How I Finally Escaped the Depressing News Cycle

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas from Pexels

Only two years ago, I was still convinced that to read the news about current events in one’s own country and abroad was an essential pre-requisite for making informed decisions in life. However, when I was confronted with the media’s coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, my position began to shift. Media outlets seemed to be more interested in instilling a mortal fear in their readers than to educate them about how to deal with the virus in a responsible way, dividing the population into two diametrically opposed factions with very little room in-between for a level-headed discussion.

When 2022 began, I still naively thought that with people becoming increasingly weary of stories about the virus, the media would soon stop trying to capitalise on the fears of its readers and go back to something resembling constructive journalism. I know understand that the ship has sailed. Confronted with the media’s coverage of the Russo-Ukrainian War, I had to come to terms with the fact that our press has no intention of depicting possible scenarios for de-escalation, instead treating this tragedy as a kind of football match, analysing the opponents’ technique and formulating possible strategies to clutch the victory after all. Although a painful realization, it helped me finally achieve something that I had been trying for a long time: To stay clear of the news altogether.

It seems that I’m not the only one who can’t take the constant barrage of horrible news anymore. After all, the term “doomscrolling” has surfaced in recent years. But few have found a way out yet. That’s why I want to share three fundamental insights that, in my opinion, have to be understood first before any real change can happen.

1) News are noise

In his magnum opus “Antifragile”, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains why people often mistake information for knowledge:

Noise is what you are supposed to ignore; signal what you need to heed.
[…]
In science, noise is a generalization beyond the actual sound to describe random information that is totally useless for any purpose, and that you need to clean up to make sense of what you are listening to. Consider, for example, elements in an encrypted message that have absolutely no meaning, just randomized letters to confuse the spies, or the hiss you hear on a telephone line and that you try to ignore in order to just focus on the voice of your interlocutor.
[…]
The more frequently you look at data, the more noise you are disproportionally likely to get (rather than the valuable part called the signal); hence the higher noise-to-signal ratio.

And he continues:

There is a biological story with information. I have been repeating that in a natural environment, a stressor is information. So too much information would be too much stress, exceeding the threshold of antifragility. In medicine, we are discovering the healing powers of fasting, as the avoidance of too much hormonal rushes that come with the ingestion of food. Hormones convey information to the different parts of our system and too much of it confuses our biology. Here again, as with the story of the news received at too high a frequency, too much information becomes harmful.
[…]
Now let’s add the psychological to this: we are not made to understand the point, so we overreact emotionally to noise. The best solution is to only look at very large changes in data or conditions, never small ones.

Just as we are not likely to mistake a bear for a stone (but likely to mistake a stone for a bear), it is almost impossible for someone rational with a clear, uninfected mind, one who is not drowning in data, to mistake a vital signal, one that matters for his survival, for noise. Significant signals have a way to reach you.
[…]
To conclude, the best way to mitigate interventionism is to ration the supply of information, as naturalistically as possible. This is hard to accept in the age of the internet. It has been very hard for me to explain that the more data you get, the less you know what’s going on, and the more iatrogenics you will cause.

During a time when newspapers were still the primary source of information for most of the population, German comedian Karl Valentin famously said: “It’s astounding that every day, exactly as many things happen as to fit inside a single newspaper”. This quote is even more meaningful today, when news coverage has extended to every waking and sleeping hour. In the race for clicks, shares and likes, journalists don’t spend time on polishing their articles anymore, instead pumping out as many of them as they can, no matter if they actually have any informational value or not. This was very evident during the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, when most of the world pretty much stopped in its tracks: Instead of covering interesting topics that normally don’t get into the spotlight or reporting on something constructive for a change, news outlets instead released an endless stream of stories about the virus that neither helped readers stay safe from it nor helped them understand anything about why the crisis was hitting the developed world as hard as it was.

Apart from the never-ending influx of non-news we have to deal with today, another problem with mainstream journalism is becoming more and more apparent: Its purpose to educate has been completely undermined by political biases. In the past, readers only had to deal with left-wing vs right-wing and progressive vs conservative biases, whereas today, there seems to be a Western (that is to say capitalist) bias as well. A good example of this is how the 2021 protests in Cuba were portrayed in Western media. Instead of looking at how economic sanctions had crippled the Cuban government’s capabilities to effectively deal with the pandemic, Western news outlets preferred to double down on the narrative of people rising up against an oppressive regime, hammering home the notion that any non-capitalist country was doomed to fail eventually. Depicting any alternative to our current economic system in a positive light seems to be one of the biggest taboos in the Western press today.

2) Understanding is more important than knowing

If mindlessly consuming the “news” that is fed to us on a daily basis does not actually educate us about current affairs, should we just go on a full media blackout then? I don’t think so. Instead, we should choose more carefully when and how we inform ourselves, and take some time for actual research. We are often better off looking at the historic circumstances that led to a certain development in world politics instead of just reading about what is happening right now. How is it possible that a new strain of the well-known coronavirus could bring the developed world to its knees, even though nations had previously been trained in handling pandemics, even a mere two months before the first major outbreak of Covid-19? Which developments in world politics led directly to the attack on Ukraine, and why exactly did no one try to mediate between factions beforehand to avoid the worst? These questions can only be answered by thorough research, taking multiple reliable sources into account and arriving at a substantiated conclusion. It is at this point that you don’t need to keep up with daily news anymore, because you already understand the situation. You probably also already know of possible solutions, which are deliberately not taken by the actors involved. This surpasses anything you would get from mainstream news outlets in informational value.

3) You are (not) powerless

One reason for wanting to always stay on top of the news is the desire to feel in control. After all, if we gobble up every piece of information we can find on a certain topic, we regain some level of control over our lives by making the right decisions, correct? No, this is delusional. Except if you’re billionaire or a very well-connected politician, nothing you do has any influence on the things reported in the news. Social media, with its penchant for public outcry, gives us a false sense of agency, which makes us vastly overestimate the effect our actions have on the world. You will not be able to stay clear of the news if you don’t accept your own powerlessness. If you need help with that, I recommend the book “The Way of Powerlessness” by Wayne Liquorman.

As soon as you let go of the belief that your actions can change the world, you will be able to develop a more realistic, and at the same time more powerful, feeling of self-efficacy. You will learn to recognise areas in which you can actually make a difference, even though it will be on a much smaller scale. Despite that, it will be a much more rewarding experience then your previous endeavours. And trust me, if all of us focused our energies on the things we can actually have a positive influence on, many of our societal problems would solve themselves faster than you can imagine. So start there.

 by the author.

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Creative Commons articles covering democratic alternatives to our current economic system | twitter.com/coopossum | mastodon.social/@Coopossum

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Coopossum

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Creative Commons articles covering democratic alternatives to our current economic system | twitter.com/coopossum | mastodon.social/@Coopossum

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