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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

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