Nation of Beancounters

Will banning trivialities in the media help? Nope.

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on November 4, 2011

A lot of attention has been given to the new Chairman of the Press Council of India Markandey Katju’s criticism of media people as ‘of poor intellectual level’. He wants more “teeth” to rein in what he sees as a media that is failing it’s responsibility to the public. One of the main attack points is the lack of focus:

Number one, it often diverts the attention of the people from the real problems which are basically economic. 80 per cent of the people are living in horrible poverty, unemployment, facing price rise, healthcare etc. You divert attention from those problems and instead you project filmstars and fashion parades and cricket as if they are the problems of the people. 

Karan Thapar: So the media uses fashion, film stars and cricket almost as an opium? 

Justice Markandey Katju: Yes. Cricket is an opium of the masses. The Roman emperors used to say ‘if you cannot give the people bread, give them circuses’. In India, send them to cricket if you cannot give them bread. Many channels, day and night, are showing cricket as if that is the problem of the country. 

So today, we ask the question: let’s say Katju gets his way and prevents the media from “diverting attention”, will we solve the problem of unemployment, price rise etc?

Ans: No.

Short reason: people who were distracted by the entertainment won’t suddenly start reading about serious news and then start trying to reform the system. They’ll watch a movie or read a book or spend time with their friends and family. The only way that this move will help the poor etc is if a large number of people actually start reading serious news when entertainment news is unavailable. Which, in my opinion, they don’t.

Much longer answer follows. Some economic modelling involved.

Let’s divide news into “serious news” (unemployment and all the stuff that Katju talks about) and trivial news (is Jennifer Aniston dating Ryan Gosling?)

Implicit in the following analysis is this: media outlets do not produce “trash” because they get kicks out of it, but rather because they’re in a competitive marketplace where they have to attract as many readers as possible.

First we observe that if a paper wasn’t being read by anyone, it wouldn’t matter if it carried only serious news or not. Therefore a newspaper works through it’s readers to cause change.

Second, the only justification for giving Katju this kind of power over free people (let’s assume that liberty is something everyone mildly prefers) is that it helps people.

For the sake of using fewer words, we’re going to assume the only media that exists is the newspaper. The argument works just as well if you replace “reading the paper” with “watching a news channel”.

So the argument works on the following (backwards) narrative:

1. If we prevent newspapers from reporting trivial issues, people would read less about trivial issues.

2. If people read less about trivial issues, they’d read more about these problems.

3. If people read more about these problems, they would pay more attention to them.

4. If people paid more attention to these problems, they would demand that the political system solve them.

5. If more people demanded that the political system solved these problems, it would put pressure on the system.

6. Increased pressure on the political system to solve these problems would help solve these problems.

7. Solving problems like price rise etc would help people.

Thus we have many links on the chain of causality that works from Katju banning trivialities to problems being solved.

Some of the links are sound, others far less so. I’m going to be focusing on the second link  – if people read less about trivial issues, they’d read more about these problems – but if you feel that some of the others are problematic as well, feel free to day why.

Imagine a group of people in a country.

The countries newspaper carries “trivial news” and “serious news”.

The group of people can engage in the following three activities:

1. Reading serious news. (S)

2. Reading trivial news. (T)

3. Spending time with family (F)

Let’s say they have preferences, denoted by ‘>’. So F>W  means that this particular fellow would rather spend time with his family (F) than work (W).

Let’s create a preference set, at random:


So he likes spending time with the family the most and reading serious news the least.

Let’s say that this strange person doesn’t crave diversity – he does what he wants, and does it non-stop. So our individual here would spend all his time with his friends and family and never engage in the other activities (I never said economic modelling would make sense at all points of time but we’ll relax this assumption later).

Now, let’s say that the amount of attention being paid to serious issues depends on the number of people engaging in S at a particular time.

Now, we give Katju the power to remove T from the list of activities. The question is: will a lot more people engage in reading serious news?

The answer: it depends! On what? you ask. Well, say he has the preference order:


He will engage in family time only. If you remove T, then his order becomes:


Which means he will still only be spending time with his family. He will not be reading serious stuff.

You’ve probably realized that there are only 6 possible orderings under this system:

1. F>T>S which becomes F>S

2. F>S>T which becomes F>S

3. T>F>S which becomes F>S

4. T>S>F which becomes S>F

5. S>F>T which becomes S>F

6. S>T>F which becomes S>F

In the first three cases, the person would either continue spending time with his family or switch tos spending time with his family. In the last two cases he continues to read serious news as he did before, thus there is no impact of the removal of T. Only in case 4 was there any impact.

So what happened in case 4? Case 4 liked reading trivial news the most and reading serious news was his second best option. There were no options between the two that he like more than reading serious news. So when his celebrities were taken away from him, he started reading more about the North East.

If there was something that he liked more than reading serious news, he’s do that instead (see case 2).

So there you have have it, folks! The conditions under which a removal of trivial news results in a lot more people reading serious news: there must be nothing that a lot of people like more than serious news but less than trivial news.

Whew. What a lot of time that took. Couldn’t I have spent less time saying all this? Sure. But you’d gloss over the two assumptions we’ve made:

1. That a person engages in one activity full time.

2. There are only three things to do.

If we relax only the first assumption, our argument falls flat on it’s face. Say the person divides his time between the tree activities: 33% time spent about Kim Kardarshian’s marriage, 33% on reading about the Maoists and 33% spent playing hide and seek with the kids. If T were removed, then he’d spend more time (say 50%) reading about the Maoists, maybe resulting in more attention paid to the poor in central India. Oh, what a tangled web we weave!

Fortunately, we rescue the argument by relaxing assumption number two. In the real world there are hundreds of things to do. We can work, do chores, listen to music, watch a movie or TV show, go to a concert, drink, smoke, smoke up, have sex, blog, shoot street dogs for sport (I didn’t say all the things that we can do are moral or legal, did I?), read a book or magazine, bathe, etc.

So banning all news about Sherlyn Chopra’s boob job will only increase the amount of time spent reading serious news if and only if people choose to spend the time that they have saved by not reading such trash on reading about Irom Sharmila’s fast instead of watching playing Angry Birds or watching Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. So there might be people out there who will substitute celebrity news for political news, but the number is likely small.

So the question you have to ask yourself: all the people who like to read about Shah Rukh Khan’s birthday – is reading about the War in Iraq their second choice?

If the answer is no, then banning trivialities won’t help raise awareness about any issue.

A final argument is that the problem isn’t this, but rather how horrible it is that media outlets have become entertainment outlets. But a problem is only a problem if it hurts people and the act of solving it (by say, banning news channels from broadcasting fashion shows) improves someone’s life. So far, the only people it seems to help are people who find the change repugnant because it clashes with their view of how the world ought be. In a free society, we usually discount psychic costs that are incurred because someone else is doing something you don’t like, as long as it doesn’t affect your rights.

To complain that the media outlets are full of trash is to complain that people are interested in trash. Banning trivialities doesn’t cause people to be interested in important things, simply to engage in other distractions.


3 Responses

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  1. Arnav Kacker said, on November 4, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    While your argument works in these extreme assumptions and scenarios, I would tend to believe that this is looking at things in a manner that is slightly too black-and-white to be pragmatic in a shades-of-grey setup. Firstly, while banning of ‘trivial news’ might not have the desired effect and for the largest part is not viable, advisable or even desirable, regulation in a certain manner and to some extent might just displace the attitudes and perceptions of the subjects a little bit in a favorable direction.

    I think looking at just the activity of indulging in trivial news cannot be placed on a scale of personal preferences in this manner. This is simply because I’m sure you’d be hard-pressed to find people (average intelligence. or median.) who would be able to justify the prudence on spending as much time as they do on these celebrity/gossip/tabloid oriented content. It is not that they always switch on the TV or buy a newspaper to find out who is dating whom, but that the TV and newspaper are recreational and within this domain of recreation, tabloid content is the most zero-effort recreation there it. If we take this view forward, it is the newspaper, magazine and TV that has a niche in a person’s life and not the content. A mom without hobbies or a career might spend her afternoons channel surfing or a teenager might read the paper on the train ride to college and content regulation within reasonable amounts are unlikely to change this.

    A key point to examine here would be why the masses are so averse to spending their time on issues that concern their general well-being, directly or indirectly. One reason that occurs to me is that general economic issues and government policy and actions are reported in a manner that for the easily distracted masses is too drab. A large chunk of Americans used to get their quota of daily news from The Tonight Show. They probably still do. What could actually work would be regulation of ‘trivial content’ (in the above posts sense of the phrase) and limitation on the prominence with which it’s featured and its quantity. As you said, taking this effortless feasting away from people while giving them no alternative to what they’re already avoiding might have reactions that are difficult to calculate but I feel the media houses under regulation would find themselves to actually have a large audience for serious issues in light phrasing ( something like what Popular Science is to Scientific American).

    To sum up, I feel that a view that Katju is completely wrong is not fair. He does raise a valid point. It is also true that this is the scenario determined by market forces. But a little regulation is not a bad thing. If we can have environmental regulation on car companies for polluting our air, we can certainly have this for pollution of the mind. They’re analogous and both involve restriction on product the public would gladly lap up without a care for long term concerns. I doubt Katju meant a total ban anyway. That’s never going to happen. It shouldn’t either. But governance involves being a parent in some ways and having the foresight that people caught up with the daily grind and struggle often lack. In a country that has a plethora of problems upon it, steps to try to empower the people with some sort of awareness are really not a bad idea. We are famously an apathetic public and each step to remedy that counts.

    • Navin Kumar said, on November 7, 2011 at 8:01 pm

      If I may paraphrase your arguments:

      1. People use the media recreationally (on the train etc) and so regulating content helps.
      2. Policy issues are presented drably and this is a problem.
      3. Trivial issues pollute out minds and therefore ought be regulated for people’s own good.

      1.Here you tackle me directly: I say that people won’t switch and you say that they will. The point of the post was to establish the condition under which they would switch: trivial and serious news being close substitutes (here, things are substitutes if they are close to one another on the preference order). Here you and I have a disagreement because you believe that serious and trivial news are in fact close substitutes and that there are enough people who would start reading serious stuff, if the fluff wasn’t available, to justify intervention.

      This particular point is better settled with empirical research than theory. Still, I can point out the following: close substitutes tend to be goods that are very similar to each other in nature. Strawberry ice cream is a very close substitute to chocolate ice cream and a less close substitute to frozen yogurt and not at all a substitute for a shoe. People would consume chocolate ice cream if strawberry wasn’t available but not a shoe, since a shoe doesn’t satisfy their particular craving at the time.

      The question therefore becomes: Do you think that serious matter in the paper/TV is similar in nature to trivial matter?

      How many people do you know read the paper from cover to cover, as opposed to merely the sports page, the editorial or the city supplement? This is the portion of the population for whom the two are likely substitutes. And in my experience, this is a very very small portion. I think it quite likely that if the student on the train were deprived of the celeb gossip for which she bought the paper, she’d start carrying a paperback.

      I invite you to go up the chain of causality: the bored housewife/student on the train – assuming find out about the serious stuff now (instead of switching to a novel or reality game show) they wouldn’t have read about the issue at all if trivialities hadn’t distracted them. Does this seem like the kinda person who would engage in activism or in demanding reforms? If not, there’s no good that comes out of them reading about it.

      2. You seem to be hoping that banning trivialities will give news shows an incentive to spice up policy content. But it’s a competitive market! They already have an incentive to spice it up as far as they can without alienating regular viewers. The reason that people are alienated from it is because it’s harder to watch than a game show or _American Pie_ and unless you clone Tim Harford industrially, it’s difficult to see what the media outlets could be doing.

      3. Hmmm? Sorry mate but unlike pollution, it’s something that people willingly consume (indeed pay for). And unlike cigarettes, there are no proven health risks so the paternal state argument doesn’t work here. You believe that trivialities *cause* stupidity, based maybe on the fact that all the stupid people you know watch these things. Yet it could be the other way around: stupid people are drawn to this content, which fulfills a tribal urge to know who’s mating with who.

      Unless you can prove that brain cells are being killed by the content (the way lung cells are by ciggies) there is no justification for giving the government the power to decide what is acceptable reporting and what isn’t.

      Incidentally, what assumptions do you mean: I thought I was being quite sparse with my assumptions and relaxed the two that I spotted later on. If there are any assumptions I’ve unwittingly made, do let me know.

  2. […] news won’t do anything to raise awareness or what not. In retrospect I realize all I did was prove that unless two goods are close substitutes, banning one won’t increase the consumption of […]

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