How The News Differs From Reality

What is reality? That which exists no matter how intensely people wish it didn’t.

In 1984, Communications professor Sandra Braman wrote that news is “the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures.”

At the top of right now is the headline, “Recession Fears Loom as U.S. Economy Contracts Again.” According to the Commerce Department, the GNP fell .9% in the second quarter. That’s the second straight quarter of GNP decline, which is the traditional and technical measure of a recession.

I wonder if we had a Republican president now, would the media have an easier time declaring that we are in a recession?

So the Commerce Department has made a statement and that dominate the news today. Were there reasons to believe months ago that we were in a recession? Well, yes. Strippers (in Manhattan particularly) were noticing in February that we were in a recession because their clientele had stopped tipping.

The verdict of a jury is a bureaucratically recognized event through administrative procedures but it is no more likely to be true than the judgment of an individual. A jury found O.J. Simpson not-guilty of murder when the evidence was overwhelming that he was guilty.

The phrase “innocent till proven guilty” is a bureaucratic procedure that is not useful for people to implement in their daily life where reality forces them to make decisions about others.

The news reminds us that tough times fall disproportionately upon the less intelligent but polite discourse does not allow one to comment publicly that stupid people usually have a more difficult time with reality. Reality shows us that different peoples have different gifts, but you can’t say this on the news.

News is a consumer product like orange juice. You make money in the news business by providing a product that meets people’s needs. Telling the truth is incidental to making money in news or in succeeding in a bureaucracy. Bureaucratic procedures are no more likely to arrive at the truth than individual insights but they will get more play in the news. For one thing, when a bureaucracy declares something, news merchants aren’t going to get sued for reporting it straight. On the other hand, they might get sued if they rely upon the insights of individuals.

A major reason the news is boring compared to what a great writer or talk show host can produce is that the news depends upon “the passage of bureaucratically recognized events through administrative procedures.”

The news is dominated by official sources. Reality is frequently unofficial but always more true than the pronouncements of bureaucracies.

What helps you better navigate a new job? The official employee handbook or the gossip you get from other people? The unofficial news often beats the official news.

Now, understanding that the news is different from reality doesn’t mean that at times the news can’t be a tool to get more clarity on reality. For example, when the news tells you the price of gold or the price of gas or who won the Cowboys game, the news tends to be accurate. Understood properly, reading the news enhances your understanding of reality. Consumed without thinking critically, however, taking in news (or any source of information) diminishes your understanding of reality.

Every individual and every institution and every piece of writing needs to be understood in its context. For example, when you read a blog post, ask who wrote this? For whom was it written? What’s the ideology of the writer? What’s his agenda? What are the incentives he faces? What is his life experience? How does he make a living? What is his social circle? From whom does he most want love and respect?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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