No News Is Good News
Commonplace Newsletter #78
The news does not matter. It has little, if any real impact on your life besides what you allow it to have. Like a vampire, The news- whether mainstream, alternative, printed or screen-based- is a parasitic force that will drain you of your energy, happiness and rationality if you welcome it over your threshold and in to your life. The key is to simply never invite it in.
Now, I’m sure this controversial opening paragraph has already got some readers citing objections and caveats, reaching for counter-examples and exceptions, or simply getting ready to wave me off as an uninformed fool who doesn’t know what he is talking about. And perhaps there is something to that, given that my online avatar is a pixelated rendering of Stanczyk the Court Jester. But jesters are kept around because they say what needs to be said. And they express these unpopular messages with enough wit and entertainment that the kings let them keep their heads and indeed value their council. Which is the service that I am hoping to perform for you today.
So. The news- always and forever- is a bad thing. It’s an enervating, confusing, stress-inducing, dubious, unnecessary force that shakes the foundation of our own personal agency as well as causing us to make consistently poor and unwise decisions whilst haemorrhaging a colossal amount of precious time. It makes us sentimental1, fearful and angry. Perpetually perturbed.
And the reasons we are given for consuming it- for example: It keeps us informed, it’s good for democracy, it holds power to account, it makes us care- are not only shaky, but out and out laughable when you step back from the perpetual news cycle and take a moment to catch your breath, clear your head and attempt to observe the system from the outside with detachment.
This is my contention and this has been my experience. I am not judging from a place of superiority here, I should add, I am more like an on-the-wagon former news-junkie who had a short but very intense news relapse when the pandemic first rolled into town two years ago. And so, in the spirit of doing something productive and useful with some of these extra hours that a news free life has brought me, I am going to try and persuade at least one of you to consider attempting news alert abstinence and sensationalism sobriety.
But before that can happen we must first understand a little more about what this thing is that we call the news, and what it is doing to us.
An early misconception that I will need to dispel is that the problem we are discussing here today is not simply that of so-called fake news2. Fake news is a term to describe news that is merely untrue3. Whereas it is the ‘real news’, (that which we hold to be essentially true), that poses an even bigger problem. Real news (this is the last time I will make this distinction) is the real problem. The whole unquestioned idea of news, the whole edifice that the structure of what now passes for journalism4 is built upon is the issue here. And as with so many things, the ubiquity of the internet and the proliferation of smartphones have proven to simply be an accelerant and amplifier of pre-existing structural and philosophical flaws. The problems of the news are not new, they are just more visible now to those of an inquiring disposition.
So what is the news anyway? In its simplest and most universal definition news is information about recent events or happenings. That’s it. And so the news has always existed in some form since the advent of language and civilisations. It was transported by messengers whether it be by Hermes, the herald of the gods in Greek mythology5 or by some mortal messenger who was quite often murdered due to the contents of the message in spite of the saying warning the recipient against such actions. We know we shouldn’t shoot the messenger, but alas.
This is all interesting enough but it is by the by. The news as we know it is a relatively recent invention. It came about some time after the advent of the printing press and was presaged by expensive, subscription-based newsletters6 which gave the affluent mercantile readership detailed information on the shipping timetable, cargos, business and speculations being conducted in the city and so forth. But these were specialist publications and the news from its earliest newspaper form on has always been a generalist affair. It was aimed first at everyone in the town, and then the city, and then the whole nation and more recently, in the internet age, a single global nation.
With this widening scope- and the technological advances that allowed it to take place, from Samuel Morse’s telegraph onwards- came the issue of capturing attention and winning out over the scores of competing newspapers that sprang up to both slake and stoke this growing desire for printed accounts of the days happenings. If the news ever had been a truly dry, neutral and wholly accurate retelling of the days events7, it soon ceased to be this given these pressures. Newspaper magnates and journalists soon realised that for them to win out in this newly formed attention economy their newspapers would have to be sensational. They would have to feature the unusual, the exceptional, the dramatic, the negative (because humans are drawn more to bad news than good news), the scandalous, the sentimental, the fear-inducing, the anger-provoking, and the immediate.
And with a century or two’s refinement of these tactics and methods, we as news consumers now feel the impact more than ever in both our physical and mental health outcomes as well as in the media-informed worldviews and heuristics we carry around with us and use everyday.
I suspect on some level many of us know this, or at least intuit it. How many of us have felt true fear or disgust or burning anger after watching the evening news or reading the morning paper or listening to the radio as we commute to work? How many of us have left snarky replies to trending media tweets or submitted rage-fuelled comments on news websites? And yet we continue to consume the news.
So before I can try and talk you into walking away from all of this, we need to look at the reasons that people give for why the news is important and why consuming it is worthwhile, even in spite of these problems.
There are two sets of reasons for why people consume the news- the reasons they claim are true and the actual reasons8. We’ll tackle each set in turn.
People claim that they consume the news- and this used to be my reasoning too- because they argue that it is both a good thing and in fact a duty to be informed about the world at large. But this belief- and it is at root an article of faith- doesn’t hold up to real scrutiny. Because where is it that you hear that voracious media consumption is part and parcel of engaged citizenship? Why in the media of course. It comes either overtly through direct messages (which are often thinly veiled advertisements for you to subscribe or donate to the news organ in question), or more covertly through TV show lifestyle depictions of affluent, educated, urbane protagonists being extremely plugged in to current events. Think of the prestige drama series showing Sunday broadsheets and French Press coffee and witty repartee at the breakfast island within the characters’ minimalist yet vast penthouse apartment with its expensive furniture and panoramic views of the metropolis outside. Such images go into our minds and we begin to model them mimetically- and if we can’t have the whole high flying lifestyle we can at least emulate the newspaper toting or smartphone swiping aspect of the vision quite easily.
News-following, then, can be a signifier of a certain aspiration, of a desire to be seen as intelligent, worldly, caring, in-the-know. It strikes me as an adolescent’s attempt to appear to be an adult by wearing their parent’s much larger shoes and suit jacket. Or rather it is more akin to drinking a lethally strong cocktail when you are years under the legal drinking age. The child thinks it makes them appear grown up, but in truth it sets them down a dark path. Because like regular heavy drinking, News consumption like this can be addictive. It can be a prop that morphs into a nasty, life draining habit.
But I’m getting a little off track. I think that most people would claim that they consume the news because it is good for democracy or good for society. This also is an article of faith. Indeed, as Alain de Botton has noted in his book News: A Users Guide the news itself has to a certain extent taken the place of religion as “our central source of guidance and touchstone on authority.” I would wager that in the Western world there are more people who check their newsfeeds upon waking than their are those who say a prayer or read a line of scripture to start or end their day.
And if this is the case then what exactly is the message behind the news as a religion-replacing worldview? Well for a start negative news is reported versus positive news on an over 17:1 ratio, so the meta-narrative of the news is that the world is a very troubled place filled with predominantly bad actors. It doesn’t matter whether this is actually true or not, what matters is that people’s seemingly inherent bias towards negative news is exploited to maximise the time/money the consumer spends imbibing the news9. It is at root a means of self-perpetuation. The real theme of all news is the importance of the idea of news itself.
The democracy and society improving aspects of news-following are its foundational doctrine, as we have hinted at above, but they do not hold up to the light of reason. Think about it. As the Swiss writer and former news junkie turned anti-news advocate Rolf Dobelli has observed “[The average person] has devoured 20,000 news items in the past 12 months- 60 per day at a conservative estimate. Did a single one help you make a better decision about your life, family, career, well-being or business?”
Now I don’t know about you but when I encountered this question and truly reflected the answer was no. All of this time spent staying in-the-loop and it had not made a jot of positive difference to my real life and the things I truly care about. Further, not only had the news not helped me I also could barely remember any of it. It was just an amorphous grey blur of vice, crime, folly, greed, violence, war, disease and natural disasters. A swirl of unconnected events with no context. A vast cluster of individual dots with no explanatory lines to connect them together.
So what was I getting from it, what was my drive to keeping watching and reading and scrolling. Entertainment. That’s the real answer. The news was a way to stoke strong emotions- anger, revulsion, dread, fear. Sure it wasn’t as entertaining as many other forms of entertainment, and it certainly wasn’t relaxing or rejuvenating, but it got the old heart beating and the blood boiling which is something, right?
Yet surely indulging in this form of pastime over any length of time can’t be good for us- either mentally or physically. It turns out that news consumption is indeed bad for us in both of these senses. And of course this is a piece of news that the news doesn’t tell you about.
“News is to the mind what sugar is to the body.”
The news, as Dobelli argues, is like sugar- it’s appetising, it’s seemingly everywhere, it’s cheap and easy to consume and it’s bad for us. And on aggregate we are seemingly consuming more of it than ever. And just as obesity, diabetes and other metabolic problems have risen in line with sugar consumption so have certain states and conditions risen in line with increased news consumption (especially in its online form which is the high fructose corn syrup equivalent if we are really going to push this analogy to breaking point).
Now, I don’t want to make the classic correlation equals causation error but the rise in anxiety disorders seems to track pretty neatly to increases in news consumption. And all of the issues I discussed in my previous essay on attention span play into this, as much of what people look for when they look at social media timelines is news10. You watch the news to try and understand the world. The news is presented without context and it pre-determines which events and stories are important. To gain traction the news emphasises what is highly visual and dramatic and so you witness moments of crisis and distress, which leads to you consuming more such imagery to try and make sense of it all, and on and on the cycle continues. It begins because you can never know in advance what a story or video will contain, but then once you have clicked on it, you are in. It’s all very bingeable by design.
The presentation of factoids and images-no matter how many- will never provide you with insight into the functional context of how the world works. In fact the more images and updates and dispatches from the frontline you imbibe the less it all makes sense. The news is the opposite of understanding because understanding is a question of seeing processes and trends. These exist on a wider timeframe than the immediacy of news allows and most of it is unfilmable, messy and often tedious. This is why real understanding of a thing can only come from books and long-form work and above all, actual thought and experience. Rather than being a thing that fosters thought, the news seems to actively suppress the act of thinking.
So as well as leading you to imbibe all of this often horrific, depressing, stress-inducing misery all of which you as an individual can do precisely nothing to either change or control, this ‘sugar news’ of anecdote, scandal, gossip and distant disaster completely skewers your ability to make decisions and assess real risk in your own actual life.
News makes you scared of highly dramatic and highly unlikely events (plane crashes, shark attacks, terrorism etc) while also being oblivious to insidious and creeping risks that are low-key and hard to make dramatic and visual (say antibiotic resistance or indeed chronic stress caused by being in a news-induced perpetual state of physiological arousal).11
All of us have different lives and so different priorities. We have- or should have- particular and differing skills, interests, hobbies and abilities. So how is a global, top-down, beyond-our-control looping reel of contextless events and disasters going to be anything more than a distraction at best and a serious stressor at worse?
If an event is actually important to your real life, you will find out about it. Such news will find you. Surely you have to decide what you pay attention to based on what matters to you. Surely this is part of what having agency as a human being is all about?
So what are you supposed to do instead, you might ask? Well, reducing news consumption is a good start but like Dobelli I would say mere reduction is probably not enough. Personal experience of attempting moderation has made me more of a hardliner. Personally, I vote for going cold turkey and simply walking away from the whole idea of news and the illusion of staying informed.
As I stated above, actual insight and understanding of context and processes rather than mere events comes from reading books and long form articles, often long after the event itself has passed. From delving into philosophy, history, classic literature and so forth. The human condition, the driver of events, does not change.
In Anna Karenina Tolstoy wrote: “The newspapers published a great deal that was superfluous and exaggerated, with the sole aim of attracting attention and talking one another down.” He wrote that in 1877. Human nature does not change.
In that same century Thoreau wrote: “Read not The Times. Read the eternities.” This entire essay is a mere contemporary recontextualising of these seven words.
And in our own century Dr Ben Goldacre wrote in reference to the overly simplistic way scientific research is presented by the news: “... complex problems often have depressingly complex causes and the solutions can be taxing and unsatisfactory.” This in a nutshell tells you why consuming the news will never lead you to true understanding, let alone helping to bring about solutions or change- those two goals that we all cite as the reasons why we keep up with the news in the first place!
So how do you bring about change, then? Well, from my experience you ignore all of the things you cannot control and that have little bearing on your life (again, if there is some news that will actually effect your life you’ll hear about it) your focus narrows to your local environment. To yourself and your family and your street and your neighbourhood. These are things you can influence. And from here your influence ripples outwards, and rather than being trapped by impotent rage and fear and confusion, you see that the reality is that you can make things happen. And this is the only piece of news that matters.12
Until next time,
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To be sentimental about certain people, places and memories in your own life is of course both perfectly fine and completely human. However. To approach life and decisions from a permanently sentimental lens- to be persuaded by sentiment- usually shows that rationality and free thinking have gone out of the window as you have been manipulated by guilt tripping and appeals to emotion.
In spite of my studious attempts at news avoidance, terminology and buzzwords still enters my awareness via real life conversations with friends and family who are news readers. Even if you try to escape the news it will still find you, at least to an extent. We will talk about this more a little later on in this essay.
The idea that all fake news is fake because we are told it is fake by the same people who tell us there real news is real is something that should raise an eyebrow of the reader. However this is a side issue beyond the scope of this essay, and an inflammatory one at that. If we assume that everything bit of news we are told is fake is fake, and that everything we are told is real is real, this will not alter the thrust of my argument here one iota.
As far as I can tell, many of those who entered into journalism for noble and morality driven reasons and who believe in doing serious investigative work have mainly migrated away from working for news outlets and towards using Substack, Patreon and other such reader supported online venues as individuals instead.
Hermes was also a trickster and usually not to be trusted, interestingly enough.
The Substack business model (the place where you are reading these words unless you are reading them in their subsequent book form) is reminiscent of this post-Gutenberg model. The reader pays a subscription fee to an individual or small team who in turn are able to provide in depth reporting or insider tips. What was once old become new again. The post-post-modern is the pre-pre-modern to quote the Irish writer Michael Foley.
And this is highly debatable, even at the offset, as the very act emphasising of one event necessarily implies the downplaying or ignoring of another competing event given that newspapers are the same specific size each day. You must fill the edition on a slow day and you must not publish ten times the usual size on a busy day. This means editorial decisions, which means pure neutrality is thus inevitably lost.
I’m not claiming to be a mind-reader here. I was once a voracious news consumer myself and if asked I would have had my virtuous, pro-social reasons for doing so down-pat. But introspection tells me they were false. In reality I was feeding the worst parts of my nature out of a learned compulsion. The problem drinker claims he drinks to be social and because he enjoys it, but his inner reasons- often largely hidden from himself and the world- are not so rosy. That’s all I’m saying. And even if there is no underbelly to your reasons for news consumption, the actual stated reasons are based on fallacies anyway.
According to the Center of Media and Public Affairs, homicide rates fell by 42% during the nineties, yet TV news reporting of murders rose more than 700% during the decade.
I haven’t fully fleshed this theory out but I would say that the four horseman of the online apocalypse are: (Breaking) News, Low Bandwidth Self Help Content, Pornography, and Games With In-Play Purchases. Something like that.
Falling down stairs is the second leading cause of injury in the US. Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause. See what I mean?
A final footnote. These past few years have seen a real acceleration in doomscrolling, fear-porn news and belief that distant events matter and that we should care. Fine. But I would say this- if a disaster or event does concern you give money. Don’t ‘raise awareness’, don’t signal and tweet and get into arguments and angry tirades. Don’t feed the news machine. Donate if you feel you must and walk away. This way you will have at least done something and stopped that news consumption spiral before it has a chance to really take root.