Everyone kind of already knows that the news sucks. In all my life, I can’t think of anyone who seems to enjoy reading or watching the news every day. It’s a kind of bitter responsibility or endured necessity for people. News is like the societal version of flossing: it’s not fun, yet we continue to do it every day anyway, as a sort of obligation to prevent decay of the social order.
We all get it: yes, the news is overly negative, and yes, it often gets some things wrong. But in the end, we’re better off for it. That’s how the argument usually goes. Some even say we need the news, that democracy is impossible without it.
In this article, I’m going to challenge that idea. In fact, I’m going to argue that the news doesn’t just seem to be horrible, in its current form it is horrible. It is actively damaging our culture. And most of what we blame on social media or the internet—the upticks in stress, anxiety, pessimism, and polarization—is misplaced. News media is the true culprit.
Obviously, this is a bold argument. And this article will be quite long. We’ll investigate what makes some information valuable and other information worthless. We’ll look at how networks of information emerge and how news has traditionally traveled throughout human history. We will look at how the internet and social media have affected those traditional networks, and, of course, I’ll take a stab at explaining why our current media environment is a shit sauna.
Finally, I’ll discuss what I feel are better alternatives for staying informed than consuming news. There will be lots of links.
So, take a deep breath… maybe grab a stress ball. This is going to take a while.
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Why Is the News So Terrible?
Let me ask you this: when was the last time you made a major life decision based on a news story? Or: when was the last time information from a news story directly impacted your life? And I don’t mean, “It made me really, really upset,” impacted. I mean, like, actually impacted you.
Chances are you can’t remember. That’s because the vast majority of news is irrelevant. Car chases. Bank robberies. Celebrity overdoses. Sports scores. Homeless people throwing feces at each other. None of us ever really have the experience of seeing a news story and immediately thinking, “Man, I need to change what I’m doing.” If it’s ever happened to me, I don’t remember it.
The news does not tell you what job to take or how to deal with your angry husband or what the best brand of headphones is or what to feed your kids in the morning. It doesn’t help you to be a better friend or explain why you have panic attacks or advise on the best way to deal with an unruly child.
The news is pretty much useless for helping you determine what to do with your life. You may argue that the news helps you determine who you vote for, but research suggests that even that’s not true—we are far more swayed by our friends, family, and day-to-day circumstances than any information we may find on the news.1 If you want to know a politician’s platform today, you can just go to their website or hear them speak directly on YouTube. You don’t need a talking suit on television or an op-ed section to tell you what to think.
If we’re being honest, most of the value we get from consuming news is having something to talk about with other people who consume the news. And considering this has a 50% chance of making you hate each other, even that value becomes questionable.
So, if the news isn’t sharing useful facts or information that is directly affecting millions of people’s lives, what exactly is the news trying to do?
Well, that’s easy. The goal of the news is to motivate you to keep consuming news.2
They do this in a few ways:
- They present emotionally-charged information that feels important, even though it isn’t (a politician making a gaffe, for instance).
- They catastrophize everything to make you believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime event and nothing will ever be the same ever again… until something else happens. The recent assassination of Soleimani in Iraq is a current example.
- Once they’ve overblown the severity of an event, they shuttle in a small group of “experts” to help you process the significance of the event. Unsurprisingly, most of these “experts” end up saying, “We’ll have to wait and see.”
- They obsess over pointless details to human interest stories—what kidnap victims were wearing, who were the mass shooter’s parents, how many tacos Joe Biden ate yesterday, etc.
- They aim to entertain rather than inform. CNN now has entire segments where they simply show popular YouTube videos and then laugh about them.
These strategies produce the net effect of causing the consumer to feel like they’re being informed, when actually, we’re getting highly skewed perspectives on (mostly) irrelevant events that have been blown out of proportion to get you emotionally worked up and upset. So of course you tune in again tomorrow to see what happened next!
Now, these complaints have existed for decades. You’ve probably heard them before. And you probably justify them as necessary evils. I mean, you’ve got to wrap the important stuff in some gruesome entertainment, right? It’s the sugar that helps the medicine go down.
But I disagree. Not only is it not necessary, but this style of outrage porn harms us and our culture.
- Recurring Trauma – Studies find that many people who view catastrophic events (terrorist attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters) repeated over and over again on television can develop PTSD-like symptoms, even though they had no direct experience of the catastrophe.3
- Agenda Setting – When the news media becomes obsessed with a topic and shows it repeatedly, people begin to believe that topic is important, whether it actually is or not (hello, Monica Lewinsky).4 Similarly, negative news coverage causes people to overestimate problems, believing they’re far more widespread than they actually are. What’s worse, this seems to only be true for negative news. Positive news does not cause the same biases in our thinking.5
- Cultivation Theory – Studies report that people who watch more news tend to overestimate the amount of crime and violence that happens in the real world. They also generally distrust their fellow citizens more often, becoming paranoid that everyone is out to get them.6
- Misinformation and Propaganda – People who watch partisan cable news (e.g., Fox News and MSNBC in the United States) are actually worse-informed than someone who watches no news. Large swaths of the news industry are actively misinforming people.
- Stress and Anxiety – News consumption harms our mental health. Consuming news generates a greater sense of pessimism about not just the world, but your own life.7 It also increases stress and symptoms of generalized anxiety.8
To sum up: we have highly emotive content of little relevance and utility promoting skewed and inaccurate perceptions about the world, about other people, and about ourselves. It generates stress and anxiety, causes greater distrust in others, and can actually make us less informed about the world. Oh, and it runs 24/7, on every social feed, every homepage, in every airport, every hotel, all day, every day, forever and ever…
Gag me with a fucking Flintstones spoon.
Yet, news still has this reputation as something that needs to be watched. Like the proverbial veggies for our cultural diet. The broccoli that allows us to enjoy the dessert.
Last summer, I wrote a long article called The Attention Diet. In that post, I argued that the most important personal challenge we face as individuals today is to learn how to manage and care for our own attention. To take our attentional health seriously the same way we would care for our body (or not). This is especially relevant, because in the age of Twitter diplomacy, pretty much everything is designed to hijack our attention and trigger compulsive and repetitive behaviors in consumers. When I wrote that article, I lumped news media in as one of many culprits. Just as I decided to cut most of the video games, social media, and funny cat memes from my life, I lumped news into that category as something I probably spent too much time on.
I didn’t think much of it. I’ve read the news daily my whole life. The second half of 2019 was the first time I had ever experimented with cutting it out of my life—and it also happened to be peak cultural insanity to boot.
At first, my friends thought I was a bit crazy. People challenged me saying I had a moral duty to follow the news. That the news is what makes democracy function (man, whoever sold this line to the world surely made a killing). That I would be left out of conversations. That I wouldn’t understand what was going on.
A few months went by… and something funny began to happen. Yes, I became less stressed and anxious. I kind of expected that. I also became more productive (which was nice). But something very unexpected happened.
I became optimistic.
For the first time since I can remember, I actually think the world is doing all right. Better than all right: great.
Now, you might think, “Well, ignorance is bliss, you clearly haven’t been paying attention.” But, no, actually… I have.
I don’t believe I’m less informed than I was before. In fact, oddly, I believe I’m more informed. Now, when events occur and I hear about them through friends, I’m able to situate them in their proper historical and global context. I’m not swayed by the mood of the moment. I don’t freak out when Donald Trump says or does something abominable—we’ve had many, many shithead presidents. And we’ve survived.
Instead of feeling out of the loop, I’ve begun to feel like the only one in the loop. Instead of my friends explaining the world to me, I often find myself in the position of talking them off the ledge, explaining that no, this isn’t new or unique; yes, these things happen all the time; no, we’re not going to war; yes, it sucks—but we’ve survived worse. Somehow, despite not reading dozens of op-ed screeds or watching hours of talking heads bobble about the crisis du jour, I’ve found myself more informed. Calmer. More level-headed… than almost anyone I know.
A lot has been made about the harmful effects of social media in the past decade. People have claimed that it was causing anxiety, depression, and suicides.9 But study after study has come out showing that social media is probably not the massive danger we all think it is.10 And, in fact, when used well, social media can actually increase wellbeing.11
I’ve become convinced that we’ve mistaken the dangers of social media for the dangers of news consumption. After all, most of us consume our news through social media, so it’s easy to forget that they aren’t the same thing.12 Over and over, I’ve looked into the social media research to find nothing. But when I look at the research on news consumption, there it is.13
News is not the proverbial vegetables of our social body. News is like a bacon cheeseburger with two donuts for buns.
And while that perfect mixture of salty and sweet sure does taste good going down, it makes us sick and nauseous later. It’s an information nutritional nightmare. And worse, it’s addictive.14
But has it always been this way? After all, we used to eat more vegetables a few generations ago. And nobody had even heard of a donut bacon cheeseburger. Is it the same for news?
The rest of this article is going to look at two things:
- How has news become the cultural trainwreck that it’s become?
- What can we replace it with to be a happier, healthier, more functional citizen body?
The next few sections are going to get philosophical. We’re going to look at questions about how information spreads through human societies, how technology affects the ease with which information passes through networks, and how the internet scrambled those networks like a basket of cheap eggs.
Human Networks of Information
Thought experiment: let’s say it’s 5,000 years ago and you live in a little village with a few hundred other smelly, hairy humans. What’s the best way to spread an important piece of information so that everyone knows it, as quickly as possible?
One idea is to stand in the middle of the town square and scream whatever you need to say a few dozen times. It’d be annoying. And your vocal cords would get sore. But it’d probably be effective—it’d get the news out, that’s for sure. Let’s call this the proclamation form of information-sharing. It starts with one central person announcing information to many, many people.
But that’s not the only way to get the news out. Another would be to walk up to a few people individually, tell them the news, and then kindly ask them to pass it on to others. Ideally, if the news is juicy and exciting enough, it will spread from person to person, like syphilis in a brothel, until everyone is, err… infected… What I mean is that the information would organically work its way through the networks of people until everyone knows it. Let’s call this the hearsay form of information-sharing.15
Proclamations can be pretty effective. But not anybody can just get up and start screaming whatever they want. Generally, throughout history, you needed the permission of the king or the lord or whatever. What’s more, generally, if you’re going to stand in the town square screaming something, you can only scream something that would make Mr. King happy. Therefore, we can say that proclamations depend on appealing to the elites.
Hearsay is also effective. You just talk some shit and see if it spreads. The hardest part about hearsay is sharing something exciting enough to get other people to talk about it. Discussing the recent ratio of rice-to-wheat harvest is unlikely to get many people chatting in the local tavern. But mention that so-and-so’s cheating on you-know-who, and pretty soon nobody can shut the fuck up about it. Therefore, we can say that hearsay depends on appealing to the masses. Or, at least, appealing to specific sub-groups.
It turns out, these two methods—proclamations and hearsay—are how information has been disseminated throughout human history. You’d be chilling in the local tavern having some mead, and merchants would arrive with news from the neighboring city to trade for some news from where you were. Networks of kin and neighbors traded info about other farmers—who was marriage-material, who was screwing up the harvest, and, of course, word of marauders, bandits and the like.
Hearsay is information that is spread across decentralized networks of individuals. Your crop fails because of some new fungus. You tell your neighbor. Your neighbor tells the local merchant. The merchant tells the buyers in the next town over: “No wheat this year. Tough titties.” And the information continues from person to person until it saturates the network of interested people (or it runs out of connections).
Nobody is completely independent. People clump themselves into groups and tribes. So decentralized networks depend on these clusters of people to spread information. If you want to spread the news, you don’t just tell a random Joe Schmoe on the street. You find the leaders and heads of communities, people who are networked and connected. Decentralized networks depend on humans clustering themselves into groups to receive and transmit info. This fact will be important for later.
But then, let’s say, someone pisses in the king’s cornflakes and he decides that everyone needs to hear about it. So, the king would send someone down to the town square and this person would stand there and scream what the king wanted everyone to know until his eyes bled and everyone begged him to shut up. These people were literally known as “town criers” and believe it or not, they held a lot of prestige for much of human history. They were the OG Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. When they showed up in town, people knew something serious was brewing. Town criers were rare but major events. The proclamation of a war, a new tax, a royal wedding. It was a big deal.
Proclamations are information that spread through centralized networks. It’s info that comes down from the top.
Centralized and decentralized networks still spread information today. In fact, not much has changed. People talk shit in their little clusters on social media, saying the prime minister is a weenie, then Mr. Prime Minister does a press conference and everyone shuts their traps and listens.
Other times, decentralized networks overrule centralized networks of authority. Kings and emperors are overrun by the disaffected masses. Civil rights and social justice movements organically emerge from overlapping groups with no central leader and change major policies. Both centralized and decentralized networks possess power. Both proclamations and hearsay spread information through society simultaneously and in their own ways.
Tyranny and Revolution: The Evolution of Human Networks
Throughout history, some technological innovations have made proclamations (centralized networks) more effective ways of transmitting information. Like, whoever invented the first bullhorn suddenly made their town crier like three times more effective. That, in turn, would make whoever has control of screaming in the town square more influential and powerful than before.
Similarly, whoever invented the bulletin board increased the power of decentralized networks. Now you walk into the local tavern and read what dozens of people needed and cared about without having to find them and talk to them. This means whoever is best able to write effective notes on the local bulletin board would gain power.16
You could almost look at world history as a tug-o-war between centralized networks and decentralized networks, based on whatever the predominant communications technology was at the time. When centralized networks are prominent, power tends to be concentrated and autocratic, centered on the few people who have access to the bullhorn. But when decentralized networks are bolstered, it’s all about what groups can organize themselves and inspire followers. Centralized networks produce the tyrants and decentralized networks produce the revolutions that overthrow them and reset the game. And on goes the seesaw of human history.
Below are some of the most impactful technological developments and how they affected centralized and decentralized networks of information. As you can probably guess, we’re going to end up at the internet.
Invented: Around 3,200 BCE
Promoted: Centralized networks (Proclamations)
Writing was the first and most important technological innovation in the world because it allowed knowledge to be shared between people who never met each other—including people from past generations with future generations.
On the surface, this sounds like it would promote decentralized networks. Everyone would start writing each other notes, chiseling their own clay tablets and handing them out like candy at a Thanksgiving Day parade.
But that’s not what happened. Back in the day, writing was expensive. Clay tablets, man! Shit ain’t cheap. On top of that, only the elites were educated enough to read and write, therefore, writing mostly served as a way to create proclamations given by the king.
It’s no coincidence that it’s around this point in human history that empires began to emerge. The written word allowed kings to coordinate their subjects over vast distances. It allowed them to unify millions of disparate peoples under a common code of laws and ethics.17
Later, the centralized control of information would grant the great religions dominion over most of the planet. Revolutions were minimal, if non-existent. The vast majority of the population couldn’t read or write, much less coordinate themselves across wide areas. Unless you were highly educated and highly connected, you weren’t able to write anything of importance or usefulness. And if you were highly educated and connected, you were part of the elite anyway, so why cause trouble? Censorship was absolute. Saying the wrong thing could get you killed. Everything went through your king or priest, no questions asked.
This period was no fun.
The Printing Press
Invented: 1440 CE
Promoted: Decentralized networks (Hearsay)
It’s a sad irony that the invention most likely responsible for creating the modern world resulted in the inventor going broke, being exiled, and dying a disgraced nobody. Johannes Gutenberg created the printing press, a machine that could mass-produce books and pamphlets affordably. What, at first, seemed like a convenient way to reproduce bibles and some poetry for a quick buck, would soon revolutionize the world.
The reason writing initially favored centralized networks was because it was expensive, both in terms of labor and money. Teams of monks would spend months copying bibles by hand. Only kings, emperors, and popes had access to scribes to write out hundreds of copies of whatever they wanted to say.
But the printing press changed all that. Now anybody could approach a printer and have their ideas reproduced. Whereas the written word expanded the reach of the centralized networks, the printing press would similarly expand the reach of decentralized networks. And this expansion would shift the balance of power in the world.
That shift didn’t take long. In 1517, Martin Luther published his “95 Theses” criticizing the Catholic Church and launching the Reformation. For centuries, the Catholic Church had murdered any dissenters like Luther. But Luther had reprinted hundreds of copies of his theses. Anyone could pick up and read them. Killing Luther was no longer sufficient. You’d have to kill all his followers. Thus began war.
Luther’s Reformation would eventually spark over a hundred years of bloodshed across the European continent. It would inspire monarchs to distance themselves from the church. And it would help inspire small, holy enclaves to seek religious freedom in the New World.
But the printing press wasn’t done. By the 1600s, independent scholars were publishing their own work and promoting a new idea called “the scientific method.” The scientific method was decentralized—anyone could use it and arrive at their own conclusions. Ideas about inalienable human rights, the rule of law, and democracy would take hold. The ease of publishing and promoting work across decentralized networks allowed the Enlightenment to flourish.
The first newspapers emerged around the same time, independently determining important information and disseminating it through local merchant networks, circumventing the king’s proclamations and town criers. This group of publishers was seen as an ally of the new Enlightenment ideas, as they helped coordinate social movements in the 17th and 18th centuries that would lead to democratic revolutions. The American Revolution relied heavily on the printing and dissemination of political pamphlets.18 Similarly, revolutionaries in France coordinated across the country and, for the first time, realized they were getting royally screwed by the king (pun totally intended). As Robert Darnton, a historian from Princeton put it, “Without the press, the French Revolution was impossible and unthinkable.”19
That said, news media in this era was also a shitshow. Fake news proliferated. There were practically as many newspapers as there were people. And you think people are polarized today? Hoo boy… There were stabbings in Congress. Politicians shot at each other. Their supporters bombed and lynched and killed each other over nothing but rumors and insults… or rather, that is, hearsay.
Radio and Television
Invented: 1895 CE (radio); 1925 CE (television)
Promoted: Centralized Networks (Proclamations)
I lumped radio and television together here because they both occurred at similar times and the same companies who started radio stations ended up also dominating television.
Radio/TV once again favored centralized networks for two reasons:
- Like writing in the ancient world, running a television/radio station was prohibitively expensive and difficult and only the elites would have access to the resources to do so.
- These technologies allowed someone to hit millions and millions of people with the exact same information simultaneously. It was as if a mutant town crier with a hundred vocal cords could scream for thousands of miles in every direction.
The 20th century presented a hard return of centralized power: it was peak colonialism, the rise of totalitarian governments (of which North Korea is still a hold out), two world wars and that whole ugly Nazi thing.
Radio and television launched the industries of advertising and public relations. When millions of eyeballs are watching the same exact thing, this grants a huge opportunity for businesses (and governments) to persuade people to think or feel a certain way. This is where the ability to manipulate and influence people into certain opinions or desires became formalized into the practice of propaganda, or as it’s known today, marketing.
Radio and television likely created the most cultural solidarity we have ever seen in human history. Everyone was watching the same shows, listening to the same music and following the same events. The wars of the 20th century pitted half the planet against the other and everyone held on for their dear life. From World War I, up through the end of the Cold War, there was always relative political conformity and trust, especially because no matter what country you were in, you were likely united against some large external enemy.
Invented: 1983 CE
Promoted: Decentralized networks (Hearsay)
The originators of the internet saw it as a great liberating force on humanity. At the time, they lived with the media gatekeepers of the television and radio stations, limiting the vast majority of the population’s ideas from being widely expressed.
But now, with the power of networked computers, anybody could get online, start a website, and start spitballing their bullshit into the wind, hoping somebody would stop awhile and listen.
Whereas TV and radio expanded the reach of centralized networks to worldwide audiences, the internet would expand the reach of decentralized networks worldwide. A professor in Canada could exchange emails with a student in India and come up with an idea that would be tested in China and written up in newspapers in Australia.
It sounded like heaven. And while the internet has granted us incredible amounts of information and perspective, it hasn’t quite lived up to its utopian expectations. In fact, public discourse has kind of gone to shit. And it’s done so for a few reasons:
First, the old guard of media has faced the economic realities: for better or worse, pretty much any kid with a computer can compete with them now. This caused revenue to plummet and led them to cut large chunks of their staff–most notably, investigative journalists and foreign correspondents, the people who made them reliable and trustworthy in the first place. Expensive news that took years of study and months to report was no longer economical. So the traditional media giants began to look more and more like their amateur competitors, while their amateur competitors leveraged marketing strategies to make themselves appear far more reliable than they actually were.
Second, because everyone’s phone is on them all the time and we’re all compulsively checking social media and email, emotionally impactful information (regardless of its truth or utility) spreads extremely fast. Thus, it’s easier than ever to make a quick buck by indulging in the worst human tendencies. You want to net a bunch of traffic by cooking up a fake pedophile ring in a pizza shop?20 Hell yeah, go for it!
Third, by giving voice to everybody, the internet unintentionally gave voice back to the uglier sub-cultures of society that were once barred from any mainstream attention: the bigots, the conspiracy theorists, and the cranks. In our idealism of giving the whole world a way to express themselves, we forgot that most people say really awful shit.
The internet is like the modern printing press. It allows anyone to express themselves, challenge authority, and share information on informal networks outside of the traditional pipelines. On the one hand, this is great. It grants greater freedom of expression and the opportunity for self-actualization to everyone. On the other hand, it’s a fucking mess, because as a society, we don’t know who to listen to or what to believe anymore.
Like the period after the printing press, we are seeing more explicit challenges to the establishment; we are seeing a resurgence of tribal and religious affiliations; we are seeing emerging conflicts over the identity and direction of country and culture. The times are tense. The internet has complicated… well, everything. But if we’re willing to look hard enough, we can spot iridescent flashes of collective brilliance breaking through an otherwise endless stream of bullshit.
To Sum Up
- When centralized networks of information have the advantage, we get smaller quantities of highly relevant information. The danger of these networks of information is that they can easily be corrupted for tyrannical purposes like the Catholic Church in the Dark Ages or the totalitarian governments of the 20th century.
- Decentralized networks promote higher quantities of low-quality information. The quantity of information generally fragments the population into warring factions based on tribal or religious identities. They only trust their preferred messengers and distrust everybody else.
- Whereas centralized information networks promote conflict between political bodies, decentralized information networks promote conflict within political bodies.
- Where centralized information networks solidify and reinforce cultural identity, decentralized information networks tend to overthrow and revolutionize cultural identities. Sometimes these revolutions are huge leaps forward for humanity (Enlightenment, civil rights, etc.) but other times, it’s just a bunch of arbitrary, religious-style fighting.
- Decentralized information networks create a much larger diversity of information, but the signal-to-noise ratio is poor, making it incumbent on each individual to navigate the information and carefully choose what is worth consuming and what should be ignored.
- To put it into plain English: the frustrations we have with news media—the negativity, the lies, the partisan bickery—it’s not going to change. It’s not going to get better. It’s on us to learn how to navigate the media environment and vote with our eyeballs. To do that, we must understand what information is actually useful and important, and what is just nonsense.
What Makes Information Useful?
OK, let’s state the obvious. Some information is important, some is not. Some information feels important while being totally unimportant. And some information feels unimportant while it’s actually quite crucial.
The most succinct way to sum up the issue today is that news media optimizes for information that feels important with little regard to its actual importance.
If we look back through history, this is a common state of eras where information networks are highly decentralized. What travels is what feels impactful, even if it’s not—and even if it’s not true! Because the news has to compete in a highly diverse market with tons of noise, they must be ruthless in capturing people’s emotions as effectively as possible.
Eras of centralized information networks have had the opposite problem: they share information that seems unimportant but is actually quite important. Like the Soviet announcements of monthly bread rations or the long, tedious Congressional committees that drone on C-SPAN in the United States every day, these forms of news are dull and boring. But they matter.
Back in the 1950s, when there were only two TV channels, they could show a 12-hour congressional committee and you really had no option. That’s what was important. That’s what people needed to know. You lived with it whether you cared or not. But as cable news and the internet emerged, the incentives for media companies pushed them more into fighting for people’s hearts rather than their minds. They profited off having the most emotional information, not the most factual.
Today, if someone tries to show a congressional committee, the next channel is going to bury them with pictures of dead children in Sudan and plane crashes in Iran. There’s no chance.
This is why we’ve all experienced the “decline” of news media over the past 30 years: we’ve lived through the slow escalation of emotional impact at the cost of veracity and utility. On the one hand, we have more choice of information than ever before. But the average quality of that information is far lower. It’s simply the trade-off that comes with the technology.21
Useful macro information is information that directly impacts you and/or has an outsized influence on the economy. Prescription drug price policy is important information. The safety rating of your car is important information. A tariff on sugar is important information.
These things are boring, but they are important because they are the first-order effects that drive almost everything else. As the old saying goes, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Cultural issues usually happen downstream.22
Almost everything else is hogwash. Terrorist attacks? School shooters? Neither of these would probably be such a problem if it weren’t for the news coverage in the first place. Trump said something stupid? So what? Wake me up when there’s another $350 billion tariff.
When you focus on first principles, the news becomes incredibly empty. I’d say 80-90% of the content out there is either: a) catastrophizing some irrelevant event, b) horse race updates when all you need to know is who won, or c) opinion and commentary dressed up as news.
You can skip all this stuff. You don’t care about the events. You don’t need to know about the horse race, just the winner. You don’t need more opinions; you need data.
How the News Media Hijacks Your Attention
There are certain biases within our minds that we all fall victim to and the news media leverages them to keep us engaged and wanting more. There’s the negativity bias, a well-documented effect where people pay more attention and have more intense emotional responses to negative events than positive events.23 There’s the present bias, the tendency to put more weight and importance on events that have happened recently, as opposed to far in the past or the future. There’s the narrative bias, the desire to arrange information in terms of a coherent story structure (i.e., “The stock market dropped 2% today because it rained in Michigan”) even if it’s not true. And finally, there is the almighty confirmation bias, the propensity to arrange new information so that it agrees with our previously-held beliefs.
Chances are if you think about the news you’ve consumed lately, pretty much all of it is: negative, recent, story-driven, and supports your previously held beliefs.
News media leverages our biases to keep us hooked and consuming more information, regardless of its utility. Especially in our decentralized world of the internet, the name of the game is attention, and the news media will use every tool to leverage more of yours. As such, news media specializes in information that is immediate, fast-moving, narrative-driven and highly visible.
The problem is that the most important information is usually long-term, slow-moving, impersonal, abstract and invisible, and not necessarily negative:
- Car accidents kill more people than terrorism, mass shootings, and natural disasters combined. How much reporting do you see on car accidents or driver safety?
- The sequencing of the human genome was arguably more important than any other scientific development in the 1990s, opening a path to predicting disease and conditions before they occur, altering and improving the health of millions, if not billions, of people over the coming generations. How many weekly updates did you hear about it?
- More than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty worldwide, due to a combination of greater access to health care, sanitation, and the opening of markets for greater commerce. Who knew?
- Despite the fact the first international climate agreement was signed in 1992 by 154 countries, news media has just only recently started covering climate change with any significance — and if we’re being honest, it’s probably just to go along with all the natural disasters that they’ve been milking.
Paradoxically, in its effort to inform wide audiences, news media positions itself to misinform and over-inflate extreme outlier stories.
But this is not the news media’s fault. It’s simply how information scales in large decentralized human networks. The information with the greatest emotional valence will travel the furthest and be broadcast the loudest. Gone are the days where we have reliable journalistic mainstays who can consistently nail what is most significant. The structures simply aren’t there.
Instead, we must rely upon ourselves. After all, in the internet age, we are the ones who are empowered: the user. We must screen out crap information and consciously seek out useful information. We must develop an awareness of how our attention is being seduced and prevent ourselves from getting sucked into the social media vortex of never-ending comment threads.
For the first time in human history, our relationship with news depends on us.
What To Do
Here’s the short version: Seek out the highest-value content you can find, and then pay for it. Limit your consumption to a few pieces of content per week. Go for quality over quantity.
By high-value content, ask yourself how much that content cost in terms of the labor, research, expertise, production, etc. Long-form content is more expensive than short-form. Research and citations are more difficult to put together than just some old dude ranting. Something that explains the historical context and acknowledges multiple sides of an issue is more difficult and time-consuming than a partisan rant.
I focus on the expensive thing because right now, the news media industry is going through a slow-moving crisis of their own design (and ironically, it’s too slow-moving for them to report on it). Research, fact-checking, traveling to some crazy war-torn country, and not getting your shit blown up—these are all expensive. Hiring a journalist with decades of knowledge on a region is expensive. Interviewing professors and digging into research is expensive. Meanwhile, online advertising revenue pays next to nothing. So, more and more, media outlets are subtly and secretly pushing out cheap content that looks expensive—uninformed 24-year-olds who can sorta, kinda sound like an experienced journalist with a lot of Google-fu.
There are only a few publications that have the luxury of not playing the Clickbait Headline Game, and that’s because they charge enough money that they don’t have to. Publications such as The Economist,24 Financial Times or Foreign Policy don’t give a shit if their articles are fun or not. They’re not writing for the general public. They’re writing for professionals who depend on the information to make big, expensive decisions. This is where you want to insert yourself into the information pipeline. Long, boring, thoughtful pieces, put together by long, boring, thoughtful people. One good piece of long-form journalism that focuses on real data is worth dozens of crappy short-form pieces you find elsewhere.
When you get into the less expensive publications, you start to run into a lot of bias.25 You can feel the articles getting more frantic and the headlines more hyperbolic. Then, once you’re into the cheap (or free) seats, you’re basically being spoon-fed what to think and feel.
The point to remember is that you want your news to be a little bit dull. If you’re getting excited or worked up reading something, chances are you’re being taken for a ride.
If you can’t afford more expensive news publications, then I recommend skipping news entirely and simply reading books. In terms of quality information per dollar, books are the best bang for your buck. These days, I aim to make books account for at least 80% of my total reading time.
You may worry that by only reading books, you’ll “fall behind.” But I think you’ll actually find the opposite. If you take the hours and minutes that you used to spend reading news and instead read books about the same topics, within a few months, the “news” that everyone is freaking out about will seem trifling to you. You will see how slowly the world truly moves. You will have more context and clarity than most and you will recognize that almost nothing needs to be known the moment it happens.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention blogs and podcasts. Blogs/podcasts are interesting in that they don’t succumb to the same economic realities of mainstream news media—they don’t demand huge overhead expenses to maintain, and they rely on the personal trust of their readers to continue to exist. Also, most prominent bloggers and podcasters gained their expertise elsewhere, therefore allowing them to offer high-value information at a huge discount.
Put simply: most blogs and podcasts suck. But the best ones are arguably better than any other content on the planet right now.26
If you can find one of these experts, they can often be a gold mine of non-partisan, on-the-ground information. Bloggers such as Tim Urban, Ben Thompson, Tyler Cowen, Scott Alexander, and Dan Wang provide a ton of value for little to no cost at all.
What to NOT Do
But perhaps more important than finding sources of high-quality information is cutting out the sources of low-quality information. And there is a lot of low-quality information out there. If you get nothing else from this behemoth of an article, please consider cutting the following from your information diet entirely:
- STOP Watching News on Television – In surveys, cable news is consistently the least informative and most biased source of information. The nature of television demands constant stimulation and therefore undermines pretty much any serious discussion of a topic.
- STOP Following News Sites on Social Media – Trust me, if something is important enough, you’ll hear about it anyway. People will link to it. They’ll email you. Whatever. When you follow news sites on social media, you are opting in to the attention game. You are allowing yourself to be triggered and fought over by egregious headlines, moral outrage, and clickbait. Just don’t play it. Unfollow all news sources on your social media. Not only will it make your news experience better, but it will make your social media experience a hundred times better.
- STOP Clicking on Clickbait – I know it’s easier said than done. But seriously, get into the habit of actively seeking out information instead of passively receiving it on your newsfeeds or apps. The algorithms on these platforms do not work in your favor. Cut them all out and then when you need to know about a subject, go looking for the info yourself, preferably in a book.
- STOP Consuming News That Requires Less than 20 Minutes – Most short-form news is garbage. If something requires more than 20 minutes to consume, that likely means it took weeks or months (years?) to produce. This means skip the hot takes, the quick interview clips, the editorials, and the breaking news alerts. Instead, download long-form articles, watch documentaries, listen to long-form interviews and podcasts where the person has time to explain themselves and get into the nuance of their positions. The world is complicated. You need time to sort it out.
- STOP Getting All Your Information from One Source – Make a conscious effort to check both left-wing and right-wing sources. Get info from minorities and women and foreigners. Follow professors and follow really smart kids with too much time on their hands. There’s a lot to be said for diversity. But the real diversity is diversity of thought. The wider the range of ideas you expose yourself to, the less you’ll ever be caught off guard by whatever new event happens.
Knowing The World’s Not Going to End
I was in Australia over the New Year. As I’m sure you know, there are huge bushfires that have consumed huge stretches of land there, destroying natural habitats, and displacing thousands of people.
We saw the smoke when we were there. We rode a train through the Blue Mountains and saw acres of charred forests. On our first day in Sydney, the pollution level was the same as a small coal-mining Chinese city… i.e., toxic to even be outside. We talked to the locals in Adelaide about the burnt wine country. But all in all, it was like anywhere else I’ve been after a disaster: it’s sad, but life goes on. People are getting on with it.
Then I started getting emails and messages from friends and family back home. “Are you OK? Have you been hurt?” They said, “You should come home! It’s not safe!” I looked up from my phone: sunny skies and beautiful beaches. What in the hell were they going on about?
I was then subjected to what I could only call insanity. News headlines claiming that Australians’ way of life is forever lost, that everything is burning, that over a billion animals (an absurd number) have been killed. One article even went so far as to imply that the entire country will soon have to be abandoned.27
I’m as alarmed as anyone about climate change, but come the fuck on.
Every few months it seems as though there’s something like this. Whether it’s Brexit or Trump’s impeachment or the Amazon burning or China’s internment of a million Uighurs—we live in the Age of Hyperventilation.
But while there’s an endless stream of tragedy in the world, there is so much that the news never teaches you or shows you.
The news doesn’t show you how bad humans are at predicting the future. How pretty much every projection, scientific or not, ends up incredibly inaccurate. It doesn’t tell you that we’ve been predicting civilization-leveling catastrophes since pretty much the dawn of human thought—and every time, we have been wrong.
The news doesn’t teach you that technology doesn’t develop linearly—how it comes in unexpected leaps, and then trounces prior assumptions under the weight of its efficiency.
The news doesn’t tell you that natural disasters are just that: natural. Yes, they may be occurring slightly more often and be more severe, but they are, and have always been, the rule, not the exception.
The news doesn’t show that the vast majority of people are good. They will help if they can. They care even if they’re confused about how to care or why. The news doesn’t teach you that most people won’t hurt you and even if they do, you will recover and be fine and be stronger than before.
But most of all, the news doesn’t teach you that moral outrage, while strangely satisfying, gives people a sense of accomplishing something without actually accomplishing anything. Posting on social media or writing a scathing op-ed may feel as though it’s contributing to some grand movement, some great push for humanity, but that push is, more often than not, grounded in nothing.
Nowadays, I briefly check a handful of news sites, maybe once a week.28 I read maybe five news articles in total. They are articles I choose, based on my own perception of what’s important and what matters. The rest is books, blogs, and podcasts.
Months ago, my friends felt sorry for me. They worried that I’d be out of touch, that I’d lose my connection to society and the world, and that I’d become disempowered to change it.
But the opposite has happened. I have realized that it is they who are out of touch, disconnected, and disempowered.
And this is the ultimate failure of the news media as currently constructed: it creates a passivity, a false feeling that we’re not somehow part of the narrative that we are also watching unfold. It lulls us into thinking that we don’t—that we can’t—have some role to play in the drama. It convinces us that our obstacles are too great, that our fears are too deep, that we are incapable of overcoming the same challenges of the thousands of generations who have come before us.
And this is what was lost. The town crier was never meant as a mere announcer. He was an instigator. He was a call to arms to leave our domestic safety and take up the business of the world that is ours. He reminded us to not simply receive the news but to go out and be the news as well.
What news will you be?
Looking for more books to read?
- Beck, P., Dalton R., Greene, S. & Huckfeldt, R. (2002). The Social Calculus of Voting: Interpersonal, Media, and Organizational Influences on Presidential Choices. American Political Science Review, 96(1), 57-73.↵
- By the way, this is true of any information source, including this blog. (P.S. Subscribe to my weekly newsletter!)↵
- Mark A. Schuster, et al., (2001) A National Survey of Stress Reactions After the September 11, 2011, Terrorist Attacks, New England Journal of Medicine, 345(20)↵
- Dearing, J; Rogers, E (1988). “Agenda-setting research: Where has it been, where is it going?“. Communication Yearbook. 11: 555–594.↵
- Wanta, W., Golan, G., & Lee, C. (2004). Agenda Setting and International News: Media Influence on Public Perceptions of Foreign Nations. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 81(2), 364–377.↵
- Riddle, K. (2009). Cultivation Theory Revisited: The Impact of Childhood Television Viewing Levels on Social Reality Beliefs and Construct Accessibility in Adulthood. International Communication Association. pp. 1–29.↵
- Johnston, W. M., & Davey, G. C. L. (1997). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British Journal of Psychology, 88(1), 85–91.↵
- Mary E. McNaughton-cassill (2001) The news media and psychological distress, Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 14:2, 193-211↵
- The most famous claims have come from the popular (and controversial) researcher Jean Twenge. But her data is all correlative. Yes, depression, anxiety, and suicide have all increased since the advent of social media. But that doesn’t mean social media is the cause. See her scary-sounding study: Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2017). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17.↵
- A longitudinal study that followed people over eight years found little negative effect from social media use. See: Coyne, S. M., Rogers, A. A., Zurcher, J. D., Stockdale, L., & Booth, M. (2019). Does Time Spent Using Social Media Impact Mental Health?: An Eight-Year Longitudinal Study. Computers in Human Behavior, 106160. Also see: See: Collis, A., & Eggers, F. (2020, January 14). Effects of Restricting Social Media Usage.↵
- OK, I’m going to get pilloried for this. But a meta-analysis of 124 studies on social media use found that when used primarily to keep in touch with relationships and entertainment, social media actually improves well-being. See: Liu, D., Baumeister, R. F., Yang, C., & Hu, B. (2019). Digital Communication Media Use and Psychological Well-Being: A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 24(5), 259–273.↵
- Amanda Zantal-Wiener, 68% of Americans Still Get Their News on Social Media, Even If They Don’t Trust It, HubSpot, Originally published Sep 14, 2018, updated Dec 11, 2019.↵
- Another example: Bodas, M., Siman-Tov, M., Peleg, K., & Solomon, Z. (2015). Anxiety-Inducing Media: The Effect of Constant News Broadcasting on the Well-Being of Israeli Television Viewers. Psychiatry, 78(3), 265–276.↵
- I have to give credit to Rolf Dobelli’s fantastic essay, “Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet” for the original comparison of news to the sugar of our informational diet.↵
- Many of the ideas from this section are drawn from Niall Ferguson’s book, The Tower and the Square: Networks and Power. Just to make things even more confusing, Ferguson uses “the square” to represent decentralized networks whereas I am going to use the town square to demonstrate centralized networks.↵
- See: A History of Mass Communication: Six Information Revolutions by Irving Fang, PhD.↵
- See: Hammurabi’s Code↵
- One of these tireless publishers was named Benjamin Franklin.↵
- Bernstein, Richard (Feb 18, 1989) “How the Storming of the Bastille Liberated the Printing Press, Too.” The New York Times↵
- This actually happened. See: Pizzagate Conspiracy Theory↵
- It is important to note that I would argue that the ceiling on the quality of information has gone up. Extremely high-quality information is available for anybody today. It’s just incredibly difficult to find.↵
- There are a few significant exceptions to this: racism/sexism, for instance. But for the most part, economics drives culture, not the other way around.↵
- Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383–403.↵
- Coincidentally, when I went to the Economist’s website to link it here, the first article on the front page was about how car accidents are more dangerous than almost anything else and how easily they can be prevented.↵
- This includes, but is not limited to, The New York Times (sadly), The Washington Post, The Guardian, Slate, Breitbart, Town Hall, and so on.↵
- Yes, I’m totally biased.↵
- I posted a couple of long responses to Aussies about these types of news articles and the fires in general on my Facebook Page. You can read them here and here.↵
- Research shows that small amounts of focused news consumption is optimal. See: Bourkes, M. & Vliegenthart, R. (2017) News Consumption and Its Unpleasant Side Effect Studying the Effect of Hard and Soft News Exposure on Mental Well-Being Over Time. Journal of Media Psychology, 29, pp. 137-147. ↵