Illustration: Leon Postma & Harald Dunnink (Momkai)

What fast food is to the body, news is to the mind. Time to break that habit

Imagine you’re locked in a room all alone. There are no books to read, no windows to look out of, no visitors to talk with. The only thing that keeps you in touch with the outside world is: the news. In the back of the room, there’s a TV with a single channel: a twenty-four-seven news station. The computer next to it only lets you browse news sites. And every day a newspaper is delivered through the mail slot in the hermetically sealed door. Then, after exactly 10 years, the door opens and you can leave the room.

Would you?

Probably not. Because the news has completely ruined your worldview. It’s destroyed your faith in humanity by flooding you with tales of murder, rape, and fraud. It’s sold you on the vilest of prejudices by inundating you with criminal immigrants, terrorist Muslims, and unemployed people of color. It’s made you fear the most negligible dangers by scaring you to death with airplane crashes, bombings, and drug-related accidents. It’s robbed you of all hope for a better world by overloading you with lying politicians, corrupt leaders, and greedy CEOs.

In short, it’s made you cynical, mistrustful, stressed, worried, prejudiced and, most of all, misinformed.


News is fast food for the mind

News is to the mind what fast food is to the body. It briefly satisfies your appetite for spectacle and diversion, but ultimately leaves you unsatisfied and uninformed. Because the news is mostly empty calories too.

It promises to tell you “what’s going on in the world,” but actually does the opposite: it constantly shows you sensational exceptions, but leaves you in the dark about the rule. It scares you with overexposed risks, but blinds you to systematic progress. It transfixes you with depressing problems, but almost never offers you any solutions.

The news makes us passive spectators to a world full of insane events we seem to have no control over. Though it promises to bring the world closer, it actually distances us from it. It sows cynicism, division, and suspicion, and reaps polarization, conflict, and despair. It makes us afraid of each other, of the world, and of the future.

In short, news is bad for our health — as individuals and as a society.

We’re collectively addicted to news

And that hypothetical room this essay began with? It isn’t entirely fictional. Because our society is a news bubble and we’re all trapped inside: the news has become effectively unavoidable.

Through TV, radio, and newspapers; on screens in subways, busses, and trains; through push notifications on laptops, tablets, and phones; on feeds at Facebook and Twitter: everywhere, the latest breaking news is screaming for our attention. And successfully so. The average adult spends almost an hour each day consuming news. That’s nearly three full years out of a human lifetime.

The news dominates our lives from the moment we wake up in the morning until the moment we go to sleep at night. It drives our conversations at the water cooler and at the bar, it influences our worldview and our voting behavior, it shapes our sense of foreign cultures and faraway lands, it plays on our worries and with our moods.

And not in a good way. Think of all the news items you’ve ingested in the past year — out of boredom, habit, or just a sense of civic duty. And then ask yourself: which ones actually made me wiser? Actually taught me something new? Can you think of even one?

News: the perfect tool for populists

Meanwhile, the news is constantly reinforcing all kinds of myths. Not because the news is “fake” or because the media are waging “a conspiracy” to mislead us. No, the news misleads us because it pays more attention to the sensational, exceptional, negative, recent, and incidental, thereby losing sight of the ordinary, usual, positive, historical, and systematic.

That’s why we’re quick to think that most terrorists are Muslims, even though that isn’t true. That the world is only getting worse, even though that isn’t true. That terrorist attacks pose a greater threat to our well-being than sugar, even though that isn’t true. That the financial crisis started in 2008, even though that isn’t true.

These myths have visible effects on our society. They’re why polarization is growing around the world. Meanwhile, belief in progress is declining worldwide. Increasingly, autocratic leaders — from Donald Trump in the US to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil — are rising to fill the vacuum. News is the common thread that binds them. Because the news polarizes us, makes us cynical about the possibility of change, and is inherently obsessed with extremes.

As a result, news is the unintended yet perfect propaganda machine for populist leaders with autocratic tendencies who try to gain power by sketching the most alarming possible picture of the world, placing the blame for it at the feet of The Other, and presenting themselves as the solution.

Because: the news is one long advertisement for the claim that everything used to be better, that people can’t be trusted, that the familiar is better than the foreign, and that civilization is just a thin veneer that can only be maintained through laws and order.

Let’s join forces to build a movement for unbreaking news

Fortunately, there’s another way. Together, we can change the news: what it reports on, how it’s made, and how we pay for it. Together, we can unbreak the news.

I know we can from experience. Five years ago I founded De Correspondent, a Dutch journalism platform that promised to be an antidote to the daily news grind for our members. The response was so overwhelming that in 2013 we set a world record in journalism crowdfunding by raising $1.7 million from almost 19,000 founding members in 30 days. Today, De Correspondent has more than 60,000 paying members and 51 full-time employees on staff.

Now we want to join forces with you to start an international movement for unbreaking news by launching The Correspondent in English. This movement for radically different news is based on 10 founding principles. You can join our cause by becoming a founding member for the amount of your choosing. If we can manage to raise at least $2.5 million by December 14, our platform will launch in the spring of 2019.

By becoming a member, you do more than just support a movement for independent, ad-free journalism. You also get a year of in-depth stories by expert correspondents delivered right to your inbox — stories that help you understand how the world works, and what we can do to solve the problems our societies face all over the world.

You also become an integral part of how our correspondents do their work. At The Correspondent we’re convinced that our readers are the biggest source of untapped knowledge that we—journalists—have at our disposal. That’s why our platform is designed to include our members in every facet of our journalistic research.

Because we believe that a hundred readers will always know more than a single journalist. Who knows more about the challenges in the healthcare system than doctors, hospital employees, and patients? Who understands the future of our educational system better than teachers, students, and parents of school-aged children? And who better to help us navigate the debt industry than debt counselors, debt collectors, and people in debt themselves?

The result of this systematic exchange of knowledge is deeper insight into the fundamental forces that determine how our society works — and how we can change the world for the better. Because at The Correspondent we pride ourselves on engaging in constructive journalism: we don’t just explore our biggest problems, but also what we can do about them. Our reports won’t leave you cynical or powerless, but engaged and hopeful.

What’s more, you can share our journalism with whomever you like, because we want it to spread as far as it can. That’s why, as a paying member, you can forward our articles without limit to your friends, family, colleagues, and social media followers. That’s how we ensure that journalism remains the public good it ought to be: not by making it free, but by making it affordable for everyone.

So how about we start building a movement for radically different news together? A movement that’s already supported by many familiar founding members: from America’s most famous statistician Nate Silver, to Grammy Award-winning musician Rosanne Cash, to Hollywood director Judd Apatow, to Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.

In Nate Silvers’ words: “The Correspondent has the values I seek out in a modern news organization: transparency, humility, respect for its readers, a focus on the bigger picture rather than the short-term narrative, and real subject-matter knowledge developed through rigorous reporting and analysis. If you’re someone who supports high-quality journalism, I would strongly encourage you to become a member.”

Are you ready to launch this movement for unbreaking news with us?

Come to thecorrespondent.com and become a founding member today!

Rob Wijnberg (1982) is the founding editor of The Correspondent, a new journalism platform for Unbreaking News.

Let’s build a movement for radically different news, together!
Become a founding member at thecorrespondent.com today