Quote, November 26 2011 — People like to make their jobs easier (and knowing that holiday sales in total are only 3-4% of U.S. GDP in total suddenly puts a lot of news stories in context)

‘The Media has glommed onto Black Friday for a number of flawed reasons, number one being the MSM’s ceaseless drive to reduce all complex problems down to something that can be expressed in a sound-bite voiceover and a video clip of a crowded mall.

The MSM loves binaries: two parties, two final contestants, and if Black Friday is “good,” i.e. sales exceed last year’s consumerist bacchanal, then the economy is “healthy.”‘

– Charles Hugh Smith, “Just a Holiday Reminder: Black Friday Is Utterly Meaningless”, Of Two Minds, November 25 2011 (site last accessed November 25 2011). Emphasis in original.

A lot of topics are complicated. To take the economy as an example: how do you measure economic data? If you consider the price of a car now compared to the price of a car in the 1950s, are you adjusting the 1950s price for inflation in the intervening years? Do you use the government’s official inflation numbers, or do you use relative prices of a range of goods to come up with your own measure of inflation?

Official unemployment numbers are around 9% right now, but that is based on people who have been looking for a full-time job in the last four weeks. If you include the number of people who would like a full-time job and can only find part-time work, or those who have given up looking for work we’re closer to 16% unemployment. Which number is right? (See this Wikipedia page on unemployment to get an idea of how complicated even that one economic statistic is.)

If you want to really get complicated, start looking into the issue of gender representation in college & in the workforce. Currently there’s more women going to college to men. Is that good? Or not good? Or something that is only good or bad based on the context? Of those women going to college, many of them are in what are sometimes called “soft” degrees — liberal arts, English, communications, human resources, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, minority studies, etc. There are still more men that women in the “hard” STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering, Math(1) (“hard” referring to the importance of measured “hard” data, not to the difficulty of the STEM classes or degrees). Is that good or bad?

If more women prefer to go into liberal arts and related degrees, is it a sign of gender bias in schools? Or is it a sign that just like most men, most women find it easier and more interesting to write an essay about a book than go through five pages of multi-dimensional vector calculus and unlike men don’t feel it injures their pride to say they don’t enjoy getting into fields where there are so many equations to deal with, the original scientists ran through the entire Greek alphabet — and then started reusing a couple Greek symbols when they found more variables they needed to describe?

And if the lack of men in college now, combined with a lack of entry-level jobs for young men who have only a high school diploma or GED, means we’re on the verge of having a whole generation of young men who are and likely always will be 10-20 years behind in their wage earning ability, what then? Should there be discussions about forming mentoring programs for male students in high school to get them on the college track, and men-only scholarships to encourage men to go to college, just like there have been for women the last 30+ years?

Wow. That’s starting to get really complicated. How would a network anchor present all that in a way that would keep the average channel-surfer staying on the news channel?

Enter the narrative. Simplify the story, pick a narrative framework about a “good guy” and “bad guy” — or “victim” and “villain” if you prefer, or how something is “good” or “bad” for the economy or the environment or whatever else you’re talking about — and use the narrative framework as something to arrange all the complicated bits & pieces. That’s a much easier thing to catch someone’s interest as they’re flipping through the channels.

And while I think there are probably a few in the news business who are aware of the oversimplification that is done in order to make a more “entertaining” news product, I think probably most of those in the news business use narratives to oversimplify a topic because it’s easier.

But sometimes “easier” is not always better. I’d rather have news presented in all its messiness — or its irrelevance, such as noting that even if Black Friday sales drop 10% compared to last year (picking a number out of the air there, I honestly don’t know how this year’s Black Friday sales compared to last year’s), that’s 10% of some fraction of 3-4% of total U.S. GDP, so it might be an indicator but by itself it’s not huge —  than something that’s only presented after it’s been simplified into sound-bites and five minute news segments.

And yes, I’m aware there is a true art to being able to express complicated problems clearly and succinctly. And that a long rambling discourse on a topic that includes far too many extraneous words & unnecessary tangents can do more harm than good — or even if no actual harm is done, it can still bore people to death.

But in my personal opinion, 99.99% of the news writers, editors, and presenters — and 99.99% of the various pundits, experts, and talking heads interviewed by the presenters — do not have the artistry with words & concepts such that they can reliably deliver a clear & succinct summary of an issue as opposed to an oversimplified soundbite.

So I’d still rather they acknowledge their own limitations and quit trying to decide for me what I might or might not be interested in & what I should or shouldn’t be optimistic or pessimistc about.

(1) Update November 29 2011: Corrected “STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine” to read “STEM fields — Science, Technology, Engineering, Math”.

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