Our minds on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

Managing Your Information Portfolio

On reading a recent post at Freakonomics on how the media is liberally biased, I was reminded of the problem of an old email that had circulated for far too long (and probably is still circulating). It was a call-to-arms electronic petition to help “SAVE SESAME STREET.” The original email was initiated by two students at the University of Northern Colorado, and as is sometimes the case, regardless of our best intentions, our creations can still retain a life of their own and mutate into monsters. They initiated that email in 1995, and to the best of my knowledge, it is still circulating today. There are a few lessons to be gleaned from that (and other) chain email. One is simply: don’t sign and forward email petitions. By all means, add your name to a web site petition, but email petitions are generally useless. Another lesson is this: triangulate your information if it matters to you and if you want to be effective in what you do. This has everything to do with recognizing that we live in a country with a liberally biased media and that the best way to inoculate yourself against isn’t to engage a conservatively biased media, but rather cultivate a information portfolio.

There are more technical meanings for triangulation (with regard to IT), but I only mean it here as ensuring that your facts have multiple sources at their origination. Daily there are stories transmitted through blogs (and twitter) that are farmed and aggregated on yet more blogs, and often these stories even find their way on to radio and television. These media echo chambers are a sure way to distort an accurate world-view precisely because of the way that humans transmit and value information. Many psychologists argue that one reason that we commonly make conjunction fallacies is because we are inherently “wired” to discount sources of information (Bovens and Hartmann, 2003). As we gather information, we consider its source, and based on that sources’ reliability in the past, we can better consider the evidence. But this process of gathering information is biological in nature and in no way accounts for how we’re getting our information these days, often from multiple sources simply repeating the same information. The repetition is a problem for us, because if we treat each source as independent, we increase the evidence that we have for some event without true justification. 1 This problem is all the more exacerbated by media outlets that are not objective.

Which brings me to the concept of the information portfolio. When constructing a stock portfolio, it’s important to consider how the stocks in the portfolio balance one another out. What you do not want to have is a portfolio of corporate bank stocks or only stocks in the shipping industry. That kind of clumping can get you into trouble when an industry-wide event occurs. Instead, it’s better to diversify—have a little of each industry. And I tend to try to think of my reading matter in the same way. I’ve yet to find a measure for it, but the central tenet in how I decide what I regularly read—there’s always room for new samples—is if I feel they’ve achieved maximum disagreement. If you can look at your regular reading catalog and you don’t find a lot of disagreement amongst the reporters and pundits, your information portfolio could maybe use some diversification.

  1. More and more, I’ve begun to believe that this is why people think airline travel was more dangerous than driving a car after 9/11—when nothing could be further from the truth. On average, every year, nearly 40,000 americans die in car accidents. In 2002, the year after 9/11, there were no fatalities in the US due to airline accidents. but study after study showed that people rated driving as more safe than flying. What if those people had been exposed to 40,000 minutes of car crash footage? 

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