Following the news isn’t just a waste of time, it’s slowly killing you.
The news’s obsession with the deviant makes us less trusting of people and the government. Its obsession with the minutiae of the day-to-day makes us less reflective. It spoon-feeds us opinions, inhibiting creativity. And it exacerbates our many cognitive biases. So while we claim the news informs us, in reality we may just be ignorant and deluded.
We need to rethink our news consumption habits. Mainstream news is the equivalent of mental sugar to the brain, and it’s in our best interest to reduce how much we intake.
During the “yellow press” times of the early 1900s, the media industry was notorious for cultivating sensationalism to sell its newspapers. The newspaper’s role was “not to instruct but to startle.” Content that evoked high arousal emotions such as awe, anger, anxiety, fear, loss, or shock resulted in greater engagement and led to sold papers. This sensationalism has continued to sweep its way into every aspect of the news today. Turn on the TV and what you’ll see largely sits in five categories: violent crime, tragedy and suffering, conflict and discord, social and collective protests, and war and military affairs.
It’s no surprise that this is a terribly inaccurate representation of reality. In addition to overreporting such events that inspire fear and panic, the media overemphasizes such news by the way it distorts the stories. Stories are often episodic, ahistorical accounts that fail to provide meaningful context or explanation. Instead of communicating substantive information, TV news often focuses on the emotional and tragic elements that overshadow the crux of what is taking place.
Iterative journalism has also created a culture whereby being first to publish is more important than the truth, which has dire implications. A study at the University of Michigan asked its subjects to read a fake news article, but half were provided with a correction at the bottom of the article discrediting the central claim. The subjects who saw the claim were actually more likely to believe the initial claim and held the belief more confidently than those who didn’t. This is now known as the “backfire effect,” as corrections backfire and actually make the misconception worse.
News causes depression
The steady diet the news feeds us of worst-case scenarios triggers our fight-or-flight system and causes the release of cortisol, which deregulates the immune system, inhibits growth hormones, and leads to a state of stress and fatigue. A 2009 study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard Medical School further found that each hour of television news increased the chance of depression by 8%.
The worst part about this is that we actually become addicted to the negativity. One of the many cognitive errors humans exhibit is negativity bias. We have a greater recall of unpleasant memories and we seek out news of dramatic, negative events. The news industry feeds off this. We become hooked and crave the negativity. It’s no surprise why psychologists will often prescribe depressed patients to completely cut off reading and watching the news.
News is irrelevant
Much of the news we intake is irrelevant to our lives. We simply don’t apply what we read or hear in any meaningful way. It’s not making us smarter, furthering our relationships, or providing us real pleasure. The signal to noise ratio is simply too low.
The fact is news stories are largely about problems that are outside our circle of influence: in a study of network news, 71% of the news stories were about people who had very little control over their fate.
The constant barrage of problems outside our control instills in us a sense of hopelessness and pessimism, a term called “learned helplessness.” Such a view is also in line with an external locus of control as opposed to an internal locus of control. Research suggests that people who operate with an external locus of control have worse health, relationships, and personal growth than people with an internal locus. The price of remaining “informed” seems to come at a high cost.
News is a business
At their core, news companies are businesses. The body of news is determined by profits and prestige, not the devotion to inform the public or provide objective coverage. Content is carefully orchestrated to produce high ratings and conform to an ideological view of the world. It is page views and new content that leads to advertising revenue, not accuracy and relevancy.
Some of the harshest criticisms of the news industry have come from disillusioned insiders. Hughes Rudd, a former journalist at CBS and ABC, called TV news a comic strip medium. Gabe Pressman, a pioneer of televised news, called the news bodybag journalism” and that part of the problem is it’s easier to focus on such stories than do serious reporting. Nick Denton, founder of Gawker, ceded that much of what constitutes news these days is “fake news, manufactured, hyped, rehashed, retracted—until at the end of the week you know no more than at the beginning.”
The News Diet
Reduce the amount of news in your life. Read books about issues you care about and you may find yourself equipped with more knowledge than from tidbits of scattered news. Replace the daily paper with a weekly periodical such as The Economist or a monthly magazine. Delete the news apps from your phone pinging you with instant updates. Cut TV out entirely. If something is important enough, rest assured it will find you either through conversation or social media.
I’m not suggesting we turn a blind eye towards the problems of the world, but the constant assault of negativity isn’t helping. Change comes from within first, and the first step is realizing there is a choice. The news diet is also not a new concept, but it seems our habits have been slow to change in the face of convention.
You’re either growing or you’re dying. Don’t let the news kill you.