This episode is a quasi-followup to last week’s, which was called “How to Create Suspense.” It featured a discussion about a research paper called “Suspense and Surprise” by the economists Jeffrey Ely, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica. “We view the construction and the development of suspense and surprise and other aspects of entertainment as basically optimally and economizing on a scarce resource, which is the ability to change someone’s beliefs,” Ely told us.
In other words, our ability to be surprised (or to experience suspense) is limited. So if you are making suspenseful movies, or writing mystery novels, you need to dish out these components very strategically. That’s what we mostly talked about in the last episode – movies, novels, also sports. But then the conversation turned to suspense and surprise in the context of the news:
FRANKEL: I think the way that economists have tended to think about the news is that surprise and suspense aren’t a part of it at all — there’s no entertainment value, there’s a value of information because it tells you what to do.
But that’s not the way these economists see the news. This leads us into a wide-ranging conversation that asks a basic question: why do we really follow the news? Among the voices you’ll hear:
+ A certain Anya Dubner, 13, and her friends Maia and Logan, discussing what they learn from their current-events unit at school.
+ Steve Levitt, whose personal media diet is, shall we say, utilitarian.
+ Jill Abramson, a former executive editor at The New York Times, who is writing a book about the future of news-gathering.
+ Matthew Gentzkow, a Stanford economist who, along with the Brown economist Jesse Shapiro, has written several papers about the intersection of the markets and media.
+ Mitchell Stephens, a journalism and communications professor at NYU and author of A History of News
and Beyond News: The Future of Journalism
+ Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, who’s also a member of the Cultural Cognition Project, which seeks to explain how we come to hold the beliefs we hold — and how our consumption of news is a big part of that. (Kahan was also featured in an earlier Freakonomics Radio episode, “The Truth is Out There…Isn’t It?”)
I am eager to hear what you think of our treatment of this topic.