The news blows

A couple weeks ago I was thinking about the financial meltdown of 2008. I was wondering whether – had I somehow been unaware of this meltdown (via living under a rock or something) – would I have lived my life any differently? (Aside from living under a rock.) I decided it was likely that, no, I wouldn’t have. Basically, this constant news chatter about the financial situation was really of no practical value to me other than fodder for conversation.

Now, I freely grant that there are some people who would have benefited from following this particular news story – especially people who work in the world of finance. But I am not one of them.

A similar train of thought occurred to me at one point during the recent Boston Marathon bombing story. The cops had shot the first bomber and the manhunt was on for the second. I got the impression that people I knew were avidly following the news story, frequently checking the web and TV news for updates. I was thinking, “It’s one guy versus the entire Boston Police Department – of course they’re going to find him!” The constant news blather about the topic was largely meaningless.

But to have this view – that news is mostly crap – flies in the face of common wisdom. We are constantly reminded how uninformed we the public are. We’re supposed to follow the news because that symbolizes that we care about the world. Don’t you care about this earthquake in China, or these starving polar bears in Tibet, or the fact that children’s public education scores have dropped to new levels, or Congress’s malfeasance, or the rise of prescription drug deaths or…

To be honest, not really. Or at least I recognize I only have so much attention to give to these topics and if I want to achieve various goals I have set out for myself, I need to restrict my attention to the news (and other similar distractions: facebook, email, blogs etc.)

I was pleased to see the following article appear over at the Guardian (which, lest you thing I was checking for news, I actually saw linked off a blog. (Not that that’s much better.)) News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier. The author makes a number of arguments against the consumption of news; this one stood out in particular.

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness”. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.

I was also interested in this point about online news; it makes a lot of intuitive sense.

Online news has an even worse impact. In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting. News is an intentional interruption system.

That’s really the crux of my complaint – news interrupts. I’m not saying it should be avoided completely but we should manage our time when interacting with it.

2 thoughts on “The news blows

  1. john

    Seeing a News headline and then having to choose to click on the link really saves me a lot of misery. In the Old Days I’d see a Headline in the Newspaper like “WOMAN CUT IN HALF” and read at least a few of the horrible details even if I didn’t want to. But today I see a Headline like that on the Internet and – That’s it! All I know is that a Woman was cut in half and that’s The Beginning and The End of the whole sordid mess.

    Years ago someone asked Henry Miller if he had any advice for aspiring Writers and he said “Yes! Never read the Newspaper!”

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