One of the primary reasons for setting up this website was to spread out some information and get people to assess facts and form educated opinions about pressing issues of the day – or, at the very least, give them tips about how to acquire important information themselves. Today, I bring you perhaps the best tip on how to stay informed – don’t watch the news.
This advice stems primarily from the fact that most of what’s being passed off as the news these days simply isn’t the news. A news report should be something relevant, something consequential. A good rule of thumb, when assessing the worthiness of information presented to you, should be to ask yourself: “Will this be important in a month?” You’ll find that the vast majority of the time, the answer will be a resonating NO.
The reports that are being pushed out are usually only important right now – right this second. They have very little impact on your life and hold just about enough pointless information to sustain a short, unsatisfying conversation with your colleague during the morning elevator ride to the office, before being pushed aside in your mind and promptly forgotten. All they provide you with is noise.
Avoiding the Noise
“What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”– Herbert Simon
It is a point of contention for me to hear someone call themselves informed because they watch the evening news, especially if they try to convince me that I “must see” what is usually the journalistic equivalent of violent diarrhoea. I contest this idea of well-informed news watchers, not least because the evidence shows that watching CNN, FOX, or MSNBC doesn’t improve people’s knowledge. Watching ideologically-pitched media outlets actually makes people LESS informed about important issues than not consuming any media at all. People who dutifully watch the news every night tend to be wrong just as often, or even more so, than people who never watch them at all, despite being twice as annoying.
Perhaps that could be because the never-watchers avoid editorial narratives and half-truths, that stem from the politicized 24-hour news cycle of today. It could also be because learning about a celebrity electing to get a boob job or a political boob getting elected doesn’t really help you understand the economic implications of the latest payroll tax cut or the intricacies of Sino-American relations. In any case, watching TV news and calling yourself ‘informed’ is a bit like watching a YouTube video of a drunk Russian fighting a rabid racoon and calling yourself a professional boxing commentator.
Don’t think the newspapers are better. Over time, the amount of competition, low production costs, and the pressing need for immediate information, moved the goalposts of journalists from quality to quantity. What you end up with is a stream of surface opinions from someone whose main qualifications are loose morals and the ability to spit out ten articles a day. Quite often we trust the big established names in the media as if they still employed the same writers, editors, and standards as they did when they gained credibility. However, none of that is true.
A Risky Brisket
Not only is consuming the daily news a waste of time when it comes to information gathering, it is also damaging to your health. An APA study has found that news consumption increases stress, anxiety, and fatigue – not surprising considering that most evening news consist of a series of thirty second reports on violence and tragedy, usually concluding with a video of some fluffy kittens. It is kind of similar to smoking crack from a rusty spoon and then drinking a glass of warm milk to take the edge off.
It doesn’t matter whether we are being scared on purpose, on accident, or purely for profit. News are at this point merely a form of entertainment. In their never-ending quest for viewership, they exploit the dread risk – the substantial fear of highly consequential but improbable events. Terrorism, homicides, and other unlikely sources of death are always the focal point of a shifty journalist. It gets attention but is it worth it?
By over-reporting these events, it makes us feel as if they were much more probable than they really are. People are always drawn to these reports in their natural instinct to avoid a great risk to their safety. By exploiting this dread risk, the news gain audience and at the same time keep us in a permanent state of anxiety. Statistically, people have a better chance of dying from spoiled meat than from being killed in a terrorist attack or shot by a malicious cop. But you just can’t fill the news cycle with a deadly brisket.
So What Should I Do?
The speed of delivery and pressure to consume the news has increased drastically over the past few decades. We are being bombarded by notifications and alerts of news events developing all the time. We are constantly told to “tune in” or “don’t miss out”. We are hooked on a series of clickbaits and manhandled by societal pressure to stay informed. It’s like shopping at Ikea – you go in for one small thing, but four hours later you are still stuck in a labyrinth between an old lady and a smelly fat man, with no hope of ever getting out. It’s very difficult to break free from the news cycle but if you just try to avoid it for a while, you will find that you are not missing a thing.
Maybe a good start could be asking yourself the honest question of how many important, crucial, really significant things have happened during the last week. Even during a particularly eventful week, it’s still probably not one a day. Perhaps it’s one a week. All the rest is just noise that brings you no benefit and takes up your time and attention. While you’re “not missing out” on a whole bunch of nonsense, you are missing out on the immediate life around you.
So my advice is to take a step back and reduce the consumption of things that give you no knowledge and no happiness. You can be more informed if you just look for things that interest you, talk to your peers, or perhaps give reading a shot – a book, a scientific journal, an interesting blog post written by an annoyingly sarcastic and yet charmingly lovable grumbler. The choice is yours, so try to make your time count.