NewsNation Three Month Review

Long time readers of this site will know that I started off listening to a lot of talk radio and repeating the same rants. I eventually decided that wasn’t something I wanted in my life and I almost completely disengaged from the news, only hearing about the most important things through conversations or by reading raw studies and data. Last fall I decided to try a news source again because I was impressed with the approach that NewsNation was taking. Their stated goal was to remove all bias from their news and just present the facts. Lots of places claim to do this but NewsNation laid out a plan that seemed like it could work.

For the first couple weeks, I was surprised at how dry the content was. I could read an article about anything without being led to some kind of emotional response. More than three months in and it’s still something that I flip through every day. I can’t speak for their TV content, but using their app has let me slip through a very divisive news season without getting dragged into either side. The facts of the story are presented and I’m left to decide how to fit them into my own moral framework. They sit in the middle of the spectrum not by arguing both sides or giving equal time but by ignoring both sides and just presenting what happened. And any time they reference a study, Congressional bill, etc, they link directly to it so I can read it myself and get the raw info with full context.

I like to think that their writing style has helped me in my own writings. I’m sucked into a lot of tough conversations for my elder position at church and I think I’m getting better at editing my emails to remove things like inflammatory adjectives, metaphors, and virtue signaling that are really only there to prompt a reaction if I’m being honest with myself.

But in the back of my mind, I always wondered how unbiased NewsNation really was. I’d spot check it myself by taking an article and reading the same thing on multiple sites. It always seemed like NewsNation was in the middle and on the rare occasion that they’d slip up, it was obvious, but still… was I just being manipulated more subtly?

Yesterday, I found the Ad Fontes Media group who analyzes stories from a variety of news sources and ranks them for reliability and bias. You can read more about their methodology on their site, but they produce a giant chart that shows how each news source lands on those scales of reliability and bias. I’ll let you click the link to view it because it seems highly copyrighted, but there were a few interesting observations for me:

  • NewsNation scored high for reliability (45.82) and almost squarely in the middle of the bias range (-0.44).
  • The web versions of MSNBC, CNN and Fox News all scored high in reliability and more centrist in bias than their corresponding TV versions.
  • There are quite a few news sources that scored similarly to NewsNation and I’ll add those to my mental list of alternate sources.
  • As sources get more biased, they almost always get less reliable.

The Ad Fontes Media Facebook post does a good job of covering an extremely important caveat about the “middle”.

On the chart, “Middle” does not mean “best.” Notice that there are sources that are close to the middle yet mid-low scoring vertically, like Daily Mail and Worldtruth.Tv

Middle is also not “most morally correct.”

A source can be in the middle because it is:
a) minimally biased (neutral)
b) centrist (a political position) or
c) balanced (presenting two sides)

The left-right axis is anchored by:
a) contemporary (not timeless)
b) political positions of elected officials
c) in the United States (not worldwide)

Therefore the middle part of the axis represents the middle political positions in the US right now. Not what they should be. What they are.

What’s left, right, and middle shifts over time. Think back to before the Civil Rights Act. One side was for segregation and one side was for integration. One was morally right, and it wasn’t some middle position between segregation and integration.

Also, everyone thinks the middle should be closer to where they are personally.

Being in the middle isn’t always the right place to be on every issue, but I like having my news presented to me cleanly and succinctly. I can take it from there and have opinions about what should be done to improve the situation or even go seek out opinions. But at least I get to read the news without picking a team.

Utility History

I like to collect data. It’s rarely interesting at a single point in time, but over the years, it can provide insights or show trends that I didn’t know existed.

For example, my irrigation controller is based on a Raspberry Pi. There’s a webpage for it and it has an API so I can download the actual runtime of each zone. I’ve measured the amount of water used for a minute in each zone (by watching my water meter) so I can get a rough estimate of how much water I’m using through the system overall. Some of the variability is due to the weather, but I’ve also been tweaking the algorithm to automatically adjust the watering schedules based on the forecast.

I have a similar logging system for my HVAC. I haven’t been successful in reducing these costs much as I think I had it pretty optimized to begin with.

So yes, this is geeky, but it’s also frugal. Two things that are super attractive, right?

The Drive Through Incident

I enjoy the No Dumb Questions podcast. Destin Sandlin is the rocket loving engineer from Smarter Every Day and Matt Whitman does a show called The Ten Minute Bible Hour. But even if you never watch either of those, this podcast is a fun conversation between two friends who share some similar world view (both Christians) but have very different educational backgrounds and enough differences to keep things exciting.

They’ve had a lot of good episodes, but their most recent one has popped into my head every day since I listened to it. I’ve thought about sharing it with multiple people but in the end, I think it really requires you to just listen to it. The problem is that probably won’t happen, but seriously, I rarely ask something like this. Go listen and if you think it wasted your time, consider me surprised but apologetic. It’s episode #101 and you can skip right to the 13:00 mark. Matt and Destin call their friend George and have him tell a story and the story is worth hearing straight from George. Give it 5 minutes and stop if you’re not hooked. And if you keep going, skip the insanely long commercial between 27:15 and 38:40.

Be fiercely kind.

COVID-19: Day 300

Three hundred days of COVID-19 at least for our family. I remember thinking back in May that we’d be out of it before too long because maybe if we just do the lockdown, it will go away. Nope. The only way it’s going away is with a vaccine and thank you God that it’s rolling out.

We’re eager to get the vaccine but we’ll almost certainly be at the end of the line. It sounds like they’re shooting for 1 million per day. It’s unclear to me if that’s 1 million people getting totally vaccinated or just 1 million doses per day. Everyone needs two doses, but regardless, the math on that means we’re going to be well into next fall before we get a vaccine at the projected pace. There have been plenty of hiccups getting the machine spun up in our country but places like Israel are moving very quickly. They have administered vaccines to 18% of their population! (This data is available from Our World in Data and is a nice visualization of the data.)

I wrote about the increased death rate in the last two posts but I finally found the CDC page that shows weekly deaths from COVID, total deaths, and how the total death number compares with what we’d expect based on previous years. Read the footnotes before drawing conclusions, but it shows that a lot of extra people are dying this year. Some members of our government say the COVID numbers are inflated and maybe that’s true, but something is out there killing a lot of extra people this year.

I mostly succeeded in keeping the pandemic out of my end of year post, but there were a lot of related thoughts that I want to capture and they revolve around being a parent through this situation. What is Elijah learning from it? What do I want him to learn from it? How much of it can he grasp at his age? What will he remember when he looks back on this time? I’ve kind of figured that I’m just bumbling my way through it and not doing a very good job, but when I woke him up on December 31 I said, “Hey buddy! It’s the last day of 2020!” Most other people would have replied with “Good riddance!” but Elijah got very sad and said, “But I don’t want it to be over.” I tried to contain my shock and asked him why and he started listing off good things about the pandemic. We’re home together more. We took interesting family adventures. He didn’t have to share his new toys with anyone. The list went one for a while and ended with “But obviously I don’t like the part about people dying.” What a wonderful answer!

It got me thinking more deeply about the specific lessons I’d like teach him. These are too much for a 7 year old to fully grasp but if these are common themes throughout his time in our house then hopefully they’ll stick.

  • How do we decide what is ok to do and what’s not? The first step is always to read the Bible and see if it has anything to say about the topic. If not then a good principle for the pandemic is “If everyone did this, would we have more or less infections?” Unfortunately many people aren’t answering this one correctly and that leads to the next bullet point.
  • How do I know what information is true? The Media Wise project has lots of good information but the basics I try to repeat are looking at the raw data, respecting the experts, and reading conflicting opinions. “Don’t believe everything on the internet.” Along with that comes being willing to change your mind when confronted with better information.
  • What if someone says something I don’t think is true? What if they have authority over me? God tells us in 1 John 4 that we’re supposed to test everything we hear to compare it to what the Bible says. If Pastor preaches something that doesn’t line up with the Bible, it’s my job as an elder to confront him and ask him about it. The same applies to everything we read on the internet or hear, even from those in positions of authority.
  • Why is everyone else doing X but we aren’t? This was a big one for us even before the pandemic, but the answer is the same. “Be in the world but not of the world.” That’s not a direct quote from the Bible but it comes from John 15:19 and John 17:14-16. We’re part of society but this sinful world is not our home. Thanks to our redemption through Christ, we don’t belong here. So feeling different or left out is just one of the many tricks the devil will use to try to keep us from heaven.

When asked about 2020, Bill Gates said, “This is a communications exercise. So far, the U.S. doesn’t get a very high grade.” We took science and made it political and the parties twisted the facts to meet their agendas. Hopefully we’ll do better in 2021, but ultimately I’m hopeful that we’re training our children to be better at this then we were.

John 14:14-16 14 I have given them your word. The world hated them, because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I am not asking that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the Evil One. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

For the Beauty of the Earth

Here’s one I recorded a while back, but in the Lutheran church we generally use this tune in the season of epiphany and call it “As With Gladness Men Of Old”.

In Jon Schmidt’s recording, he has a beautiful cello playing along with it. So in addition to my normal piano-only recording, I also messed around with digital instruments and added in a cello. There’s no video for this but you can hear me playing along with my digital cello attempt. I played that cello line on my piano, recorded the MIDI file for it and then ran it through this program to make it sound like a cello.

I used Bandlab with a free cello VST plugin so it’s all free and doesn’t sound amazing, but it was such an interesting rabbit hole to dive into. For example, check out the Embertone digital instruments and listen to some of those cello samples! Some day I would love to get a really nice piano file and make my piano sound even better.