knowledge by changing media coverage of politics. Even if the media do a great job of covering the issues in a way that is accurate and unbiased, most people will still prefer to spend their time and effort on other things. Indeed, the rise of the internet and cable has already made a wide range of political information more easily available than ever before. If you don’t like the spin that CNN or Fox News puts on things, you can watch a wide range of political programming on C-SPAN with little or no editorial spin. If you don’t think the mainstream media know what they’re talking about, you can now read a wide range of blogs and other websites written by policy experts from all sides of the public spectrum (and most of it is free). But the vast majority of people make little effort to take advantage of this information, because they don’t find it particularly interesting, and there is little incentive to learn it just to become a better voter. That’s a major reason why political knowledge levels have increased little, if at all, since the rise of the internet and cable news.

II. What About those Who Do Like to Follow Politics?

Of course there are lots of people who do find political issues interesting. Some of them even read the Volokh Conspiracy! But serious “political fans” are a relatively small proportion of the public. Most people prefer other forms of entertainment. Moreover, like sports fans, many political fans follow their favorite sport for reasons other than a desire to get at the truth. That often leads them to be highly biased in their evaluation of new information. McArdle suggests that we may be entering an era where news media are more explicitly ideological and partisan, as they were in the 19th century when most newspapers were closely associated with political parties, activists, or interest groups. Many committed political fans might welcome that development, since it would make it easier for them to cheer on their preferred “teams” without enduring the unpleasantness of having to confront opposing views.

There is no easy solution to these problems. But one way to improve things at the margin is to reduce the size and centralization of government. We can thereby make more of our decisions by “voting with our feet,” and fewer through ballot box voting, where we have so little incentive to become well-informed.

UPDATE: I have made minor stylistic changes to this post.