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Five Things You Notice When You Quit the News

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I grew up believing that following the news makes you a better citizen. Eight years after having quit, that idea now seems ridiculous—that consuming a particularly unimaginative information product on a daily basis somehow makes you thoughtful and informed in a way that benefits society.

But I still encounter people who balk at the possibility of a smart, engaged adult quitting the daily news.

To be clear, I’m mostly talking about following TV and internet newscasts here. This post isn’t an indictment of journalism as a whole. There’s a big difference between watching a half hour of CNN’s refugee crisis coverage (not that they cover it anymore) versus spending that time reading a 5,000-word article on the same topic.

If you quit, even for just a month or so, the news-watching habit might start to look quite ugly and unnecessary to you, not unlike how a smoker only notices how bad tobacco makes things smell once he stops lighting up.

A few things you might notice, if you take a break: 

1) You feel better

A common symptom of quitting the news is an improvement in mood. News junkies will say it’s because you’ve stuck your head in the sand.

But that assumes the news is the equivalent of having your head out in the fresh, clear air. They don’t realize that what you can glean about the world from the news isn’t even close to a representative sample of what is happening in the world.

The news isn’t interested in creating an accurate sample. They select for what’s 1) unusual, 2) awful, and 3) probably going to be popular. So the idea that you can get a meaningful sense of the “state of the world” by watching the news is absurd.

Their selections exploit our negativity bias. We’ve evolved to pay more attention to what’s scary and infuriating, but that doesn’t mean every instance of fear or anger is useful. Once you’ve quit watching, it becomes obvious that it is a primary aim of news reports—not an incidental side-effect—to agitate and dismay the viewer.

What appears on the news is not “The conscientious person’s portfolio of concerns”. What appears is whatever sells, and what sells is fear, and contempt for other groups of people.

Curate your own portfolio. You can get better information about the world from deeper sources, who took more than a half-day to put it together.

2) You were never actually accomplishing anything by watching the news

If you ask someone what they accomplish by watching the news, you’ll hear vague notions like, “It’s our civic duty to stay informed!” or “I need to know what’s going on in the world,” or “We can’t just ignore these issues,” none of which answer the question.

“Being informed” sounds like an accomplishment, but it implies that any information will do. You can become informed by reading a bus schedule.

A month after you’ve quit the news, it’s hard to name anything useful that’s been lost. It becomes clear that those years of news-watching amounted to virtually nothing in terms of improvement to your quality of life, lasting knowledge, or your ability to help others. And that’s to say nothing of the opportunity cost. Imagine if you spent that time learning a language, or reading books and essays about some of the issues they mention on the news.

You’ll find that your abstinence did not result in any worse cabinet appointments than were already being made, and that disaster relief efforts carried on without your involvement, just as they always do. As it turns out, your hobby of monitoring the “state of the world” did not actually affect the world.

We have inherited from somewhere—maybe from the era when there was only an hour of news available a day—the belief that having a superficial awareness of the day’s most popular issues is somehow helpful to those most affected by them.

3) Most current-events-related conversations are just people talking out of their asses

“Because it helps you participate in everyday conversations!” is a weak but at least meaningful answer to the “What is accomplished” question. But when you quit playing the current events game, and observe others talking about them, you might notice that almost nobody really knows what they’re talking about.

There is an extraordinary gulf between having a functional understanding of an issue, and the cursory glance you get from the news. If you ever come across a water-cooler conversation on a topic you happen to know a lot about, you see right through the emperor’s clothes. It’s kind of hilarious how willing people are to speak boldly on issues they’ve known about for all of three hours.

It feels good to make cutting remarks and take hard stands, even when we’re wrong, and the news gives us perfect fodder for that. The less you know about an issue, the easier it is to make bold proclamations about it, because at newscast-distance it still looks black and white enough that you can feel certain about what needs to happen next.

Maybe the last thing the world needs is another debate on Issue X between two people who learned about it from a newscast—at least if we’re trying to improve relationships between people from different groups.

4) There are much better ways to “be informed”

We all want to live in a well-informed society. The news does inform people, but I don’t think it informs people particularly well.

There are loads of sources of “information”. The back of your shampoo bottle contains information. Today there’s much more of it out there than we can ever absorb, so we have to choose what deserves our time. The news provides information in infinite volume but very limited depth, and it’s clearly meant to agitate us more than educate us.

Every minute spent watching news is a minute you are unavailable for learning about the world in other ways. Americans probably watch a hundred million hours of news coverage every day. That’s a lot of unread books, for one thing.

Read three books on a topic and you know more about it than 99% of the world. Watch news all day for years and you have a distant, water-cooler-level awareness of thousands of stories, at least for the few weeks each is popular.

If we only care about the breadth of information, and not the depth, there’s not much distinction between “staying informed” and staying misinformed.

5) “Being concerned” makes us feel like we’re doing something when we’re not

News is all about injustice and catastrophe, and naturally we feel uncomfortable ignoring stories in which people are being hurt. As superficial as TV newscasts can be, the issues reported in them are (usually) real. Much more real than they can ever seem through a television. People are suffering and dying, all the time, and to ignore a depiction of any of that suffering, even a cynical and manipulative depiction, makes us feel guilty.

The least we can do is not ignore it, we think. So we watch it on TV, with wet eyes and lumps in our throats. But staying at this level of “concerned” isn’t really helping anyone, except maybe to alleviate our own guilt a bit.

And I wonder if there’s a kind of “substitution effect” at work here. The sense of “at least I care” may actually prevent us from doing something concrete to help, because by watching sympathetically we don’t quite have to confront the reality that we’re doing absolutely nothing about it.

Watching disasters unfold, even while we do nothing, at least feels a little more compassionate than switching off. The truth is that the vast majority of us will provide absolutely no help to the victims of almost all of the atrocities that happen in this world, televised or not. And that’s hard to accept. But if we can at least show concern, even to ourselves, we don’t quite have accept that. We can remain uninvolved without feeling uninvolved.

This may be the biggest reason we fear turning off the news. And it might be the best reason to do it.

Have you quit the news? What did you notice?

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Image by Mike Licht

{ 26 Comments }

Jonas December 14, 2016 at 10:20 am

I agree on most things said here, and that the news content is made to sell issues or keep people tipping on their toes, however point #2 does not reflect my own experience very well. Watching the news in the morning let’s me know if i should bring my rain-suite or not, what roads are currently congested by morning traffic. Today i read about a guy helping immigrants in my very nationalistic country. I contacted the guy and gave him my blessing, knowing that it will be a well needed counterweight to the internet-heros that will troll him for doing this. A few months back i was made aware that my phone-provider have been charging people too much, and was able to use this information to leverage a better deal when i upgraded my phone. Even water-cooler conversation-material can turn out to be helpful. With all this said, i largely agree with what you are saying.

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David Cain December 15, 2016 at 3:33 pm

These are generalities of course. We have all acted on something we saw on the news. But how many dozens or hundreds of hours of news consumption does it take to inform the odd helpful or useful thing we do in response (again, for most people)?

Checking traffic or weather isn’t really what I’m talking about here obviously.

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Caroline December 14, 2016 at 11:07 am

Well said! Look forward to finding and reading more good stuff from your site. Thank you.

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Wogan December 14, 2016 at 11:16 am

I agree with the overall point to this story – “news”, as produced by mainstream outlets, should not be mistaken for authentic insight, and really shouldn’t be used as an input to shape worldviews.

It’s still better than nothing, though, and can actually be pretty vital when it comes to political issues. News media is often the only way to draw attention to scandals that politicians prefer remain secret. A lot of public good can be done that way – even if the citizenry are not as fully informed as they might have been.

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David Cain December 15, 2016 at 3:38 pm

Right, and I hope it was clear from the article that I’m not proposing we banish the news, or that the press doesn’t serve a purpose. I wouldn’t want to live in a society with no press. But that doesn’t mean the habit of newswatching makes us meaningfully informed adults, or that not watching it means we are uninformed.

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Simcha Goldberg December 14, 2016 at 1:09 pm

I am not a social activist. I read anything not to better society but to bring a better self to the table. My objection to current news is that it is usual poor prejudiced thinking. There is neither creativity nor philosophy. (I consider Ideologies as neither “thinking” nor “free imagining”.)
There was a time when you could read thr New York Times, even The Village Voice, and be surprised. Whether is was Jonas Mekas or Arthur Krock, agree or disagree, to read them you had to use your mind.
Now what are called “new sources” pretend only to be “fact sources”. (ignoring blithely that facts only have meaning and nuance within context, sometimes a rich, complicated context.)
This phenomenon is a function of the “Digitalized Age” which wants to know things in terms of “Number”. Judging films by how much money they take-in their first three weekends is an example.
In short the News Industry today, and it’s customers, deserve each other.
For Progressives it’s the drone from the pulpits of their secular churches.
For the New Right, it’s justification for their fears.

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Jessica December 14, 2016 at 1:39 pm

I share many of the same opinions. Plus this one: when you cut out mass media, you realize that really, you’re only ingesting the same stories over and over for months with very little development.

If a story is truly important, you will hear about it.

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edwin December 14, 2016 at 4:26 pm

I also quite the news about 8 years ago. Now I can’t stand to see it. I was over at someone’s house and it was on and I had to ask them to please turn it off because it was very annoying and they were blabbering on about absolutely nothing. It was actually making me somewhat angry. Now I can’t stand to see it.

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Frank December 15, 2016 at 5:44 am

You allude to this in the article, but it seems that you are really suggesting the your readers find higher quality news sources rather than “quitting the news”. In some respects this article commits the same sins as the low quality news sources it criticizes. It seems to me that it takes an extreme and challenging position that is intended to trigger a reaction in people. I believe a more useful article would have focussed on how to identify quality sources of news and encourage people to think critically about what they are being told (maybe even do some independent research) rather than simply accepting everything they hear from the media outlets or blog articles.

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David Cain December 15, 2016 at 3:46 pm

I certainly could have defined what I meant by “news” better, because there are a lot of different takes in the comments.

Your general point of thinking critically is conveyed clearly enough though I think. But I wanted to encourage people to think critically about a particular cultural belief, which is that responsible adults keep track of “the news” — the popular world issues at the moment. I also shared my opinion on “better sources”: long-form written media and books.

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Kurt December 15, 2016 at 7:02 am

Picked this up from post at kottke.org. Nice. I don’t watch news – hardly ever; the danger for me is paying attention or getting distracted online. I take periodic breaks from the ‘news’ – news fasts or news sabbaticals. Extremely helpful to my mental health. IT IS SO EASY TO GET SUCKED IN. Thanks for your viewpoint. By the way, I don’t consider weather and traffic as news, but I increasingly consider sports as news – peculiar how that is happening.

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Larry December 15, 2016 at 8:49 am

“You don’t know what you don’t know”. Yeah, you don’t have to watch the news, but you also don’t ever know what you’re ‘missing’. You are just ignorant of your ignorance. I agree, there’s definitely more productive things to do (learn a language, science or other hard, useful facts), but if you’re not watching the news just so you can bingewatch Game of Thrones, I don’t think you’re doing yourself a favor.

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Megan December 15, 2016 at 10:06 am

So, then I wonder, what sources do you like best for getting the information that you need?

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David Cain December 15, 2016 at 3:52 pm

“Need” is a bit of a weasel word here. We assume we watch the news out of a genuine need to be informed but I think it’s mostly a desire to for entertainment, a sense of importance and identity, sentimentality, the thrill of anger and other motives we should probably question.

As I said in the article, we all must choose how much time to invest in learning about world and local issues and on what sources we’re going to spend our time. I think written material is generally better than video-based material, and the longer it is the more likely it is the author is concerned with accuracy over sex appeal. But even long, well-cited nonfiction books can be biased, erroneous, irrelevant.

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joncr December 16, 2016 at 7:55 am

You make a mistake to use “news” in relation to cable TV and the web.

“News” is something produced by “reporters”. Cable and web sources typically employ few, if any, reporters but rely, instead, on the few remaining sources of actual reportage to provide fodder (aka “content”) they leverage to generate audience attention and ad revenue.

More broadly, it’s naive and foolish to look for one single source that can deliver 100% objective and accurate news to you in a few minutes each day. That can never happen. The biggest weakness of people consuming news seems to be our failure to understand the motives and interests of the news providers and how that impacts what they create. People expect news to be ” truth”, and it can’t be,

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John December 16, 2016 at 8:43 am

This is a great post and it inspired a couple of points and counterpoints to me and I am guilty of keeping up with the news from a variety of sources (but very little TV news). On the downside of current media offerings, I think most of us are not fully aware of how much news programming is driven by ratings, though David makes this point. A lot of us grew up on the notion of journalistic integrity, and an assumption that there are legions of earnest reporters out there searching for truth wherever it leads them. But, sadly the days of Woodward and Bernstein have faded slowly into a huge industry driven by individual stardom and advertising dollars, and we as consumers of this industry have slowly adapted to soundbites and infotainment in place of solid and sometimes unpopular journalism. I have discussed this point with a well-known TV news personality that I know who agrees (off the record) that programming is largely driven by entertainment value and ad dollars (i.e ratings). When that is the motive, vs. an innate drive to find and report the truth, then the end product obviously changes significantly. I remember when the USA Today came out and was widely criticized for its color pictures and dumbing down of stories to soundbites (‘a mile wide and an inch deep”), but an interesting exercise might be to put side-by-side say 3 editions of the WSJ from 25 years ago and 3 editions from the current version to see the differences, or even count typos from where it was to where it is.

There is a definite degradation of quality and depth, not to mention a huge increase in non-financial information, like copious copy on the latests fashions or lavish homes of the rich and famous (I keep thinking Robin Leach is going to be on the tagline). Financial news though is infotainment specifically focused on fear and greed.

The stardom factor also impacts what a journalist will or will not print or disseminate out of fear of being cast out of the inner circle or losing the privilege afforded to the media stars — which makes sense if you assume that most people will act in their own best interest. Do you think a Megan Kelly or a Lester Holt would do a story that would jeopardize their TSA Pre status, invitations to “A” list events or subject them to scrutiny, investigations or accusations of violations of the Espionage Act?

It is an interesting read and commentary on the media if you happen to read Glen Greenwald’s book on breaking the Edward Snowden story and Snowden’s difficulty in finding a major news outlet willing to take on the story. The same reluctance to publish was shown by a WSJ reporter in the Big Short, because he didn’t want to be the one to rock the boat against the housing machine and he liked his six figure job. It is also well known that even 60 Minutes, a “TV News Magazine” that purports to adhere to journalistic integrity initially buried the Wigand whistleblower story about big tobacco out of fear from reprisals.

If that is not enough to quash faith in the media, the proliferation of fake news stories and the ad dollars around that is perhaps another reason. One poster asked the question of where to get better information. It feels like we have an unmet need to provide in-depth, unbiased, and accurate facts through an unfiltered source, free from interference by any government, big corporation, or profit motivation (the initial goal of freedom of the press that has been so watered down by prosecutions of reporters and strong financial, legal and cultural motivation not to rock the boat). Not sure how that could get funded today as print media is going away, and I don’t think enough people would be willing to pay to subscribe online when most news content is free (along with pop-up adds and promoted stories design to sell you something you don’ t need).

But to David’s point, if most of us are not willing to get involved to help fix a problem we learn about, what is the real value in knowing about it, regardless of the source’s integrity? It provides a bit of a false sense of security or a false sense of “doing something” by staying informed, but his point is well taken. If your source is TV news or even internet sound bites, you probably are not really that informed in the first place. And then, how many of us are guilty as charged (raising my hand), that no matter how many times we are saddened or incensed by the news, we don’t choose to take an affirmative action to help.

On the contrary, I would add though that through news, people do learn about issues, tragedies and problems, and enough people do help that makes it worthwhile to get people informed. Through news, we get volunteers showing up for national disasters, donations to the Red Cross, and aid to foreign countries after a Tsunami. Some of us understand why we as the world, need to take in Syrian refugees. The flashlight is the first step to improvement, and perhaps if even one more of us did one more thing to right a wrong, then news can still have a positive purpose, no matter how bad it has become. How often has a socially-conscious company, a non-profit, or a mission started because the founder heard about the plight of XYZ on the news?

{ Reply }

Elisha de Jonge December 16, 2016 at 3:37 pm

Im lucky to watch the news once a week. great post.

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George December 18, 2016 at 5:20 pm

Welcome to the information Era.

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Lisa December 19, 2016 at 4:11 pm

Brilliant observations and a great case for not watching the news. I have not been a news-watcher since taking a graduate level course in college (over 20 years ago) and learning how horribly the news outlets skew what they’re reporting. I do not think of myself as ignorant and can keep up with most conversations just fine. Granted, I do read the news online everyday for my job. But just enough to know what’s going on, and knowing I can investigate further is something really piques my interest.

My Mom, however, is a news junkie. And I think it’s mainly for what you stated in reason number 5. For some reason it helps her feel like she’s riding herself of guilt that she can’t do anything. I sent her your article, and because she’s super intelligent I’m hopeful that she will finally turn off the constant stream of CNN and MSNBC she has on every day.

Thank you for sharing your observations on what happens when you quit the news. I think you’re spot on!

{ Reply }

Judi Storer December 22, 2016 at 9:19 pm

As a final year Law student, mostly interested in democracy, human rights and the environment, I indulge in the news so that I know who to write letters to the next day, to protest against their appalling policies, or who to call out for deceiving the public or behaving unconscionably, or which politicians to ring to register my disapproval, dissent, praise, encouragement or support, or what products/companies to boycott, or what information, I should seek out to better my knowledge and understanding of something that was the subject of a news article.

For me, the news informs me as to how I can contribute to making the world a better place – what are the most important issues, who is most in need, where are the worst atrocities? When I converse with people who do not watch the news, or get their news from facebook, I am appalled at how ignorant they are, and consequently how selfish many of them are. The most important thing in their lives, is how much they had to pay to buy some luxury item they don’t even need, and they have no idea how that money would have made a massive difference to the lives of the starving, the disabled, the homeless, the war torn, refugees, asylum seekers, children’s education, health and safety in undeveloped countries, prevention of child slavery and prostitution, or women suffering from domestic violence.

I think not watching the news is a good excuse for remaining ignorant and then not having to feel guilty for being selfish, and not taking action to help people who are suffering. If you don’t know about it, then how can you help? Many people I talk to, say they were unaware, and that is their excuse for doing nothing, but I sincerely suspect that even if they were aware, they would have done nothing about the issue anyway. By not watching the news people can remain egocentric, without having their conscience pricked or their compassion challenged.

I only got to read this article because it was linked to one of the journalism sites I subscribe to. If I had not been reading the news, I never would known that Raptitude.com existed, or read this article, or been able to contribute this comment. I think it is more important to choose your news carefully, rather than boycott news altogether.

{ Reply }

Julien Klepatch December 23, 2016 at 1:45 am

I had a very similar thought process as you a couple of month ago. I havent followed an news since sep2016.

Feels fantastic! More free time, more energy, and I finally got rid of this urge of “checking the news”.

I recommend it to everyone!

{ Reply }

Jan Meier December 25, 2016 at 2:29 am

Great post. I stoped (binch) watching news during my exchange in Japan. If I’m on the ther end of the world, why should I care about local news? Soon I stoped caring about global news. Instead I started to spend more time reading longer articles, discussions about topics I’m really interested in.

After a while I realised that I became much more relaxt and even more important aware of my doing. No more thoughtless checking of the hottest bullshit that is going on. Usually m reactions are anyway: “Why would that matter” or “Please write something more substantial.”

What I found really helpful for me is using a web service where you can store the news article you would like to read. And if you come across something you think interesting, put it there. But then don’t read it right away. Instead read the articles there in the chronological order you saved them. Once you come to the saved article, some days will have passed. If the article was just yelling journalists, giving shallow statements about hottest news, you wont read it. You rather go for something you really get a profound analysis and throw away the other article.

For everyone who enjoyed this article heres another, very similar one: https://medium.com/the-coffeelicious/why-i-stopped-watching-reading-the-news-3-years-ago-and-why-you-should-too-8e0ec4d6f29b#.7gqa1ovrm

{ Reply }

Dave Barnes December 25, 2016 at 10:55 am

I quit watching news 100%.
I quit reading news, except for business news–and if it mentions The Pumpkin, then I stop reading.
I am still in mourning.

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R Raghavendran December 26, 2016 at 3:18 am

Thanks for an eye opening article. You are right…most of the time spent on watching endless news and news replays can be spent doing something that can give one, a so to say, measurable benefit at end of day. And your point is more relevant now, when it takes only a click to forward endlessly, such news links to group members in whatsapp, etc.

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Rich December 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm

The news is deplorable and those who watch it are only feeding the devil to make it stronger. Unfortunately people must enjoy watching the negative news stories otherwise it wouldnt be on still. Support evergreen and positive stories and do your part in the world and stop watching at all costs.

For the first comment that said you get the traffic and delays from the news you’re wasting your time. Waze and Google maps on your phone is updated in real time and will tell you the best route to take updating during your drive if an accident happens. There is NO excuse to watch the local news unless you want to be fear driven in life.

{ Reply }

Ken January 6, 2017 at 6:11 pm

I gave up broadcast/cable TV in 2004, when I moved to Vermont, and haven’t regretted it for a second. I felt the constant replay of the horrors of 9-11 were a form of mental abuse against all Americans, so I “tuned out”.
Now, I listen exclusively to NPR (although selectively now that Comrade Cheetos is taking over) in order to discover the main topics of the day, then if they’re of interest, I’ll find another source and investigate them more deeply.
It’s up to all of us to stay informed, and not just accept being ‘spoon-fed’ whatever the corporate-media or establishment-political wants to believe is important via their media outlets.
While you’re at it, try reading Howard Zinn’s, “People’s History of the United States” for an alternate perspective. http://www.historyisaweapon.com/zinnapeopleshistory.html

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