When I’m getting ready in the morning, particularly on the weekend, I like to tune into some of my favorite shows on NPR like Radiolab, the TED Radio Hour, and To the Best of Our Knowledge. Before such programs begin, however, the host will say, “But first, the news.”
I always instinctively find myself quieting down whatever it is I’m doing (like brushing my teeth) to hear what comes next.
The news is coming!
What’s happening in the news?!
What follows is a quick rundown of the day’s “big” stories: a mudslide has killed 25 in one country; there’s been an explosion in the downtown of another’s capital; the stock market is up/down; a sports team has won some title; a beloved celebrity has passed away.
There is very rarely anything particularly interesting or personally relevant going on. Yet the next time I hear “First, the news,” my must-tune-in reflex goes off once more.
The gap between my pull towards the news, and what I can honestly say I’ve ever really gotten from it, has formed a question in my mind that has niggled at me for years now: “Is there really any reason to keep up with the news?”
The News: Modernity’s Unexamined Faith
News consumption — whether by radio, internet, or television — is a daily habit for billions of people around the globe.
It’s not a new habit. In primitive times, tribesmen pumped returning scouts for their observations on the happenings in nature and the neighboring village (the fact that what they had to say may have aided in survival is likely why we developed such a pull towards the news in the first place). Citizens a century ago didn’t have Facebook, Huffpo, or reddit, but did eagerly snatch up stacks of newspapers — which came out in multiple editions each day.
No, news consumption is not a new practice, simply one that’s become ever more accelerated and central to our lives.
In The News: A User’s Guide, philosopher Alain de Botton draws on the ideas of Hegel to posit that in fact, the news in modern cultures has in some ways replaced “religion as our central source of guidance and our touchstone of authority.”
Morning and evening prayers have been substituted with checking one’s news feed immediately upon rising and retiring to bed. While the faithful once sought inspiration in scripture, it’s now in the news “we hope to receive revelations, learn who is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here, too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.”
If the news represents a new kind of faith, it is surely one of our least examined. The media rarely does stories on itself — reports that might examine their actual worth and credibility.
And in the larger culture, consuming the news (at least the “hard,” unbiased variety — though no one can quite agree on what qualifies as such), is surely our most dignified distraction. To not keep up with current events and geopolitics (“Can you believe how many Americans don’t know the name of Canada’s prime minister?!”) is to be seen as an ignorant rube. Knowledge of the news, the thinking goes, is fundamental to being an educated, engaged citizen.
Does the news really make us such though? Are our motivations for keeping up with it truly so lofty? Today we will examine these questions, as well as how large a role news consumption should play in a man’s life. At the risk of seeming heretical, I will argue that while the news is certainly not altogether worthless, we could get by with far less of it than we typically do.
Why We Say We Consume the News
I would argue that when it comes to keeping up with the news, there is a large gap between why we say we do it, and why we really do. Because when you examine the commonly stated reasons, they ultimately don’t hold much water:
The news illuminates truth/reality. The mission of journalists (at least the serious kind) is to report on what’s going on in the world; they feel it their duty to tell us “the truth.” Without the news, the thinking goes, we would remain ignorant about what’s “really” happening out there.
But the truth delivered by the media represents only one sliver of human reality — invariably the fraction that is new, novel, and most of all, negative. Studies show that the news consists of negative to positive stories by a ratio of 17:1. We get reports on the few dozen murderers and pedophiles who were up to no good on a given day, but no word on the millions of folks who went to work, ate dinner, and turned in, all without whacking their spouse or preying on small children. As de Botton observes:
“There is a plethora of headlines that would be both true and yet impossible to run:
Grandmother, 87, helped three flights up the stairs at railway station by 15-year-old bystander she didn’t know.
Teacher surmounts his feelings for a young student.
Man abandons rash plan to kill his wife after brief pause.
65 million people go to bed every night without murdering or hitting anyone.”
In the world of the news, danger lurks around every corner, every prominent figure is a hypocrite with a scandal waiting to be uncovered, and everyone has an 87.5% chance of getting cancer before age 70.
The lens the news media trains on the world is so narrow, that it invariably illuminates one small slice of it while distorting the rest of the picture. The media thus not only reports on reality, but helps shape it. For what we read in the news colors our perception of life — our beliefs about the state of our country and fellow human beings. The result is a perspective that is grimly pessimistic and cynical. Though a lot of things in our family and little community seem to be going just fine, the world as a whole appears to be going to pot.
Which truth is more true?
The news breaks down barriers of racism and prejudice. Keeping abreast of what’s going on in the world — the natural disasters, diseases, and wars of countries near and far — supposedly helps us to feel a part of a global community and builds our empathy.
Yet study after psychological study has found quite the opposite result. When faced with the suffering of an individual, we are moved with compassion for them. But presented with the suffering of dozens, hundreds, thousands, we tend to turn away. As Joseph Stalin bluntly put it, “The death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.” In the face of mass suffering, our empathy antennae withdraw in fear of being overwhelmed by emotion.
Thus the news, rather than spurring us to humanize “the other,” may actually lead us to dehumanize them. Rather than making us more sensitive to the suffering of human beings, endless reports on a hundred killed in this explosion and a hundred killed by that disease, may make us desensitized to their plight.
The news keeps us informed so we can take action on important issues. When you were in grade or high school, you may have had a teacher who assigned you the task of reading the newspaper each day. Keeping up with the news, you were told, was a part of being an actively engaged citizen.
There’s undoubtedly truth to this idea. But it is often simplistically stated, and done so without some important caveats.
First, to truly be informed — to be able to make sense of the news in order know what action to take on it — requires more than the news itself. The news rarely gives context to what it reports, offering instead a ceaseless torrent of facts and data points. Background knowledge on history, psychology, philosophy, and so on, gleaned from books and other more stable, in-depth information sources, is required to make connections between these facts, stake out well-founded positions, and make sound decisions.
Second, not all news is actionable and relevant to you in the first place. In fact, the vast majority of it concerns issues you could not do anything about even if you wanted to. And even if a story is actionable and relevant, how often does it actually motivate you to do something? How many of the thousands upon thousands of news stories you’ve consumed in the last five years directly led to you making a different decision or taking a certain action? 1%? .01%?
One can in fact argue that consuming news about everything, everywhere is actually making us less apt to take any action, anywhere. Buried in an avalanche of stories on how absolutely broken and terrible everything is, we feel overwhelmed, paralyzed, apathetic. We are by turns irrationally fearful and impotently angry. What could we possibly do to change things, and what difference would it make?
As de Botton explains, consuming the news may ultimately lead us to become less engaged with the world, not more:
“A contemporary dictator wishing to establish power would not need to do anything so obviously sinister as banning the news: he or she would only have to see to it that news organizations broadcast a flow of random-sounding bulletins, in great numbers but with little explanation of context, within an agenda that kept changing, without giving any sense of the ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short while before, the whole interspersed with constant updates about the colorful antics of murderers and film stars. This would be quite enough to undermine most people’s capacity to grasp political reality — as well as any resolve they might otherwise have summoned to alter it. The status quo could confidently remain forever undisturbed by a flood of, rather than a ban on, news.”
Why We Often Really Consume the News
While we can come up with a lot of noble-sounding rationales for keeping up with the news, most of the time, for most people, our reasons for consumption are decidedly less flattering:
For entertainment. At the heart of why we consume the news, is the reason we consume all media: it’s entertaining. There’s action, drama, turning points, and suspense. Each genre of fiction has its real life parallels in the news:
Mystery, Horror, & Suspense: Why would someone intentionally fly a plane into a mountain? What must it have been like for those doomed passengers right before the crash? Who’s responsible for that shooting? Is he innocent or guilty?
Romance: What celebrity is dating what celebrity? Who broke up? Who’s having an affair?
Comedy: Did you see the gaffe that politician/newscaster made? Cringe-worthily hilarious!
Morality Tale: Will that corrupt CEO/spoiled rich kid finally get his comeuppance? Tune in and see!
Sports (Actual and Otherwise): Who won the championship? Who’s out of the playoffs? Who won the debate? Who’s on top of the polls?
Full as it is of “athletic” contests, whodunit, and schadenfreude, the news can surely be a lot of fun to follow.
For monitoring the status of others. As we laid out in last year’s series on the subject, we’re all supremely status-sensitive creatures. We scroll through our Facebook feed to survey the field of our peers’ personal “news” and see how they’re doing in comparison to us. At the same time, the new media landscape has made us feel connected to powerful figures and celebrities of all kinds, so that they too seem to be members of our same status pool.
We thus flit between social media news feeds and the mainstream news to see who’s up and who’s down in the world. Seeing someone prominent fall from grace or get criticized (oddly enough, even someone whose work we like!) is particularly gratifying. Witnessing someone brought down a notch indirectly makes us feel a little higher in status ourselves.
As a badge of our own status. Knowledge of the news is in many ways like the possession of a college degree — it doesn’t necessarily mean someone is more intelligent and well-off than someone else, but we use it as an evaluative shortcut — a sorting mechanism. The non-news-follower is taken to be a more ignorant member of the lower class, while the man who can speak eruditely of current affairs is seen as an educated member of the bourgeoisie.
One generally doesn’t wish to be sorted into the former category, and so engaging in an obligatory scan of the day’s headlines becomes a requirement for winningly engaging in conversation, and maintaining one’s status.
In the hopes of hearing about an exciting, world-changing event. Most of our lives go along in a boring, predictable, 9-5 way. Though part of us doesn’t want a war or a disaster to occur, another part secretly hopes that something really big will happen. Much suffering results from large-scale tragedies and conflicts, but they also bring novelty, excitement, unification, and the feeling of greater meaning and purpose. We thus tune into the news simultaneously dreading, and hoping for, something crazy to have occurred.
To escape ourselves. Immersing ourselves in the drama being played out on the global stage can help us forget about the problems in our own little world. Scrolling through all the links on a news site acts like a kind of anesthetic for the brain — the emotional turmoil you’ve been wrestling with shuts off and is temporarily forgotten. For the same reason, watching television news, though it purports to be informative and thus mentally stimulating — has always been the perfect background noise for when you really want to zone out and forget your troubles.
As de Botton puts it: “To consult the news is to raise a seashell to our ears and to be overpowered by the roar of humanity.”
In the fear of missing out. The world moves more quickly today than ever before — governments are toppled in a week, politicians fall from grace overnight, and new technological and scientific advances are made all the time.
Not only do we want to avoid being out of the loop — being the guy in a conversation who’s unaware of what’s going on — we also fear we might miss some kind of discovery that could forever change our lives. Deep down, all of us feel that if we could just find the right diet, sleeping schedule, or planning app, we’d finally be able to achieve professional success, reach our goals, and, maybe, even escape mortality.
If we approach the news like a modern religion, then it’s a faith built on unceasingly upwards progress. We turn to the news in hopes of fresh revelations on living happier and longer. And the oracle obliges, Botton opines, by treating “the latest findings about red wine, gene therapy and the benefits of eating walnuts with a superstitious reverence not dissimilar to that which might once have inspired a devout Catholic pilgrim to touch the shin bone of Mary Magdalene — in the hope of thereby securing ongoing divine protection.”
In a time where news stories are generated by the thousands and turn over within 24 hours, we are ever beset with this worry: “What if I fail to check the news and thus miss the secrets to life?”
Extra! Extra! Read All About It! Or Not: The News, in Moderation
Even if we really don’t keep up with the news for the reasons we say we do, is there anything wrong with consuming some occasionally important, largely merely entertaining information?
In moderation? Surely not.
It’s tempting to completely disconnect from all news, altogether; such a baby + bathwater approach is satisfying internally and satisfying to tell one’s friends. It offers a gratification akin to pronouncing you’ve given up your television.
So too some of the great thinkers in history advocated for the cold turkey approach. Henry David Thoreau implored the public to “Read not the Times. Read the eternities.” And Thomas Jefferson proclaimed, “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it.”
Yet these men, while they had no love for the press, weren’t exactly cut off from the news entirely. Each heard what was going on from exchanging letters with friends and vigorous conversations with their contemporaries. Thoreau knew enough about current events to be able to decide to protest against slavery and the Mexican-American War by not paying his poll taxes. And Jefferson kept sufficient tabs on what was going on in the nation and world to govern a country!
It’s the same today: when you dig into the details of a self-proclaimed news abstainer’s habits, it turns out their claims to abstention rest on their own personal definition of what exactly constitutes news — they consume a little of this, but completely avoid that.
The real question then is not whether or not to consume the news, but how much, and from where. The aim is conscious intention rather than complete abstention.
The news is merely one information source among many. Once you become honest about your reasons for consuming it, you free yourself from dutifully feeling it has value in and of itself, bestowing upon it a most-favored status, and consuming it simply because you believe you “should.”
All information sources are edifying, educational, and entertaining to varying degrees, and all information consumption comes with opportunity costs; that is, by choosing to consume one type, you have less time to consume another.
In coming to see the news as 90% entertainment, with an occasional dash of the educational, you can focus more on the fraction that is important, relevant, and actionable, while substituting much of the fluff for information that’s actually edifying.
There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for how much space to give over to the news in your overall “information diet.” But here’s the weight I give it in my own life as an example:
I scan the headlines of a “hard” news site and my city newspaper a few times a day, and listen to NPR some mornings while getting ready or driving around (which gives me both national and local news). This enables me to 1) be able to engage with people in conversation should they bring up current events (I do think there’s value to this), and 2) to see if there are any stories that are actionable and relevant to the issues I care about and my interests and profession. The great bulk of what I read/listen to doesn’t fit the bill, but very occasionally a story will indeed move me to action. For example, I called my senator when Congress was debating a bill on net neutrality and wrote to my city councilor when there arose talk of allowing an outlet mall to be built next to a local wilderness area.
I don’t spend much time following national politics and election battles, not because I don’t believe in exercising the rights and privileges of citizenship, but because where I live doesn’t allow me much chance to do so. Oklahoma is the reddest red state in the union, and thus it doesn’t matter which way I vote, or if I vote (though I do) — we’re still going to elect Republican congressmen and presidential candidates. If I lived in a swing state, I’d pay closer attention, because such news would then be actionable and relevant to me.
I spend even less time on international news. I know it’s supposedly part of being a cosmopolitan global citizen, but an infinitesimally small amount of it represents things I can do anything about. It would be information for information’s (and status’) sake, and, as thoroughly elucidated above, I don’t think there’s much value in that. Not to mention, I also don’t believe that “global citizenship” is either possible, or desirable.
I realize that runs counter to our prevailing faith in the news — the belief that it’s somehow good for us, even if we can’t prove or explain exactly how. But I’m content to let others partake in their daily rites and the belief that one day such secret knowledge will save them.
Whether it’s local, national, or international news I’m looking at, if I see a story that interests me, I’ll read it through. If I think it may be actionable or relevant, I’ll do further research and read opinions and analyses on it from both sides of the aisle. And I allow myself a few fluff pieces a day, in full conscious acknowledgement that they’re merely entertainment.
All in all, counting both reading and listening time, I probably spend 30 minutes a day keeping tabs on the news. I spend little-to-no time on clickbait, aggregator-type sites, and watch no talk shows or television news.
With the time I save in not following the news more, ahem, religiously, I take a (literal) page from the habits of Thoreau and Jefferson, and read books on a wide variety of topics. I personally find works on philosophy, history, sociology, science, and so on ultimately much more edifying and educational — more pertinent both to my personal and professional goals — than the news. While the truth of the news expires each 24 hours, such books often stay relevant for several years, and even centuries, and spark my mind in ways the news never does. As the businessman and author Rolf Dobelli observed:
“I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie — not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.”
At the same time, books not only offer an education in their given subject, they also provide the context — the diverse mental models — that allow me to make greater sense of…what’s happening in the news.