Ignore the news

Why I gave up listening to mainstream news so I could concentrate on things that matter

Five months ago I made the decision to stop listening, reading and watching mainstream news and to focus my attention where it’s more valuable and actionable.

I thought I’d write a little about why I’m doing this, what the effect has been and how I think others could do the same.

♪ When I’m drivin’ in my car
And that man comes on the radio
He’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination ♪

Turning off the news for the kids

Taking control of what your kids are exposed to is a thing that any parent has to deal with.
Here’s my little girl…

The first time I noticed that I was making a decision about the news to which I was exposing myself was when I was driving, with my young kids in the back of the car.

Until then I’d not really bothered too much about what they heard, because it’s all in “adult speak,” and so easily ignored, but something changes at the age of five — kids start taking things in.

I was driving along with my five-year-old daughter, when a story came on the radio. It was about a five-year-old girl who had been kidnapped and possibly killed, presumably by a friend of her family. So while we were intending to be listening to music radio, the enjoyable drive was suddenly thrown into a gut-wrenching news-horror story, in the middle of the day.

I hit the off button, and we continued in silence. I looked over at Emily, and we talked about how we didn’t want to expose our kids to that kind of thing just yet, and that because our time together was rare, we didn’t want to have our mood affected by horror-stories.

I got into the habit of flipping the radio to off whenever I spotted a bad story coming up. That habit grew to the point where I was just instinctively turning off the news within a couple of seconds whenever we were in the car as a family.

Turning off the news for yourself

The Thai health campaign’s challenging video about smoking

Adults often have a disconnect between what they expect for children and what they expect for themselves. A great example is the Thai health campaign video against smoking, that used hidden video cameras to watch as a child asks an adult for a cigarette and the doublethink arguments the adult uses to say “no”.

My reaction to the enjoyable drive random horror story attempt to continue enjoyable drive loop was similar. Why would I choose to block these stories from my kids, but not for myself?

What I dislike about Bad News stories

Bad News – there’s a whole industry around it, and there’s plenty to dislike about it. I feel a little cold-hearted saying this, so please bear with me!

  • Bad things happen in the world all the time and I don’t believe it’s humanly possible to care about all the bad things all the time – it would overload you.
  • I can’t do anything about bad things that happen far away.
  • Hearing a bad news story flips you out of a productive, positive mood, and I can’t see the benefit in that.
  • I might just about be able to do something about a bad thing that happens near me, but mostly I can’t.
  • Bad political things happen all the time.
  • We only get our say about which political things happen either once every four years, or if we’re bothered to sign a petition or write to our MP about it (or hire a lobbyist).
  • Thinking about bad things takes up mental energy – the “gosh, that’s so awful” reaction that “gets you thinking, doesn’t it”.
  • News companies make lots of money for telling you about bad things happening in the world.
  • There is very, very rarely a “call to action” at the end of a Bad News piece – there’s no link or explanation of what you’re supposed to do, it’s just on to the next piece of bad news.
  • The constant barrage of crime stories gives the impression there is a lot of crime – actually, crime is falling.
  • Bad news, such as the paedophile-reporting trend, makes parents scared for their kids’ safety when the chances of anything happening to them are about as likely as being struck by lightning.
  • Bad science news is the worst. We now have measles again in the UK as a result.

In contrast, good, interesting things happen all the time, but they’re not as interesting to the news services because they don’t provoke a reaction. However, if I see someone has raised some investment, or made an interesting new thing that makes people’s lives easier, or has released a new finding about the nature of things, or is doing some important work that addresses a social problem, or has an opportunity that is of use to me or someone I know, then that kind of news tends to be of much more use, interest, and in my view, value.

I mainly hear about good, interesting things from blogs, Twitter, and friends.

So why listen to bad news? Whilst I have a lot of empathy towards those involved, I can’t do anything meaningful to help, say a hurricane victim family, and whilst I think it’s horrible that a helicopter crashed somewhere, or a factory collapsed, or a paedophile ring has been uncovered, there is very little that is actionable I can take from the knowledge. I think it’s much better to spend time on things where I can actually do something. Hence, the “News Diet”.

Inspiration for taking a news diet

The moment I decided to go on a “News Diet” or a “Media Diet”, as it’s being called, was when I heard about Aaron Swartz’s suicide. He left behind a blog, with many strong thoughts, and it was his post about why he hated the news that gave me the push to give up the mainstream news. I encourage you to read it in its entirety – open a tab!

One thing that stuck out for me was this paragraph:

There is voting, of course, but to become an informed voter all one needs to do is read a short guide about the candidates and issues before the election. There’s no need to have to suffer through the daily back-and-forth of allegations and counter-allegations, of scurrilous lies and their refutations.
A screengrab from Wrangl – visualising the AV referendum arguments

A couple of years ago I built a tiny hack to deal with this exact problem in mind – it’s called Wrangl, and it’s a tool that visualises two sides of any debate. In some ways it’s a news filter, because it enables you to get an overview across multiple news sources on a single page.

It came out of my frustration about how the battle between the yes and no camps around the Alternative Vote referendum was being fought. Misinformation, downright lies, ad-hominems, bad advertising and daily slanging-match news stories were dominating the debate, so I built a page that helped people make an informed decision (pictured).

There are lots of new ways of filtering and understanding the news emerging so that you don’t have to suffer the constant barrage, and yet still be informed enough to be able to understand.

I suspect more tools will emerge in this area — filtering, floating-to-the-top, recommending, collecting and sorting an increasingly busy and noisy web.

How can I make a difference?

A few years ago I was working on another project, Help Me Investigate, a citizen investigative journalism experiment.

Paul Bradshaw, my then co-founder, who is now a professor at City University, London, told me about his idea of Five W’s and an H.

His idea was that every news story should answer five questions:

  • Who can I connect with?
  • What did the journalist read to write this?
  • Where did it happen?
  • When are related events taking place?
  • Why should I care?
  • How can I make a difference?

I think that this would be a pretty great way of dealing with news stories, but I’ve rarely seen it done. Particularly that last “H”, and that’s the problem – there’s no implication in mainstream news that very much can be done about all these things, but that we should be aware of it anyway.

My news diet rules

I hope I’ve established I’ve thought about this, and I’m not just sticking my head in the sand without some consideration!

Here’s what I decided were my rules for a more focussed news diet:

  • Mute the news when it comes on the radio.
  • Do not watch video news stories on TV or on social media.
  • Do not click on links to mainstream news sites, where possible. Sometimes links are shortened, so this isn’t possible – eg. bit.ly.
  • Assume that if something is important it will reach me via Twitter or by conversation with friends.
  • Spend my “news time” reading things that have higher relevance – where I live, what I do, what I care about.
  • Spend my “news time” horizon scanning for interesting things, trends and finding new voices to listen to.
  • Try to build a balanced Twitter following with a variety of people, some of whom I disagree with, and use the Mute button often.
  • Read “comment” and “global trends” articles occasionally on issues in which I am genuinely interested.
  • Watch satirical shows that poke fun at the news, and get the gist about what’s going on in the process.
  • Follow through on the things I do read. If I read something that has a clear call to action, take the action if I agree with it – giving to charity, signing a petition, whatever it is

Ignorance isn’t bliss

By following this process, I’m not looking for ignorance – I’m looking for a way to remove irrelevance and stress from my daily routine, so I can be more aware of relevant things. At first I was concerned about not “keeping abreast of current affairs”, as is drummed into us as a positive thing at school, and I was concerned that others would think that I was out of touch.

In fact, I’ve not really noticed any difference in the amount that I know about current affairs – I still seem to have an understanding of what’s going on around me. I just don’t click the links, but I can if I need to.

And in terms of what I know about what’s going on in my industry, and in my locale (both at home and at work),I’d argue that I am now actually more informed because I’ve had more time to look at things that matter to me more on a local level.

Instead, take action

So what should you do instead of ignoring things? The opposite of ignoring, in this context, is actually taking action as a result of reading something that you agree with.

So, when I see something pop up on Twitter, and I read an argument, say this one about Brave’s redesign as a Disney princess or why Shoreditch (my local area) needs its own Village Hall, or perhaps why we should assist atheist, cultural Muslims to “come out”, I make sure I follow through if I agree.

That means supporting things on Kickstarter, writing to my member of parliament, signing a petition on Change.org, actually putting $25 into Kiva once in a while,and so on.

Getting happier

I’ve spoken to a fair few people about this idea over the last few months, and in doing so I’ve come across people who’ve made similar choices. Anecdotally, I hear positive things.

When I ask about what effect stripping out mainstream news has had, they tell me they’re more relaxed, more conscious of how they spend their time and feel happier. I wonder if there have been any studies recently about modern news habits? (If you know any, please link them).

Indeed, for me personally, and for my family, I’ve noticed I feel a lot less stressed and distracted. I’m not worried as much. I’m not angry at the government as much. I’m also finding that I start the day with a more positive outlook. I’m not ranting as much about how such-and-such is so bad. I’m not getting into arguments. I’m driving more calmly. A bunch of stuff. I might be over-attributing it, but I’ve certainly noticed I am a lot calmer about the way that I receive information.

So, will you try a news diet?

I can’t resist this. As I’ve said, when I do click on a link, I put myself in the right frame of mind to follow through with what the “call to action” is on the subsequent page – supporting a kickstarter if I like the idea, for instance. It’s the “now what do I do?” that’s missing from news stories.

If you think that I’m right about what I’ve said, why don’t you try it too?

Start a news diet, add a comment, and share what you learn!


With thanks to the people who voted for this idea on Help Me Write.

With help from the Sunday Post team (we all blog something on a Sunday) and the kind folks who contributed via Medium.

What should I write next?