When I first had the idea for this article, there was a dizzying frenzy of coverage of the impeachment of Donald Trump. I know this from catching the headlines during the occasional glances at the TVs at my gym. They seem to be discussing every minute detail about what is going on. What is not discussed, is how getting a play by play description of every event as it unfolds actually matters. Because, it really doesn't. Not to me at least.
Sure, the large picture overview may be important. Being informed is important. But knowing about this senate hearing going on or that hearing, or what bit of evidence is unfolding. How does that change your daily life? What actions are you going to take differently for having known that?
The focus quickly moved from impechement to the COVID-19 pandemic. Which brought a whole new level of intensity to the news cycle. Spreading all kinds of misinformation, quoting studies that were meant to be preliminary at best, with a sample size of 10 patients, as fact. For anyone who has paid attention to the media over the last few months, it would be hard not to be suffering from whiplash.
Reasons to Put the News on a Diet
In his Ted talk, Rolf Dobelli describes with the analogy "news is to the mind what sugar is to the body." Where he describes news stories as jellybeans, providing your brain with no real sustenense or deeper understanding of the world.
Rolf contents that rather than getting a deeper understanding of the world, news gives us the illusion of understanding. One step further, he says:
"the more news you consume, the less you understand about the world"
He lists 4 reasons to stop watching news
- "Brain interprets sensational as being much more frequent than it actually is"
Conversely the brain ignores silent threats because they are less sensational. This creates an environment full of percieved threats that may not pose any realistic likelyhood of ever occuring to you.
- "News are mostly irrelevant"
The average person is exposed to 10,000 to 20,000 pieces of news a year. Now of that many pieces of news, can you tell me of one within the last year that has helped you make better decisions in your life?
- "Toxic for health"
News creates stress hormones that put the body into crhonic tension and alert. Leaves you jsusceptable to infection.
- "News wastes time"
If you consume news just a few 15 minute increments a day, that ads up to over an entire work day every week. Spent focused on something that is toxic for health and is mostly irrelevant to deeper understanding of the world.
News is Built Like a Casino
Are news headlines setup like a casino? Lets take a step back to discuss the brain chemestry associated with construction a casino. The brain releases a chemical called dopamine, it gives the sense of pleasure at the anticipation of a reward. Just thinking about winning at slots creates a dopamine rush causing the player to want to play. Winning at random intervals works to increase the injection of dopamine and increase the desire to continue playing.
Is news produced in the same way?
When your brain determines that it just learned a piece of information that will be helpful or increases understanding of the world around, it engages the same dopamine reward system that slots engages.
The more significant the story, the more intense the dopamine rush.
News drops kind of like winning at a game of slots. You don't know when the next big story will hit. So you check often, getting a hit of dopamine every time. But major news certainly does not hit in 5 or 15 minute intervals of checking your phone throughout the day. So it creates this anticipation factor that is very similar to how a game of slots is built.
I used to write ad an news headlines that would be used in facebook marketing. Here are a few things I learned about headlines. First, if you create a headline and image that disorient the user, there is a good chance they will engage. Second, the more sensational, the better the performance. The idea was to draw someone with a very similar tactic to the bright flashing lights and sounds that slots machines use to draw people in.
Making you Fearful is Good For News
When was the last time you turned on the news and the newscaster was sitting in front of you, speaking in a calm soothing voice, explaining the happenings of the world? Not anytime I can remember. Just close your eyes, and picture a newscaster. Think about the tone they are using, can you hear it? I can, it is this shrill high pitched voice, always rushed, like a yapping dog. Just thinking of this tone fills me with anxiety.
Now close your eyes and think of what the story is about. Was it about something informative in society? I doubt that is what you pictured. I bet you pictured somethign fear based. Perhaps a war, pandemic, escalating race relations, or the latest terrible thing some politician did. I am willing to bet that general picture of what they are selling in this visualization is that everything is crumbling around us.
In this Psychology Today article, the fear based newscycle is outlined in detail, and how it is harmful to the viewer:
"In truth, watching the news can be a psychologically risky pursuit, which could undermine your mental and physical health." -Deborah Serani Psy.D.
It is a strong statement to say that the act of watching the news could undermine your mental and phsyical health. However, there is an alarming amount of data pointing to just this.
"The success of fear-based news relies on presenting dramatic anecdotes in place of scientific evidence, promoting isolated events as trends, depicting categories of people as dangerous and replacing optimism with fatalistic thinking." -Deborah Serani Psy.D.
I can ironically think of many anecdotes of the news depicting anecdotes as evidence sustained facts. This practice of creating something out nothing helps engage viewers and make it seem like more is going on than really is. It is a bit of factual slight of hand presenting things this way. It is not technically inaccurate presenting isolated events as trends because the implication that they are trends is only in the subtext. So they cannot easily get called out for being inacurate.
"As the first story develops to a second level in later reports, the reporter corrects the inaccuracies and missing elements. As the process of fact-finding continually changes, so does the news story. What journalists first reported with intense emotion or sensationalism is no longer accurate. What occurs psychologically for the viewer is a fragmented sense of knowing what's real, which sets off feelings of hopelessness and helplessness — experiences known to worsen depression." -Deborah Serani Psy.D.
So starting off super sensational, and then backing things down as more facts come in is a great way to hook viewers. Unfortunately, it seems that it creates fragmentation in the persons mind because even as new facts are coming in, the old "facts" still exist as truth to some degree.
Viewers who are exposed to a lot of media are prone to "Feel that their neighborhoods and communities are unsafe, believe that crime rates are rising" and "overestimate their odds of becoming a victim." Knowing this bill of goods, why would anyone want to subject themselves to such a whipsaw of emotions and bad outcomes for their brain? Well, the news media has thought one step ahead and has crafted many incendiary headlines to draw you right back into the news anytime you fall astray.
Will This be Relevant Tomorrow?
Ryan Holiday mentions to focus on the half life of the content you are reading. If it has been relevant for years, it is likely to be relevant for years more. "I found it fascinating to learn that the most popular book in the state and defense departments right now is Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War."
Go Deep Instead of Wide for Your Knowledge
You can get blown over by the constant whip saw of the news cycle, or you can focus on developing your knowledge in a timeless fashion.
By watching the news you give the constant worry and excitement power over you. It will carry into other aspects of your life. The mere act of watching it tells your brain this is important and this is real. You will begin to emulate the worry and excitement.
I get it, Obsessive Hypertension is not a real thing, I just made it up. But it describes the dysfunctional state of persuing more knowledge, even though it mostly harms you.
Because of the way the reward circuitry in our brain works, we pursue more bits of news tirelessly. Even if, as a whole, being plugged into the news causes us anxiety, increased heart rage, and makes us tired, our brain circuitry still rewards us for the bit of information that makes us feel better or understand the world better.
The News Encourages Passivity
The goal of the news is not to get you motivated to action. It is to get you to watch the next segment. Not to better yourself and learn deep knowledge, but to have a fleeting 30 second overview of a topic and move on.
What happens when something that seems like a big deal is on the news, and then we do nothing even though our concious is telling us that something must change, that what we are seeing is tragic? By doing nothing, our brain has to make sense of it all. It has to become jaded in order for it to to deal with the mental stimulus and not taking action on it.
You are engaging in passivity if you scroll facebook mindlessly, watch 24/7 coverage, or keep up on the latest popular TV Series. Since all actions have consequences, and the consequence of engaging in passivity in one area of life creates more passivity in other areas of life.
News Has a Negative Bias
It is not that news is necessarily intentionally biased. Even if we give it the benefit of the doubt, the very nature of news is sensationalism.
You will not see a report about the thousands of cars that sit without being broken into in a neighborhood. That simply is not news, it is just the normal turn of events. You will however see a report of the one car that got broken into.
Likewise you will not see a reporter declaring that there is no war breaking out in any of the countries that are not at war. But you will see breaking reports of countries in crisis and conflict.
This is because that is what the definition of news is. The problem comes about because humans are not particularly good at processing this information. As we see the report of a single car break in, or conflicts in other countries, we internalize this information. While we do that, our mind often vastly overstates the risk of each of these things occuring to us.
Some Good News
The feel good news show created by John Krasinski from The Office has taken the internet by storm during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is kind of an anti-news show, where the weather consists of people looking out their window and saying "looks uh... pretty good." and was purchased by CBS.
The success of Some Good News really shows how hungry people are for something that bucks the trend of the 24/7 news cycle.
A Media Diet
How you select and consume content has more importance than most people give it credit for. Luckily, we are in control. We can decide how we interact with news and decide whether it should be a part of our self-care regime.
But what are we in control of really?
- We can choose to turn off the news rather than and being intentional rather than passive.
- We can choose what media we consume, where we consume it from.
- We can choose to read print articles rather than 24/7 news cycle outlets.
- We can choose how long we spend daily consuming news, if at all.
- We can choose how we react to the news we are exposed to.
- We can pick up a book instead of a remote
Here are a few suggestions if you decide to start a media diet:
- Delete the news app from your phone
- Limit time on social media – most social media is essentially just a way of filtering news
- Avert your eyes from news tickers on TV's in gyms, airports, etc
- Don't mindlessly scroll headlines when bored in line or waiting on something
- If you do consume news, be intentional about how long you will and what sources you will view
At worst, the news may be more dangerous to our health than we realize at the surface. At best, it is still a tremendous waste of our time and energy. Somewhere in the middle, consuming news is a practice of passivity.
To best protect ourselves from the dangers of the news, we can engage in a news diet of some sort. There is a choice to could completely quit news, that is ok, we won't suddenly die of being uninformed. We could simply become a little more mindful of what the effects of the news we are consuming is on us. We could do nothing, and continue to consume news passively. The choice is ultimately yours, though if you decide to go on a news diet, be prepared to see the sirens of a well oiled news system all over the place, begging you to get entranced.