Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Stop reading the news

I’ve recently come to believe that news media of any kind is for the most part a useless, toxic influence on all of us that we’d be better off without. Notice that I didn’t say “fake news,” “corporate media” or “partisan media.” Just news. Period. The whole thing is an enormous waste of time that obliterates our limbic systems, stresses us out and systematically misinforms us.

I came to this rather radical conclusion after reading Rolf Dobelli’s 2012 paper “Against News: Towards a Healthier Diet” (ironically summarized in the Guardian). He makes the analogy that “News is to the mind what sugar is to the body” and ought to be regarded as a similarly serious public health hazard.

I’m no neuroscientist, so I can’t really assess Dobelli’s claims about how news is damaging our physical health and messes with our ability to concentrate by constantly triggering our limbic system. (Though this may explain why I’ve lost my ability to read books since getting to college — did daily news consumption do this to me?) However, I agree that news systematically exploits our biases and biases us in ways that hurt us and the people we interact with.

How does news exploit our biases? News takes advantage of our tendency to pay attention to very visible, sudden and dramatic events.

We are more likely to pay attention to stories about earthquakes and terrorist attacks, so our headlines consist of earthquakes and terrorist attacks. This isn’t too difficult to pull off. It’s a very big world with six billion people in it. Something dramatic happens every day. However, the odds or any particular dramatic sudden thing happening to you may be tiny. Flashy isn’t the same as important. Mundane, boring, problems like heart disease, traffic accidents, antibiotic resistance and tripping on furniture are much more likely to kill you than terrorist attacks. But they arent as interesting, so terrorists get a lot more news coverage.

This has dramatic consequences for our thinking. If you’re constantly hearing about a certain kind of threat (say, terrorism) you’re likely to worry about it more. Hearing about terrorism once a week is going to affect your attitude towards that risk regardless of your real probability of dying in a terrorist attack.

The result of this is that “we walk around with a completely wrong risk map in our heads.” So even though antibiotic-resistant bacteria is more dangerous to most people than terrorists, most people will systematically overestimate the danger posed by the latter and underestimate that posed by the former. This is dangerous on an individual level and almost certainly terrible for public policy.

What’s worse: Being aware of this dynamic doesn’t make you immune to it. Dobelli points out that savvy people with powerful vested interests in having calibrated risk maps (like economists) still fall victim to this news-created bias all the time. If you think your news reading won’t bias you somehow, I’d ask what makes you so special.

OK, so news consumption has its costs, but aren’t those costs outweighed by the benefits of staying informed?

That sounds reasonable, but if so, what are the actual concrete benefits of staying informed? Is it increased awareness of things that might affect your life? We already know that news won’t reliably report things that are actually relevant to you, and will keep you worried about things that aren’t. The vast majority of information in your newsfeed just isn’t useful. I’d like to echo Dobelli’s challenge to name one article out of the thousands you’ve probably read in the last year that helped you make a better decision about any serious matter in your life, work or relationships. I’m guessing you can’t think of a good example, but if you can, I’d ask whether it was worth sifting through thousands of irrelevant articles in order to get that one valuable nugget.

Here’s something else to consider: If you did hear about something important and relevant through the news, wouldn’t you have heard about it anyway? I’m fairly certain that if Sydney was on fire or Stanford was experiencing a smallpox outbreak, someone would tell me about it. If something matters, you don’t need the news to hear about it. The rare benefit you get from reading the news probably isn’t worth the time you have to waste to get to it (not to mention the potential health consequences) and probably would have happened regardless of your readership.

Fine, you say, maybe news doesn’t have that much that’s directly applicable to your life, but it’s good to know about the world and it’s important to learn about far-off problems so that you can do something about them, even if they don’t directly affect you.

I agree wholeheartedly on both counts, but there are much better ways to learn about the world than reading the news. Read curated summaries of topics and events from Wikipedia or even a real book if you haven’t completely lost the ability to read those. These will be vastly more useful for acquiring a deep understanding of the underlying forces driving events for two reasons.

Firstly, they’re less noisy. It’s just not true that something important happens every day. Most news headlines will not be considered important in six months’ time. Curated summaries have most of that noise filtered out for you. Secondly, you get to take advantage of other people’s work trying to figure out what’s really going on, rather than looking at a bunch of isolated news stories and trying to figure out patterns from scratch.

If you want to help other people, you’re probably better off taking an in-depth look at one specific problem so that you’ll actually have a chance at solving it, rather than reposting news of the day’s goriest atrocity with headlines like, “Shocking! Eleven Things You Won’t Believe is Happening in ____ RIGHT NOW.” Most problems, particularly the ones you actually have some hope of influencing, don’t require up-to-the-second updating, but instead require the kind of deep understanding that is hard to get from news.

I have my own challenge for you. Close this newspaper (or browser window if you’re reading this online) and go on a week-long news detox. I’m completely serious. Stop reading the news for a week and email me about your experience (my contact details are at the bottom of this article). Did your news detox harm you in any way whatsoever?

If I’m right, you’ll thank me, and if I’m wrong, then this is your chance to prove it at minimal cost. If I get enough negative feedback, I’ll be happy to publish an apology and a retraction in a future article. If you don’t think you can keep yourself from your newsfeed, there are apps like SelfControl and Freedom.to that will lock you out of whatever websites you need to avoid for a specified period of time.

If you’re not going to do that, at the very least try to stop worrying that something you read about in the news is going to kill you. The good news is that something vastly more mundane and unexciting will probably get to you first, so why bother worrying about it?

 

Contact Nick Pether at npether ‘at’ stanford.edu.