We live in the age of ‘arguetainment’ and ‘sexy newscaster’ searches

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From SavvyRoo.com CEO Noah Blumenthal’s recent TEDxUNLV talk:

I recently Googled the word newscaster. Of the top 5 results numbers 3 and 4 were Wikipedia. Here were the other 3 results.

#1 – Top 10: Hot Newscasters

#2 – Top 25 Most Sexy Newscasters of All Time

#5 – Newscasters Who Accidentally Went Insane on Live TV

It seems we’re looking for more than just news from our newscasters. Unfortunately our challenge is bigger than hot, sexy, insane newscasters.

The transcript of Blumenthal’s talk is after the jump.

Noah Blumenthal: “The Danger of Hot Sexy News”

How well informed are we? As a society how well do we understand the most important issues of our day?

Thomas Jefferson said, “A properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate.”

Which should be great news for us. We live in the information age. We should have the most properly functioning, sublime democracy in history.

Somehow it doesn’t feel that way, does it? Well who informs our electorate anyway? Newscasters do. I recently googled the word newscaster.

Of the top 5 results numbers 3 and 4 were Wikipedia. Here were the other 3 results.

#1 – Top 10: Hot Newscasters

#2 – Top 25 Most Sexy Newscasters of All Time

#5 – 5 Newscasters Who Accidentally Went Insane on Live TV

It seems we’re looking for more than just news from our newscasters. Unfortunately our challenge is bigger than hot, sexy, insane newscasters.

Noah Blumenthal

Noah Blumenthal

You’ve heard of infotainment. We live in what I call the age of arguetainment.

In the age of arguetainment the most condescending, dismissive, antagonistic newscasters win. They are the ones who get the biggest ratings.

It’s like 20 years ago our news programs were taken over by the World Wrestling Federation.

And similar to the World Wrestling Federation we too often forget it’s not real. It’s just a paid performance. News today is like a reality TV parody of itself. Frankly, I can’t believe no one has come out yet with a reality TV show to pick our next most blustery newscaster. Though I’m sure it’s on its way.

These shows do a fabulous job at getting us worked up but they don’t generally help us build the deep understanding necessary to deal with our very important and complex challenges. And the internet magnifies this 1000 times.

Misinformation is one of the deepest root causes of the problems we face as a global society.

If people were better informed, we’d make better decisions about everything – about our environment, war, economy, you name it.

About two years ago I started asking a very simple question – “Based on what?”

Based on what do you believe that to be true? Based on what have you drawn that conclusion?

This wonderful little question was supposed to show me how often other people didn’t know their facts. What it really showed me was how often my own answer was, “I don’t know . . . But I’m sure I’m right.”

What if we as a society could get better at recognizing where we lack the evidence to justify the strength of our convictions?

So I’ve been thinking about this misinformation challenge for a few years now, but I had no idea what I could possibly do about it.

At the same time I’ve been very involved in my local school board.

I had gotten very used to our meetings held in a large, mostly empty auditorium with 10 or 15 parents in attendance.

Then, in December 2012, about 50 miles north of where I live, the Newtown tragedy occurred.

Our next school board meeting was different. This time over 150 parents packed the room and they urged the board to institute a wide variety of security measures including a gun locker and an armed principal in every building and a panic button and bullet proof glass in every classroom.

I knew I disagreed with these recommendations, but I didn’t want to simply say I disagreed. I wanted to say something more substantial. I wanted data to back me up. I wanted my opinion to be well informed.

So I plugged away on my phone during the meeting trying desperately to find something simple, clear and compelling.

Unfortunately, it was quite difficult to find what I was looking for. That night, at home on my computer, I kept plugging away, looking for the facts I wanted.

Eventually I discovered data buried deep in the website of the Center for Disease Control, and I made this chart to bring to the next school board meeting.

This chart shows the average number of teen deaths per year from two factors. In the US there are approximately 17 deaths per year from . . .

. . . school shootings. At the same time there are over 1800 teen deaths per year from . . .

. . . suicide. If we really cared about our kids’ wellbeing and saving lives we would invest in mental health where we have 1800 lives to save. This is even more important when you consider that one of the leading indicators in mass shootings is mental imbalance including depression and suicidal thoughts.

By seeking to save these 1800 lives we might also save these 17.

I am grateful my school board chose not to spend our education dollars on bulletproof glass, but I was frustrated that there wasn’t a better, easier place to find, create and share this kind of data.

This was my true a-ha moment, my time to connect the dots from my beliefs about misinformation to an action I could take to do something about it.

So last March I partnered with Steve Ostermiller to create SavvyRoo.com.

SavvyRoo is a social network for sharing any kind of visual data – charts, graphs, maps, infographics – a place to make it as easy to discover and share facts as we now find it easy to share restaurants or photos.

The kangaroo’s big feet symbolize being connected to the real world. That is what we are trying to create. We want people to be savvier about the information they consume and more grounded in reality. To find less rhetoric and more facts.

I’m not suggesting that data visuals can’t misinform, but we are trying to improve the ratio of facts to rhetoric. Reduce the bluster and give people a chance to show the facts as they see them.

Now, every morning this is my breakfast. I drink my coffee and view charts from the friends and organizations I follow.

Now if you are like me and you’re into politics or sports or wellness this is great because you get data to back up all of your beliefs.

Raise your hand if you love being right. We have about 10 honest people in this room. The rest of you are liars. Come on. We all love being right. Being right feels awesome.

What I’ve found fascinating is that it feels even better discovering where I’m wrong or where the world is more complex than I originally thought.

I love data that flips my thinking on something. As much as I want to be right all the time, I know I’m not. I know I believe things that are fundamentally, factually incorrect. I just don’t know which of my beliefs they are.

Think about that. Which of your beliefs are fundamentally, factually incorrect?
You can’t answer that question, can you? I mean there is an answer, but you don’t know what it is.

And because of arguetainment, confirmation bias and filter bubbles we are getting further and further away from discovering the answer. We are becoming both more misinformed and more certain in our misguided beliefs.

In order to flip the switch on our mistaken beliefs we need to consume less rhetoric and more facts – to be less filled with emotion and more open to new information.

Consider this. This is from a Pew Research Center study showing how divisive different characteristics are.

The bigger the bar, the more divisive that characteristic was for our society. So in 1987 people of different races viewed the world relatively differently. As did people with different educational experiences. Less so for income, religion and gender.

And in 2012 we have some minor adjustments, but not much change. Except that you might have noticed these missing bars here in the middle.

Look what happened. A middle of the road variable in 1987 is now far and away the most divisive characteristic we have in our society.

So what is it? What’s the missing variable?

Politics. Political party is the most divisive characteristic of our time. And every vitriolic op-ed that gets shared on Facebook, every news anchor rant, every politician who brands the opposition as an enemy fuels this fire.

We are being taught to care more about winning the debate than we do about creating informed discussion – to value the arguetainment more than we value the issues themselves.

Now it would be wonderful if we could ban arguetainment altogether, but we can’t. It’s like a guilty pleasure. It’s too much fun to get rid of.

But if arguetainment is the carbs of our news diet, we need a protein fix to balance it out – something that gives us a straight shot of facts.

Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

It seems we live in a world where the opposite is true. We have been taught to value news that is sensational, frightening and divisive no matter how shallow or empty the claims may be.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We can train ourselves and our society to see through the arguetainment.

Together let’s become the countervailing force. Let’s ask the question, “Based on what?” And encourage evidence-based discussions.

And let’s adjust our news diet. Find a source that enables us to consume less rhetoric and more evidence.

If we do these things and if we spread them to others we can move past this age of arguetainment.

We can get informed in a way that brings us together and helps us find common ground in how we view our world, how we think about one another, and how we solve our biggest challenges.

Thank you.

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