Cutting back on news

In past centuries, getting news was a source of interest as isolated communities were keen to hear what was happening elsewhere. But in the 21st century it seems we can’t get away from news – on the radio and TV, in print, on the Internet, and now via mobile apps. It was a growing personal feeling of depression and anxiety whenever I heard or read a news item that made me think about cutting back on news. And then I started seeing articles that said too much news was not good for you.

What’s wrong with news

We are now living in a world where it’s difficult not to hear news. An article “No news is good news” points out that news is now big business. It notes that Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile wrote that we are getting a huge glut of news, a never-ending flow of stories. But the reason is that those stories are aimed at filling a quota in order to sell advertising to make money. Another problem of modern news, mentioned by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, the father of behavioral economics, is that media coverage influences our perception of the world in profound ways, which are largely hidden and beyond our control.

A frequently quoted article by Rolf Dobelli about the problem of news, Towards a Healthy News Diet, identifies the bad aspects of news; it should be noted that this article is probably plagiarised from Taleb’s previous writings. Dobelli’s list includes the following problems:

  • News is to the mind like sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest but continual intake of it produces bad effects.
  • News is misleading, focusing on the highly visible; too many people have wrong mental maps about the world as a result.
  • News is toxic for people, hearing news triggers the limbic system, releasing hormones that deregulate the immune system and inhibit the release of growth hormones. This puts the body in a state of chronic stress. The effects of news include impaired digestion, nervousness, susceptibility to infections, and overall impairment of physical health.
  • News is toxic for societies: news has a negative and polarizing effect, and limits understanding.

The underlying processes that govern significant social, political and environmental movements mostly are invisible. They are complex, non-linear and hard for our (and the journalists’) brains to digest.

  • News increases cognitive errors (e.g., confirmation bias) and inhibits clear thinking; thinking requires concentration and concentration requires uninterrupted time.
  • News changes the structure of your brain because once you are in habit of checking the news, you check it more often.
  • News is costly because consuming it takes time, then it takes time to get back to what you were doing before the news interrupted you. It continues to distract us hours after we’ve digested the news.
  • News makes us passive. We often hear news that is overwhelmingly about things we cannot influence. This sets us up to be fatalistic.

Another writer mentioned that the news created anxiety, frustration, and stress – much like my experience. This article also referred to a US journalism professor who said very little of news is of practical value.

A low news diet

Rather than have a complete news blackout, a number of sources I quoted above have suggested going on a low information diet. Basically the advice is to cut out the crap. Consultant Graeme Codrington recommended:

stop reading the daily newspapers and stop being caught up in the clickbait headline news cycle

In an article on Medium, Jason Fried, a co-founder of Basecamp, pointed out that news is best consumed in gaps. This reminded me of something I learnt a few decades ago, it’s the statistical concept of the Nyquist–Shannon sampling theorem. When analysing a time series, this theorem posits that there is a sampling rate that gives the best representation of the time series, if you go below the minimum sampling frequency you get a distortion. The application of this to the news was given to me by my first boss, Graham Mather, a pioneer of cloud seeding, who once said to me that reading weekly publications gave you a much better idea of what was going on than reading a newspaper every day.

I’ve also come to realise that occasionally getting away from news is a good thing. How many people do you know who have gone away on holiday, where they had very little contact with the world, and have come back feeling much better? Getting away from the constant bombardment of news can be great therapy.

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