Why I don’t follow the news and why you shouldn’t either— part 1/3
To me, following the news feels like opening the Pandora Box — all the evils of the world carefully collected and arranged to convince us that everything is terrible. Every page screams THE END IS NEAR! like a curbside prophet of doom.
Since it’s probably not good to give credit to prophets of doom, be it curbside or otherwise, I decided to stop reading the news altogether.
Now, whenever I say this, there’s a collective gasp in the room (especially if the room contains my parents):
How can you not read the news? You have to keep informed! You’re being insensitive!
It’s an understandable reaction and one I have been struggling with for a couple of months, but have since solidified in my reasoning: the news is generally sensationalist, bombastic, drastic, foreboding, screaming, mocking, and created for the purposes of making money. No such thing as impartial news reporting exists, even though there are sources less partial than others. These less partial sources are drowned in the general muck of modern news reporting which does more to tell you how a particular news source wants you to think the world is rather than telling you how the world really is.
And so, just as I don’t want to trouble my stomach with junk food all day long, I don’t want to trouble my mind with junk news all day long. This has sometimes earned me incredulous looks.
Why would you not read the news?
Welcome to your brain on news
In a rudimentary and abstract way, imagine splitting your brain into two parts — the frontal cortex and everything else. The frontal cortex is the youngest part of the brain. It is the center of consciousness, while everything else in our brain is devoid of it — which is a good thing indeed. Otherwise, you’d have to decide to breathe, or to keep your heart beating, or to make sure your thyroid gland is releasing the right amount of C15H12I3NO4 hormone. Sounds difficult? It is, and the unconscious does a fantastic job of handling all that lovely mess.
Another thing that the unconscious parts of our brains excel at is keeping us safe. They actively filter the information we have about the world to detect and isolate anything that might harm us. That’s why an average human will jump in fear at the sight of a snake, even if the snake is dead. Before the frontal cortex (thinking part) can kick in and notice that the snake is dead, the sympathetic nervous system has already caused the heart to pump blood into extremities, blood flow to the digestive system to diminish, and the adrenaline to flood the body. Even the brain, the most important organ, gets less blood than normal.
In other words, we become dumber for the sake of running away faster.
Our unconscious is so effective and so sensitive that even seeing the garden hose in the corner of the eye can kick of the same cascade of reactions reserved for a snake. This is the rule unconsciousness operates by — if it looks like it, it is it. Which is why even seeing words like “death” or “corruption” in a newspaper can put us on the defensive.
Whose death, what corruption, am I in danger?
How much news is too much news
News sources are nowadays a breeding ground for all the things we don’t want to happen, in general and to us in particular. Just look at the front page of your favorite news source and pick the headlines you’d like to experience yourself. I’m willing to bet there aren’t many. In fact, I’m looking at Fox News right now. Here are some of the headlines and phrasing:
Free speech under fire…
Newlywed couple kidnapped, woman raped
9 dead, 1 missing in Arizona
Jail for teacher…
And here’s CNN:
Life inside ISIS bride camp…
10 days of horror: Killings stun a small town
Approval ratings drop…
Oscar — winning actor dies…
Accused of sex assault…
This, in particular, drives me crazy: what happened to all the good that happens every day?
I’m not talking about reading only about the good things, but if reality were predominantly negative as the news portrays it to be — each one of us would have to be doomed, under fire, kidnapped, raped, dead, missing, jailed, live inside an ISIS bride camp, experience horror, be stunned by killings, survive a drop in approval ratings, die after winning an Oscar and become accused of a sex assault before ever getting a chance to say good morning or do something kind.
Do we actually do (or experience) so many bad things for every good one?
We’ve just learned that the human brain tends to focus on the negative stuff and then applied that knowledge to business, all under the pretense that it’s good to keep informed. And it is — up to a certain point. We humans have limits. We cannot live well on a bland diet, it has to be varied. Life has to be a succession of peaks and valleys for us to both grow and rest in between the growing. With news, we only ever get the valleys.
To illustrate this, picture yourself as a fully charged battery. This is your energy reserve necessary for dealing with everyday stuff. Each day you deplete this battery somewhat and recharge it overnight. When drastic and dangerous things happen, you draw on this energy reserve to get you through the bad times. The more you rely on it, the more the battery gets depleted and the longer it’ll need to recharge. This generally works well because the drastic and dangerous things end up being separate enough throughout life so that we can handle most of what comes our way.
The news changes that dynamic. Every time we begin reading we are assaulted with headlines worded specifically in a way that puts the mind on alert. In other words, each headline forces us to tap into that battery. Over a long enough period, we begin to see these lower levels as the norm. As the constant barrage of headlines continues, we slowly deplete and eventually become desensitized — we’ve seen it all too many times before, at least on paper.
Never before have we had so much exposure to the things going on around us. Two hundred years ago, if we knew about something, we knew about it because it was happening to us. We knew about it because there were things we had to actively do to manage the situation, be it a house fire, a broken window or death. Nowadays, we know a lot more, but lack the meaningful action necessary to handle all of it. We’re reduced to passive observation and listening. Think about it — what can you do about a child bitten by a snake half the world away? Sure, you can send some money or a get-well note, but you’ll never manage to do that for every bad thing that happens everywhere in the world.
Two hundred years ago we were deeply involved and informed about only a few things, and it wasn’t as overwhelming. It didn’t feel as if the entire globe was constantly falling apart — that every day there’s the biggest forest fire ever, the nastiest political scandal, the lowest economy point, and the worst Kim Kardashian outfit.
All of this depletes our ability to act, our ability to hold apathy at bay and to be compassionate. Because of unending negativity, we experience something called compassion fatigue — a kind of low hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and even a pervasive negative attitude. In other words, seeing a negative headline doesn’t prompt us to action anymore but instead makes us respond with a learned apathy. We’ll look at it, comment just how terrible it is and then do absolutely nothing about it, besides reading the next headline.
All of this is good from the business perspective because the point isn’t even to keep us informed — it’s to keep our eyeballs glued to the page, regardless of content. No more and no less.
Don’t take it personally, it’s just business.
But there’s more to it than that. The news is made by people, and as such is necessarily influenced by those same people. In Part Two, I show how we ourselves might be at fault for what the news focuses on — maybe even more so than the businesses behind them.
Note to you, the reader:
If you’ve come this far reading — thank you, it means a lot. I write nearly every day and whenever someone takes the effort to read feels like being on crack cocaine, just without the ugly side-effects. Not that I know what being on crack cocaine feels like.
You get the point.
Also, if you’ve found something useful here, consider helping me by sharing and recommending.
Big thanks to Naomi Ochwat and Ivana Mikulic for feedback.