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Transcript: Amanda Ripley
My interview with the American journalist and author
For many journalists, it’s a point of pride to consume as much media as possible, as much of the time as possible. We think this makes us informed, better at our jobs.
So it caused a stir last week when American journalist Amanda Ripley admitted, in The Washington Post no less, that she’s been avoiding the news for years — like an increasing number of Americans, and Canadians. And, it turns out, journalists.
Amanda Ripley’s piece is titled, “I stopped reading the news — is the problem me, or the product?” In it, she poses a question that few have been willing to ask. And that is: “If so many of us feel poisoned by our products, might there be something wrong with them?”
Amanda Ripley is a contributor to the The Washington Post and The Atlantic. Her most recent book is High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.
TH: Amanda, welcome back to Lean Out.
AR: Thank you so much for having me. It’s good to be back.
TH: I’m so excited to speak with you about this piece. I loved it for so many reasons. I certainly feel the way that you do. I think you really captured it with the phrase “marinating in despair.” And, as you point out, therapists are now routinely advising patients to avoid the news. Headline stress disorder — apparently a thing. When did you start feeling this way about the news?
AR: I think it happened slowly. It sort of creeps up on you. But for me it was probably right around the time that Trump was running against Hillary Clinton. There were just so many headlines that were about terrible things that might happen. You know, speculative worry — which I think is the definition of anxiety. I just felt like I had to limit my intake and I never had felt like that before.
I’d always really enjoyed consuming a lot of news. I felt like I had to for my job, back when I had daily beat responsibilities at Time Magazine and other places. And so it was a strange feeling and mostly just embarrassing. I didn’t talk to anyone about it. I just started shifting. I would still read a bunch of newspapers, but I would read them in the afternoon or at lunch. Because by then, all hope is lost anyway; my most productive, optimistic part of the day is over. But even then, I just found myself getting really frustrated by the lack of hope. Even when things seem to get a little bit better, temporarily, in some small way, it didn’t seem like it was reflected in a lot of the coverage. So slowly, slowly, slowly, I came to this realization that part of it is me, for sure, but part of it is also the way the conventions of journalism have not evolved for the modern world. And certainly not for what we know about human psychology.
TH: I do want to get to that, because I think that’s so interesting. But first, let’s talk about the issue of trust in media. You cite the new Reuters Institute data, which reveals, as you put it, that people think the news is repetitive, dispiriting and of dubious credibility. And it shows that in Canada, for example, 71 percent of us are now avoiding the news. What’s your analysis? Why do you think decreasing numbers of people trust us?
AR: Yeah, I was actually really surprised by the Canadian numbers. As in so many things, I thought that you all would be doing better than we would. [Laughs] It’s really fascinating. I’m curious to hear what your theories are about that. I should note that these numbers have been creeping up for news avoidance all around the world — and they were up before Trump and before the pandemic. Yes, there has been a lot of bad news with the pandemic. So we would expect some level of despair and fear. It would be weird if people didn’t feel that. But the numbers were high for news avoidance before then. And interestingly, in all the countries that were studied, women were significantly more likely to avoid the news, although it wasn’t wildly off. It’s still pretty widely egalitarian avoidance happening, but women were more likely.
TH: I get a lot of mail now through Substack, and the reasons that I hear most often from readers are balance and truth. So to talk about truth, you know, there’s been some big things that we in the media have gotten wrong. I’m thinking about the Iraq war, and weapons of mass destruction. But also things more recently. Things like the lab leak theory, which were categorized as conspiracy theories at first, and then later it comes out that there were vested interests [at play]. And now there’s serious investigation from science, government, press. On bias, I hear a lot of people saying there’s a lack of viewpoint diversity — that we are uniformly using a particular political lens. And that many of us in the media are what you would call in your last book “conflict entrepreneurs,” sort of beating up sentiment all the time. That it’s upsetting to people, and boring sometimes. And that it turns people off. What do you make of those concerns?
AR: That seems like a pretty good summary. Seems like you’re hearing from all. What I like is that it’s not one thing, right? Because as you talk to a hundred different people, you’ll get at least 25 different complaints about the news, some of which are contradictory. So people on the left will say the news isn’t calling a thing a thing, and it’s trying to be balanced. That there’s too much he said/she said and false equivalence. Then, on the right, people will say the exact same thing, which is hilarious. Like literally false equivalence — the same. Then a whole swath of people who are not super activist will say that there’s not enough of that very thing, that there’s not enough balance. So you get a lot of interesting contradictions and complexity.
I don’t think that negates any of those complaints. I think part of the problem is that we’re talking about a huge thing. If you and I were talking about TV shows, we would have to differentiate. We’d say, “On the one hand you’ve got reality TV. On the other hand, you’ve got fictional streaming TV series, like Stranger Things. And they’re very different.” There’s much more variance in news media, I would say, even than in TV. So, there’s that. Fox News is a conflict entrepreneur-run empire. I mean, there are good reporters at Fox News who have serious ethics and do incredibly good work, but the people who are really high-profile and making a lot of money for that organization are conflict entrepreneurs. And that’s not the only network; there are conflict entrepreneurs on the left. So it sort of depends on what we’re talking about.
What’s to me so fascinating about this is how hard it is for journalists to question. To hear those things from their audience, and really question some fundamental assumptions that we’ve made. I include myself in that failure to question. I would hear people complain about the news media my whole career. I’ve been doing this 20 years. And you just kind of tune it out. Because it felt like, first of all, the complaints were a little bit naive, some of them. “Oh, you’re just trying to sell newspapers.” That’s a classic one. And it’s like, “Well, in fact, I don’t make any more money if more newspapers get sold.” It is true that people do want their story to be clicked on and read and shared, and that there are rewards for that. But they’re not about money. They’re almost always about ego.
I think that’s something we could talk more about. That is where, I think, journalism falls down much more often than just the straight financial incentives. Yes, there are obviously big financial incentives and those distort the news, particularly at the editor level, and much more so on the business side. But ego distorts all kinds of things: What the headlines are, who gets which placement, who gets how much space. And there’s a huge incentive to embellish and exaggerate threat in a story, in order to get better placement and more attention, internally, in the news organization.
TH: It’s such an interesting point. And it is one that doesn’t get talked about. That so much of media is also a status game.
AR: Yes. Why do you think people get into this? I think it’s taken me a long time to wrestle with [that]. Okay, there’s, what do we think, five reasons people get into journalism? There’s not that many. One is they want to make the world a better place. But they can’t really say that, because you’re not supposed to be an advocate or an activist traditionally in journalism. But they do want that. I do think that’s common across most journalists. At some level, they want to have impact. They want to make the world a better place. But they stop shy of saying it, which causes its own set of problems.
But then there’s a whole bunch of people who get into journalism because they want to feel heard and seen. Some of that is healthy. And some of that is narcissistic. Some of that is a deep need to feel important. To feel like you’re in the room where it happened. To feel close to power. The same reason people join political campaigns. Or run for office. So, I just think talking about that is way more on target than just talking about the attention economy and the business model.
TH: It’s so interesting. One of the things that I love about your work is you’re asking a lot of questions that don’t get asked. And one of those questions is: What is wrong with our approach — and what is wrong with our product? What are we doing wrong? It just doesn’t get asked.
AR: Right. In the U.S. 42 percent of people say that they sometimes, or always, or often actively avoid contact with the news. Kind of like it’s a virus, right? That’s how I feel sometimes. I don’t know if you feel this way, but when you open your phone and you’re like planning on doing one thing, and there’s an alert … I turned off all of my alerts, but it seeps in somehow. Like maybe it’s in my inbox. Some horrible thing has happened a thousand miles away. And it feels like, I’m not in a mindset to engage with this right now. That doesn’t mean I never will be. But, like, I’m just trying to figure out how to get to my kid’s flute practice. I can’t deal with this right now.
So when you have 42 percent of the public reacting that way to something you have really poured your heart into, as most journalists do, you have to start asking fundamental questions. What are we doing here? Is it serving people? Is there another way to do it — that’s still true to our core values as journalists, but actually serves people based on human psychology.
TH: You come up with, in this piece — based on research and investigation over the last year — a framework. Part of what I really like about this framework is it pulls us out of the polarization, and just talks about us as human beings. The structure of the news is not serving human beings. So what are the three key areas you identified that our coverage is lacking right now?
AR: I don’t think I even realized that. You’re right; it takes us out of this polarization. It’s like, “It’s too left. It’s too right.” That’s a trap, a little bit, right? I mean, those are important conversations. But it feels really confining. And whenever you feel like that, it’s usually because you haven’t questioned some assumptions. When I talk to people who communicate risk, or people who study how to tell patients bad news, or people who work in conflict zones and deal with human emotion at high levels. They told me about a bunch of things that humans need to process information. Need like we need water. Not nice to have, but need to have.
If I distill everything they said into three things that seem to be most absent from the news coverage — but not from the news itself, not from what’s actually happening — it would be hope, agency, and dignity. Those three things seem to be most often absent from our stories, but present in the lives of real people. And those are things we know now, which we didn’t know 50 years ago, 100 years ago, that people need in order to get up in the morning. In order to take action. In order to feel like they matter in the world. In order to function and collaborate in a diverse world, saturated with information. Hope, agency, and dignity are essential.
TH: You notice in the piece that the Christian Science Monitor, for example, does this really well. How so? What does this look like in practice?
AR: I know. It’s crazy because I never read them, and it sounds like a religious newspaper. It’s not. It does have a connection to a religious organization, but they’ve had a long struggle with that branding problem. But I had never really read them, to be honest. I’d heard of them. They started sending me the print edition because they had done something about my last book. I found myself reading it. It was about really difficult things happening all over the world. Much like you might find in The New York Times or The Economist or on BBC. You know, famine, war, hard things.
But you got this sense that this organization — it’s very subtle, but this news outlet wants good things for you. They have your back. They’re not gratuitously dumping fear, outrage, and sadness on you. And part of the way they do that is systematic and part of their newsroom functioning. Which is interesting. For their content management system — which is the thing you write your story into before you turn it in — you can’t turn your story in, as the reporter, until you’ve entered a field that says “Why we wrote this.” And every story has a little blurb. It forces the reporter to speak directly to the reader as an equal and explain themselves. And explain why we wrote this and not something else. Why we think this is important, even though it’s been covered somewhere else.
When you have extremely low levels of trust, like we’ve got, this is just a basic thing you would do, right? If you were in the middle of an ugly divorce and there was extreme distrust, but you had kids together and you wanted the best for them, you would explain to your ex why you were late to pick them up. You wouldn’t just assume that she trusted you, or he trusted you. So it’s a basic thing. But I actually really appreciate those little blurbs.
Then another thing they do is they have a regular feature that’s called Points of Progress, where they detail things that are happening around the world that are actually encouraging, but not silly. So, I want to make a clear distinction here, that I kind of wish I’d made in the op-ed. There are a bunch of sites now doing like good news, positive news. And that’s fine. I personally don’t like that; I feel talked down to. It feels like they’re very one-off. You know, “Dog rescues baby ducks from well.” Once in a while on Instagram, I will click on one of those. I do enjoy it. But as a news source, I need something that’s larger and has bigger impact.
So, these are stories about communities that have managed to move the needle on something significant, whether it’s homelessness or gun violence or climate change. It doesn’t sugarcoat the problem, but it details one point of progress … It’s interesting, because it’s really baked into their DNA, because of their religious history. They are not typical. They have been doing that, to some degree or another, for 100 years. It is unusual.
TH: One question I have is: How does agency differ from activism? You pointed out in the piece that post-Trump, reporters were become more activist, a little bit more shrill, feeling their impotence. Matt Taibbi talks about this as well, that there was a shift. You know, The New York Times even coming out with an op-ed saying it’s not enough to be neutral anymore — that this is an extreme situation. So how does activism differ from agency?
AR: Yeah, that’s a really good question. When I asked Shamil Idriss who runs Search for Common Ground, which works on preventing violence all around the world … He’s seen a lot. I said, “What do people need all over the world?” And he said, “Everywhere I go, people need hope, security, and dignity.” And part of hope and dignity in particular is agency, right? They interact. Agency is a sense that something can be done, even if it’s not by me. I think there is such a thing is vicarious agency. That’s something really powerful that we sometimes under-appreciate. So people will say to me, “Well, what can we do, Amanda? There should be more hope, agency, and dignity — great. But like with climate change, there’s nothing that we can do at the individual level. You know, it has to be at the nation state level, or at the corporate level. We’re powerless at the individual level.”
I think that there’s some truth to that. But it’s also true that if I don’t read stories of the corporations and nation states that are doing things, I feel even more hopeless. It’s also true that if every single one of us takes individual action, it does make a dent. These things are not binary; you can’t separate individual action from collective action. One leads to the other, just like with voting. It might be unsatisfying to say, “You should get rid of your grass and plant native plants.” Yes, that’s not going to fix climate change, but if half the country did, it’s a huge impact. So, I don’t know, I think agency is more than just power at the individual level to change the world, because that’s asking a lot. I think it’s a sense that the world can be changed.
TH: Lastly, you point out in the piece that there’s a basic assumption at work in the press, if we’re acting in good faith. And that is to avoid catastrophe, we feel like we need to keep people laser-focused on threats. You really saw this in the pandemic. You still see this. What is this new model of change that you’re proposing — this new way of looking at it?
AR: Yeah, the person who really helped me understand this problem was David Bornstein, who is a journalist, who runs something called the Solutions Journalism Network, which he co-founded with Tina Rosenberg. It’s a really interesting place to go for news, by the way, because they have a story tracker database. You can search anything you’re interested in, and find a story that focuses on communities trying to solve that problem.
Anyway, he said to me that part of the problem is that journalists have a theory of change and we don’t say it out loud. Again, this is getting back to how we want the world to be better, but we don’t say that. So, the theory of change behind most traditional journalism is that if we expose all the problems, in as many ways possible, with rigorous reporting, things will get better. You, the audience, will rise up and demand change.
That theory of change has not evolved for reality. I see a lot of denial among a lot of my friends, particularly at the national level — sort of high-profile, big name journalism — where they are still trying to hammer on that one note. If we can just show you how many times Donald Trump lies, or how bad things are going to get with climate change, then things will get better. It’s magical thinking at this point. Doing that is important, but as you keep seeing, it is not sufficient. In fact, at some point it’s counterproductive because people tune out. Because they can’t take it, right? It’s just not designed for human consumption.
So, what David Bornstein suggested is, a better theory of change might be — and I would urge listeners to come up with additions to this, because I don’t think we have the answer — but a better theory of change would be, “Things will get better when everyone knows about all the problems and what can be done.” What are some things that are starting to show promise?
I would add on to that: Things will get better when everyone knows about all the problems, and the possible solutions, and trusts the messenger. If you don’t trust the messenger, then it just doesn’t matter what we say. And I think that’s been very hard. That was a hard pill for me to swallow, I know, after Trump was elected. Because I grew up revering The New York Times. It was the end-all and be-all in our family. And I really think that anyone who read The New York Times, and believed and trusted it — you really couldn’t vote for Donald Trump. It wouldn’t make any sense. So you had to admit that The New York Times didn’t have the influence that it once had in the United States, at the voter level. And I didn’t see a lot of worry about that. When I talked to editors at national papers, I saw a lot of conviction that they were right and that voters were wrong.
TH: Yeah. The New York Times example is such a good one for the concept you’re talking about — dignity. To step out of The New York Times framework and look at the millions of other people out there who have different ideas, and different ways of looking at it, and potentially different solutions that might be useful. Part of what you’re talking about in this piece is doing some really deep listening and granting each person in the public that dignity of really listening. I loved that.
AR: Well, thank you. I think one encouraging thing is actually podcasts. I do get a lot more of my “news” from podcasts, because I feel like they’re less performative, there’s sometimes less ego. It’s a little more intimate. So I think that is encouraging.
I think more and more, the hunger for something different is just getting to be unavoidable. People will start to create alternate news products that are true. This the danger: There are a lot of alternate news products out there that feel better and are not true. Or feel worse, but are somehow magnetic because they’re telling people things that fit into preexisting narratives. But, yeah, I think it’s exciting to see so many people wanting something different, even journalists. Because that means there’s huge innovation still to come.
TH: Absolutely. I feel a book coming on; I hope you write a book about all of this.
AR: That would require a lot of news consumption, I don’t know. [Laughs]
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