Discover more from Hold That Thought by Sarah Haider
The News Is Bad For You. Stop Reading It.
Sorry about the delay in posting—as penance to my dear paying subscribers I offer this unusually long essay. I think it is useful, as this has been one of the biggest habit changes of my life, and I sincerely believe the vast majority of those reading this will be better off if they joined me.
This is probably going to be my last very long essay for some time. But I’ve been thinking about this and other ways to retain some semblance of mental hygiene in the modern world. We are experiencing radical changes in our environment—why are we so hesitant to make radical changes in our behavior?
Many years ago in an effort to be “well-informed”, a teenage me got a subscription to the New York Times. Not the digital Times, the physical thing, which I would get delivered in the mail.
I would read the US and World sections word for word, cover to cover, every single weekday, skipping nothing, no matter how boring. I did this religiously for nearly a year.
I had a habit of doing this sort of thing. When I was nine years old, I begged my parents for an encyclopedia set. Although we were too poor to even own a proper bookshelf, my dear parents bought it for me (paid in monthly installments, for several years). When I had the set in my hands, I began reading. Word for word, page by page—fascinated by all that I found there. I did not finish the set, however. By the time I got to H, our family had high-speed internet, and the call of Encarta Online pulled me away.
There was a time where I might have thought of this habit romantically—a “love of learning”. Today, I see it as a symptom of information addiction—which thwarts real learning as often as advances it.
In the past half year or so, I have been almost entirely newsfree. No TV news of any kind, no newspaper subscriptions, no RSS feeds, not even a daily tune-in to All Things Considered or The Daily.
With the exception of events recounted by friends, or stories I might run into by happenstance on social media, I do not know what is happening day-to-day at all.
Here are some questions to think about.
How many hours have you spent consuming news in the past twelve months? If that is too hard, just think about how many hours per day or week, then extrapolate.
In that time, how much of what you learned has been of real use—altering a choice you made in your day-to-day life?
How much of that could you recall, if asked, a month after you consumed it? How about a year? How about five?
My answers to those questions are the reason I gave up on the news altogether. And I don’t feel worse off for it—quite the opposite. I feel saner, happier, and (surprisingly) more informed.
Here is why I think this is, and why I think you should be “newsfree” too.
If asked, most of us would say that we consume the news to be informed about the world. We might bring up our duty as citizens to be responsible voters, or something about the general enrichment that it provides. If we are very introspective, we might say that it is gratifying—it feels empowering. We intuitively accept that understanding more about our environment is the first step to mastering it—to moving about the world as a true agent. So, obviously, more understanding equals more mastery.
It is something of a social status marker, too. Starting one’s day with the news is the habit of serious and dignified people.
There are some distinctions, of course. The more dignified read the news, the less dignified watch it. But most agree that the lowest of the low are those who don’t consume any news at all.
To many, the people who ignore the news are—by definition—willingly ignorant. These are likely the same people who went to twelve years of schooling but barely managed to become functionally literate, the slackers who are too lazy to vote, the ones who answer the man-on-the-street polls so incorrectly that they undermine our confidence in democracy.
But even they (however dimly) understand that reading the news is a very good thing—like flossing or eating one’s greens—a universally recognized virtue (even if it is one you can never seem to get around to).
Such people used to inspire a kind of horror in me. Their lack of awareness of current events seemed like a great vulnerability. They existed in an unstable state, defenseless against the tides around them, not to mention more susceptible to propaganda and misinformation.
I was determined to not be like them.
And in the circles I was increasingly finding myself in, being oblivious to the latest headlines carries a stigma. Dinner party conversations among the intellectual set are news-junkie one-upmanship battles as much as socializing—familiarity with the latest New York Times features is practically a prerequisite to joining.
But while it is true that routine scans of the news tends to be a habit of the well-informed—it is not true that this is a good habit. Rather, I think that reading the news is a harmful addiction that tends to befall the kind of person that makes an effort to be well-informed—a correlation not a cause. News addiction is not the reason they are well-informed—in fact, I would argue that the opposite is true. News is actively undermining their efforts.
You might already agree with me…to a degree.
You might sense that something is amiss in journalism—and might feel that this requires a correction of some sort. Local papers are dying, yes, and social media has warped journalism beyond all reason.
But giving up the news entirely! That is throwing the baby out with the bathwater—a hysterical reaction to a challenging but correctable problem.
But what if the problem of news goes deeper than that? What if we are living in an era where the news is bound to be a source of confusion, not clarification? What if this isn’t a problem that can be fixed at all?
In his book Veils of Distortions, former TV news writer and producer John Zada details the many corruptions facing the news industry.
The declared aim of the news is to inform us of what we need to know, but as Zada describes, the actual goal in practice is to attract and hold viewer attention.
The news capitalizes on our sensitivity to information that is “new” by routinely casting unimportant, even ordinary events as national stories – sensationalizing them beyond all reason. Meanwhile, the intense pressures on time in the newsroom all but guarantee errors and superficial analysis – which rarely get noticed, much less amended. Reporters have powerful incentives to get to a story fast—to be the first, not to be the best.
Who can be surprised that what is produced under such circumstances is a far cry from useful information?
Meanwhile, evidence revealing the distorted incentives of the news continues to accumulate. In the era of Donald Trump, news companies saw eye-popping profits—CNN raking in $100 million extra in revenue in 2016 than in a typical election year, while the New York Times added nearly five million digital-only subscribers during his term.
I do not believe one should be too cynical about these numbers – but it is worthwhile to think about the effect this money has on the incentives of the news industry.
No doubt that many reporters and journalists have the very best intentions – starry-eyed dreams of speaking truth to power. But can the industry realistically optimize for “truth”, when it is most directly in the business of chasing deadlines and capturing eyeballs?
The worst effects of the news industry might be in fields where the goal truly is “truth” (or at least, reality)—like in science.
“Journalists love to report studies that are at the “initial findings” stages - research that claims to be the first time anyone has discovered a thing - because there is newsworthiness in their novelty”, Zada says. “But “first ever” discoveries are also extremely vulnerable to becoming undermined by subsequent research. When that happens, the news media often don’t go back and inform their audiences about the change—assuming they even hear about it”.
Scientific progress is slow, evolves and self-corrects—journalism is fast, superficial and amnesic. This makes covering science an inherently difficult thing to get right – as one must abandon the duties of one in order to succeed at the other.
For example, as the social sciences begin the lengthy process of self-correction in the on-going replication crisis, can journalism undo the influence of the thousands of articles over decades which breathlessly reported on flawed results and recklessly speculated on their implications?
Will we even see a tiny fraction of articles of the debunkings making the news?
While the news claims to act as a filter—an effective means of sorting through the endless array of new information—it isn’t clear at all whether your average reporter has the qualifications to do the job well. One would hope that those performing the filtering would be experts in the topics they are filtering from… but it is almost never the case that, for example, your average “science reporter” is an expert in any field of science.
“Real, intricate, living expertise across a wide range of topics is hard to find in any given newsroom, let alone in any journalist,” Zada continues. “Reporters and writers occasionally do bring valuable specialized knowledge that bridges the expertise gap…but many of the rank-and-file news workers are by and large generalists. As a result, many journalists and their editors may work on stories they know little, or nothing about.”
I’d go further.
“Generalist” is a term that is almost nonsensical in our time of exponential expansion of information. Even generalists have to be far more specific in order to have any real claim of knowing what they are talking about. Meanwhile, journalism by and large has not caught up—and it is commonplace to find a 20-something reporter with nothing more than a journalism degree attempting to accurately sort through events in beats as broad as “science”, “politics”, or “religion”.
But even if the news did provide indisputably true and valid information—the question remains, is it worth knowing? Is it useful?
A good measure of whether something is truly important is whether it is remembered.
Continuing his ruminations during his time in the news industry, Zada slips a startling admission “As a television news writer I have helped produce scores of breaking news stories. Perhaps it says something when I tell you that, with a few notable exceptions, I have forgotten nearly all of them.”
If the news makers themselves cannot recall the news so important that it is declared “breaking”—can you or I? And what does that say about its usefulness to our lives? Can the news industry—the people whose entire livelihoods depend on keeping you convinced that what they sell is urgent and important—be trusted to arbitrate what is or isn’t newsworthy?
If the doctor who prescribes your medication was also directly profiting from the extent of your usage, you would suspect her motives. Why should we treat the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal any differently?
To some degree, the challenge isn’t just of accepting the flaws in the news industry—it is accepting our own limitations.
The central challenge of the 21st century is not to access information as it was in the years before, not even to better analyze or synthesize it. Instead we must learn when to tune out the flow—when to cover our ears entirely.
It is a bit surreal even writing that out—for most of my life I have been consumed with consuming knowledge. And although I thought I was careful about what I consumed, I neglected to place any importance at all on how much I consumed.
Like a sponge, I absorbed all that I could, whenever I had the opportunity. A bit of an early reader, I don’t remember a time where I didn’t know how to read, and some of my earliest memories are of poring through textbooks, encyclopedias, old newspapers—hours and hours spent in reverant study. But as I do not have a superhuman memory, much of what I read has left me now—leaving me wondering: was this a good way to spend the limited time I have on this earth?
If I spent just one hour every weekday, scrolling through my newsfeed, reading the Washington Post, listening to NPR (and it certainly was almost three times as many)—how many hours does that add up to over the course of a decade? A lifetime?
I now think of my urge to consume news not as an adaptation to the modern world, but as a vestige of our ancient past.
This urge was evolved at a time where information was scarce, and therefore, highly valuable. It makes sense that a hunger for all the information one can find is advantageous—even lifesaving.
Other human urges—for sugar and fat for example—evolved in a time of scarcity too. But we know now, and readily accept, that eating enormous meals of carbs and fat is a bad thing.
A similar thing is happening for information flow—but unlike food, there is little credence given to the idea that it might be bad for us. In fact, we actively encourage the habit, leading to the equivalent of a diet full of junk food: A diet of 24 hours news.
And like junk food—it is very difficult to resist, especially in times of stress and uncertainty. As of this writing, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is on-going, and if you are like me, you feel deeply compelled to read anything and everything on the subject.
But the question remains: Is reading the news (in this case, inhaling unusually large amounts of it) useful, or is it an advanced form of doomscrolling? Are we watching it with the helplessness of someone who can’t look away from a car crash, or are we “informing ourselves” in a useful way?
Are we learning more about our world, building a true foundation of knowledge, or are we indulging, instead, an irrational, self-destructive instinct—one that is more likely to fill our brain with over-exaggerated nonsense?
Are we over-estimating our ability to synthesize such large amounts of data without bamboozling ourselves in the process?
It seems to me that in this case, neither the signal nor the receiver can be trusted to do the job entrusted to them. The news producers cannot produce a reliable product, and even if they could, our brains could not process it.
In researching this essay, I was relieved to find my own feelings shared by author Rolf Dobelli, author of the aptly named book “Don't Read the News” (which I highly recommend).
In his 2013 article in the Guardian, he makes the case bluntly: “We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability. If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely. ”
Imagine yourself transported back into the circus of the 2016 Presidential election. Hellish idea, I know, but stay with me. In this alternative timeline, events stayed exactly the same – but YOU have behaved differently.
Donald Trump has been elected POTUS, to the surprise of all (especially, Donald Trump). You are alarmed. But (impossible as it may be to imagine) you do not respond to the alarm by gluing yourself to the drama playing out in the news – every hour of every day.
You do not read the literally thousands of articles alleging Russian collusion for years on end. You do not watch hours and hours of Rachel Maddow’s emotive fulminations, nor the indignant sputtering of Tucker Carlson—nor anyone else covering every twist and turn of politics as if they were a spectator sport. You never hear about the legions of actors who turn up and then disappear in the revolving door that was the Trump administration, nor the endless dubious comments made by Trump family members and affiliates (including anyone named Stormy). You don’t know much about a “pee tape” (and good thing too, as it turned out to be a complete fabrication).
Instead, you read the sources directly —the impeachment resolutions as they roll out, the Barr letter, the Mueller report (or even, just the executive summaries and factual results of the investigation). You wait for the investigators to conclude their research and do not engage in much speculation.
Now election time is here again, and you must decide how to vote—but you (wisely) continue to ignore the news.
In order to inform yourself of the issues and the candidates, you go to their websites directly, reading the value propositions and policy proposals. You may dig deeper too, some issues you care about more than others. So, you research how the candidates have previously acted or voted on those issues, and whether they have made any promises for the future. If you really want to get a feel for the personalities of the candidate – you watch a campaign speech or two, and perhaps, the debates.
Is this alternative-universe-you less meaningfully informed? Have they missed anything truly important to your day-to-day life?
Or have they saved themselves—their time, their energy, their sanity—from a costly but fruitless pursuit?
There is an opportunity cost to our news-junkie lifestyles. If indeed we use news as a way to self-sooth, to gratify an irresistible instinct, or to entertain— then we should consider whether there are far more direct and clean ways to achieve that goal.
But if we wish to be more informed, we should forgo junk—and get right to the meat. Read the lengthy investigative reports, not the breaking news. Find well-reviewed books on specific topics or interests, reading source documents whenever possible.
I’m still in the beginning stages of my newsfree lifestyle—but so far the future looks promising.
My rules of thumb are to favor the long over the short, the slow over the fast, the source over the summary. And while it sounds like an impossible task—I’ve found that I actually have a lot more time to do this when I cut off the time-wasting habit of news, and abandoned the idea that I can be a competent generalist in a highly complex world.
I have also come to believe that it is more vital than ever to covet our attention greedily—to consider it the deeply limited resource that it is.
The mark of the truly—not superficially—educated will be those who make a deliberate choice of what to consume…and what to ignore.