Our obsession with being informed makes it hard to think long-term. We spend hours consuming news because we want to be informed. The problem is, the news doesn’t make us informed – quite the opposite. 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.
The information you consume today becomes the raw material of your thoughts tomorrow.
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, the news finds us almost the minute it’s published.
Second, the cost of producing 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 from the 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. Regarding page views, the more controversy, the more enraged you become, the better. For many 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. (And many of these ads aren’t just static impressions; they also transmit information about you to the advertisers.)
Fifth, most journalists are not interested in the search for truth. They’re interested in telling a particular version of a story. Often that version has been decided long before they go looking for information.
Most of what you read online today is pointless. It simply makes no difference in living a meaningful life. It is simply filler that won’t help you make better decisions, understand the world, or improve your connections with others.
Like a drug, the news is addictive. Once you get hooked, it’s hard to stop. 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.
News is a perspective, not truth. When you realize that news is like a cropped photo and not the full photo, it changes how you see things.
News doesn’t make you more informed; it just makes you more confident the information you have is all there is.
News reinforces what we already believe. Rarely do we read things we disagree with, walking away saying, “well that was a good point, I was wrong.”
News substitutes the thinking of others for thinking. Not reading the news shows you how often what you thought was your own thinking belonged to someone else. You simply regurgitate someone else’s thoughts. Real thinking is hard. It’s much easier to let someone else do it for you.
People in the news 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. Optics trump reality.
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. Most news expires in 24 hours. If you know your attention is valuable, why would you invest it consuming something that expires tomorrow?
The problems with news are likely to get worse, not better. At some point in the future, the news will likely be tailored for you. Just as your search results differ from mine, your headline for the same article and mine will differ. 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 the page, headlines that drive clicks, and shareability.
Stepping back from the news is hard. We’re afraid of silence. We’re afraid to be alone with our thoughts. That’s why we pull out our phones while 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 say, “I don’t know.” We’re afraid to be bored. We’re so afraid we’ll drive ourselves crazy, consuming pointless information.
What can you do differently?
Part of the answer is to spend less time consuming information and more time thinking. You can also change your information sources by seeking out high-quality sources of information.
What makes something a high-quality source of information is worth thinking about. Some questions I ask myself: Are they talking about a first-hand experience? Was it recent or in the past? Are there details, or is it full of abstractions? Are they giving me shortcuts or showing me why?
If you must read the news, consider yourself a judge listening to an argument. As a judge, you know there are two sides to every argument, and if you are not seeing the other side, you can, at the very least, reserve judgment. Seek the facts and data irrefutably true on both sides of the argument.
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.”