Photographs of children have become battlegrounds.
Children interned by border guards, sick children without hospital beds. It’s the stuff of shrill, hysterical “flame wars” between entrenched tribes battling to control the meaning of those images. If those endless threads on social media or article comments sections had voices, they would be hoarse with indignation.
In the Oscar-winning 1976 film Network, a renegade news anchor urges people to furiously yell out of their windows. Thousands do so all over America.
This satirical poke has become real life, except that we yell on social media rather than out of our own windows. News outlets solicit fury. The newsroom rule used to be “if it bleeds it leads”, now it’s “enrage to engage.” It’ll only stop when we stop. I decided to stop.
Going on a media diet isn’t a new thing. I came across the idea a few years back and decided to go cold turkey on the news. I’d never have guessed how much better I would feel and function without habitually reading the news. I feel more serene, smarter, sharper, less angry and helpless.
I’m also far more productive and enlightened. The amount I’ve learned through deliberately reading books instead of habitually reading newspapers and watching TV over the last couple of years has astonished me. I’m still astonished.
Many people would think that avoiding the news would make me less informed and a bad person. If I don’t know about problems in the world, how could I help fix them?
The problem with this view is that the daily news cycle is a terrible source of information. The economics of news will tell you the story you really need to know.
The Attention Economy
The media is an industry. In the same way factories suck in raw materials and pump out commodities, news rooms suck in information and pump out stories. They do so on an industrial scale.
Globalisation and the internet have made the industry hypercompetitive as media companies strive to break even. There are only so many people who can consume media, yet all these media outlets from all over the world are competing for our time.
We now live in what’s called the “attention economy”. Human attention is considered by the media to be a scarce resource, a commodity. Your attention is “market share”. The media is fighting for your attention and it will fight dirty if it has to.
The news aims to scare, shock, taunt and haunt you. Headlines are carefully written to hook you in. News on the TV, in newspapers and on the internet strives to hold on to your attention. How do they do it? For the most part, it’s about making you anxious or turning real life events into an endless cliffhanger.
Remember when “breaking news” really was breaking news and not just puff? Now breaking news is ceaseless cliffhanger: cameras trained on closed doors waiting for some politician or celebrity to emerge, while a ticker relays stock prices, celebrity breakups and atrocities in war zones.
The catastrophisation of the daily news cycle makes you feel helpless, because media companies want to engender a feeling of dependency towards them. It’s a dependency arms race between media companies. Scaring people about the future is the best way to secure attention. Fear, uncertainty and doubt is the winning formula for newsrooms.
There are many wonderful things happening in the world. The progress of humankind in even the last few decades is astonishing. Wonderful things are being created. Amazing minds are putting themselves to the service of solving global problems.
Life has got better for billions. Never before have so many people lived under democratic governments. Proportionately fewer people are dying from malnutrition, war or disease than ever before.
But optimism and progress doesn’t engender anxiety or solicit dependency. News outlets competing on social media fuel political tribalism by provoking our basest instincts.
We also have enormous problems to tackle. Climate change and weapons of mass destruction pose an existential threat to mankind. There are countless threats to our health, prosperity and freedom.
Are we more able to tackle those problems by reading the news? If anything the news either distracts us from our problems, or scares us into despondency.
Wouldn’t you be misinformed?
Habitually reading or watching the daily news will more likely make you misinformed. Very little news is actually written by experts in the subject being covered. How many economics journalists have a PhD in economics?
A lot of journalism is actually rehashed press releases or “wire copy” from agencies with overworked staff writers. This content is free or cheap because it’s being peddled to those media companies.
Most “analysis” of the news by commentators, such as Op-Ed columnists or experts, have an agenda. They also need to be signed off as compliant with the editorial agenda of the news outlet.
The news is by and large owned by the richest people in the world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not representative on the whole.
As media companies cut the costs of production, fact checking and sub-editing is squeezed. Sloppy editing leads to misinformation.
How do you stay informed then?
I talk to trusted family and friends of multiple political and social persuasions. I take recommendations of high quality articles and books.
Socially and economically I’m left-leaning, but always happy to speak to right-leaning people to understand why they believe what they do. I describe this as being informed by “information osmosis”, rather than being misinformed by mainlining media.
Of course, quality news exists in the longer weekly and monthly cycle. Magazines like The Economist and The Atlantic are not perfect, but much better than the daily news cycle of newspapers and television. Quality news magazines are typically expensive, but like anything else you get what you pay for.
If news is “free”, you have to ask yourself why. Advertising revenue warps the news. There have been a number of scandals where big advertisers have been promised only favourable coverage.
Big advertisers are big companies, like banks, pharmaceuticals and oil firms. They want to control what you know about the 2008 crash, the cost of medicine or global warming. Free news is the worst kind of news. Nothing is free. The price you are paying is your ever diminishing feeling of control.
While we’re on advertising, the media is full of it. From an economic perspective, the news is just the filler between adverts. What do advertisements do? They make you feel inadequate or incomplete unless you buy the product they are selling to you. We’re bombarded by hundreds of adverts every day, they etch away at our self-esteem.
Good books are my news. They are written in the service of you. Time is condensed in their pages. All that information gathering and wisdom that the author has acquired will be added to our own time.
Seneca wrote that people who read good books are the most truly alive, “for they not only keep a good watch over their own lifetimes, but they annex every age to theirs. All the years that passed before them is added to their own.”
Is it socially irresponsible to ignore the news?
No. If you are anxious and irrational, you can’t help other people. During the safety briefing before take-off, you’re told by the airline stewards to belt yourself up before you help other people, including your children. If you don’t help yourself, you can’t really help others.
Ignoring a hysterical, disingenuous news cycle will not make you a bad person. It will make you more rational and discerning. More rational and discerning people make for a better society, a better society makes for a better world.
Through “information osmosis”, I know what’s going on. Important things happening in the world inevitably comes up in conversation, texts and emails.
If something new comes up, I ask friends about it. What do they think or feel about it? Do they have quality information recommendations? I take all that in, and only then do make up my own mind as to what I do about it.
If you want to feel clearer headed and make the time to enlighten yourself, ditch the news.
Thank you for reading.