When I was in junior school, our headmistress gave us the option to subscribe to newspapers. Most of us did.
Even the young-me could see the importance of being informed. Plus, I liked the colourful pictures.
Today, the news is everywhere. It’s in the morning paper, on our phones, 24×7 on our TVs, and all over social media.
We are lucky—we get to live in the Golden Age of information. We have this fantastic technology that lets us communicate in ways that were, simply, impossible before. So when I first heard about an “information diet” from Tim Ferriss, I found it weird. Why would anybody want that?
But, if you think about it, information is never free. Every day, you pay for information with your attention. An abundance of information leads to a poverty of attention.
I have a fear that life will pass me by. If you feel the same, then you have to face the question, “Are you watching too much news?”
A Junk News Diet
A lot of what the news industry gives us is kind of like junk food.
It isn’t adding any value to your life, it’s very convenient to consume, and it isn’t good for you. It even has the most poisonous feature of junk food—it’s addictive.
(I’m not the first to come up with this idea. There is already a name for it: junk news)
The next time you find yourself reading a news article, ask yourself:
- Is this going to affect me or my loved ones, now or in the future?
- Can I do something about it?
- Would I care about this in 6 months?
- Is this information going to help me in any way?
If you answered “no” to all of the questions, then you are consuming junk news.
But, how did all the news turn to junk?
It’s a short story.
Everybody Panic in 5…4…3…2…1
The old job of the news industry was fairly straightforward—find and report important stuff.
But it all started to come apart in the late 20th century when we started with 24×7 news channels. Suddenly, there was way more screen time than there was news. And journalists and editors were introduced to the unrelenting demands of content creation.
That’s when it stopped being about information because it now had to compete with all the other channels on TV. The news became something else, something new and glamorous—entertainment.
Things only got worse in the 21st century because the Internet happened. With it came infinite space (to fill up with news content) and new competitors (Facebook, Youtube, Netflix, et al.)
And just like that, your attention became a commodity. The fight for this commodity was fierce and it rages to this day.
The news media quickly figured out that the best way to get people interested is to make them angry or scared. Both at the same time works too.
Sweeping generalizations work. Nuanced and balanced arguments do not. Everyone on the news is either a saint or a monster from hell.
The news today isn’t prioritized on how important the information is or how many people are affected. The guiding light is the question, “Will it sell?”
This brings us to the new job of the news media—find news that sells and overhype it.
The News and Your Brain
Time for a super-quick recap of history!
For most of human history, we’ve lived in small tribes of 20 to 150 people. (We’ve lived in cities for one thousand years and that’s just a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.)
Our brains were designed to process the bad things that happened to the people around us.
Fast forward to today, and we have 7.5 billion of us. And we get to know if anything bad happens anywhere in the world. It would be surprising if we didn’t feel resentful, pessimistic and cynical of people.
As the most shocking images from all over the world play repeatedly on our screens, we start to form a poor opinion of our own species and ultimately of ourselves.
Weird fact: the best predictor of articles that go viral is how angry they make us. No wonder we find so many things to be angry about on social media.
Life Post the Media Nightmare
So, how much news should we watch every day?
Well, I don’t know.
I wish there were an answer but there isn’t. All we can do if be aware of where the news stops and entertainment begins. Strangely, there is a thin line between the two.
To be sure, the news media is a pillar of democracy. It helps us become informed and responsible citizens. But here are a few things we can do to awaken from our collective media nightmare.
It would be a good idea to speak to your spouse over breakfast instead of reading the paper.
We could also stop being outraged by everything that happened in the world the previous day.
On the other hand, let’s focus more on ourselves and how we can make a positive impact on the world. (I’m not asking you to ignore stuff like climate change. Just that we focus on how we can make a difference.)
If your job requires you to be in constant contact with breaking news, then you should definitely continue to do that.
Also, if you find journalism that relies on facts and well thought out arguments, it would be a good idea to pay attention. But I don’t think you would find much of it on the evening news or in your newsfeed.
Over to You
Here is something you would never hear on the news: your first responsibility is to yourself and the people around you. And, um, we have limited time to fulfil it.
What will happen if you start watching less news? On a global scale, there would be zero impact. What will happen to you? Well, try it and find out…
If you would like a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the media operates, check out Ryan Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying.
Coming back to the question—Are we watching too much news?—my answer is “yes”. What’s yours?