We spend hours consuming news because we want to be informed. The problem is news doesn’t make us informed. In fact, the more news we consume the more misinformed we become.
News is, by definition, something that doesn’t last. It exists for only a moment before it changes. As news has become easier to distribute and cheaper to produce, the quality has decreased and the quantity has increased, making it nearly impossible to find the signal in the noise
Rarely do we stop to ask ourselves questions about the media we consume: Is this good for me? Is this dense with detailed information? Is this important? Is this going to stand the test of time? Is the person writing someone who is well informed on the issue? Asking those questions makes it clear the news isn’t good for you.
“[W]e’re surrounded by so much information that is of immediate interest to us that we feel overwhelmed by the never-ending pressure of trying to keep up with it all.”
— Nicolas Carr
Here are only a few of the problems with the news:
First, the speed of news delivery has increased. We used to have to wait to get a newspaper or gossip with people in our town to get our news, but not anymore. Thanks to alerts, texts, and other interruptions, news finds us almost the minute it’s published.
Second, the cost to produce news has dropped significantly. Some people write 12 blog posts a day for major newspapers. It’s nearly impossible to write something thoughtful on one topic, let alone 12. Over a year, this works out to writing 2880 articles (assuming four weeks of vacation). The fluency of the person you’re getting your news from in the subject they’re covering is near zero. As a result, you’re filling your head with surface opinions on isolated topics. Because the costs to produce the news have dropped to almost nothing, there is a lot of competition. (Consider the contrast with FS. We write 40 articles a year with 3 writers. It takes a lot of effort to produce timeless content.)
Third, like other purveyors of drugs, producers of news want you to consume more of it. News producers perpetuate a culture of “tune in, don’t miss out, someone knows something you don’t, follow this or you’ll be misinformed, oh wait, look at this!” The time used to consume news comes out of time that could be used for timeless content.
Fourth, the incentives are misaligned. When the news is free, you still need to pay people. If people aren’t paying, advertisers are. And if advertisers are in charge, the incentives change. Page views become the name of the game. More page views mean more revenue. When it comes to page views, the more controversy, the more share-ability, the more enraged you become, the better. For a lot of people who create news (I won’t use the term “journalists” here because I hold them in high regard), the more page views they get, the more they are compensated. A lot of these ads aren’t just static impressions; they’re also transmitting information about you to the advertisers.
“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
Most of what you read online today is pointless. It’s not important to living a good life. It’s not going to help you make better decisions. It’s not going to help you understand the world. It’s not dense with information. It’s not going to help you develop deep and meaningful connections with the people around you.
Like a drug, the news is addictive. Not only does it alter your mood, but it keeps you wanting more. Once you start consuming news, it’s hard to stop. The hotels, transportation, and ticketing systems in Disney World are all designed to keep you within the theme park rather than sightseeing elsewhere in Orlando. Similarly, once you’re on Facebook, it does everything possible, short of taking over your computer to prevent you from leaving. But while platforms like Facebook play a role in our excessive media consumption, we are not innocent. Far from it. We want to be well informed. (More accurately, we want to appear to be well informed.) And this is the very weakness that gets manipulated.
“To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.”
— Nassim Taleb
Someone we know reads The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, her local newspaper, and several other publications. She’s addicted. She wants to know everything that’s going on. Like the rest of us, she just wants to have a well-informed opinion. If reading the news makes you well-informed, then not keeping up makes you ignorant.
When you stop reading the news the first thing you notice about people who read the news is how misinformed they are. Often, they cherry-pick one piece of information and give is enormous weight in their opinions. Like the dog that didn’t bark you realize that they have a tiny lens into a big and messy issue.
Another thing you notice is that you weren’t as well informed as you thought. The news didn’t make your opinions more rational, it just made you more confident you were right. Rarely do we read things we disagree with. It’s much easier to just put our walls up and tune out. Filtering our own news like this self-reinforces what we already believe.
At some point in the future, news will likely be tailored for you. Just as your search results are different than mine, your headline for the same article and mine will be different. The word “same” is an important one. It won’t be the same article at all. The author might have written several versions, one tailored to people who are lean left and one for people who lean right. Even the url will be different with each version having a unique url so the publisher can track time on page, headlines that drive clicks, and share-ability.
Another thing you notice is how people who are in the news a lot worry about what the news says about them. Not only does this increase their anxiety but it changes how they think and act. Instead of getting feedback from reality, they crave validation in the printed opinion of others.
Not reading news shows you how often what you thought was your thinking belonged to someone else. Thinking is hard. It’s much easier to let someone else think for you. Without news in my life, I find that I say “I don’t know” more often.
When all you consume is noise, you don’t realize there is a signal. Your attention is valuable. In fact, your attention is so valuable, it might be the most important thing you have. If you know it’s valuable, why would you consume it on something that is irrelevant tomorrow?
Stepping back from news is hard. We’re afraid of silence, afraid to be alone with our thoughts. That’s why we pull out our phones when we’re waiting in line at a coffee shop or the grocery store. We’re afraid to ask ourselves deep and meaningful questions. We’re afraid to be bored. We’re so afraid, that to avoid it, we’ll literally drive ourselves crazy, consuming pointless information.
Can you do something different? I think so. Part of the answer is to spend less time consuming and more time thinking. The other part is to change your information sources from the news. Seek out dense sources of information. Some indicators you’ve found them are timeless content and direct first-hand experience. This means fewer articles and more books.
If you must read the news, read it for the facts and the data, not the opinions.
Let’s close with this quote by Winifred Gallagher: “Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time.”