20 March 2012

Goodbye News

Here’s a wonderful paper on why you shouldn’t consume news.  The author gives fifteen reasons for this (note: the reasons are in bold, my commentary is in normal font).  Among them:

News is Systematically Misleading.  There are two primary reasons for this.  First, journalists are in a constant rush to get a scoop, so being first to press often leads to be rushed, and unintentionally reporting things that aren’t true, or reporting things that aren’t well-qualified.  Second, all reporters have biases, and will thus occasionally lie simply to reflect their biases (just ask Dan Rather—zing!).  There are other issues as well:  sometimes journalists don’t really understand what they’re supposed to be reporting on, sometimes there are typos or other types of information misidentification, sometimes reporters are lied to, etc.  As such, the news is often misleading; sometimes intentionally, sometimes unintentionally.

News Is Irrelevant.  News focuses more on breadth, not depth, and rarely offers any insightful commentary.  At its best, news is simply a well-organized list of facts; at its worst it is a poorly organized list of lies.  News, by definition, never provides any method of interpreting the facts that are presented, and so it is irrelevant to most people because it doesn’t and can’ make sense in a broader context.  Also, a number of news stories are simply anomalies and not part of a larger trends, and therefore not worthy of being considered as a factor.

News Limits Understanding.  As above, news does not provide the means to make sense of what it presents.  It provides no key to interpretation.  That, plus its lack of depth, encourages passive reception and shallow thinking.  What can be made of a simple list of often incomplete facts?  Not much.  Furthermore, the media of news often encourage people to respond emotionally, not intellectually.

News Inhibits Thinking.  In many ways, this is simply due to the fact that news is often a distraction.  It is packaged in small, easily digested chunks, and is intended to provoke an emotional response.  It should come as no surprise, then, that news junkies are often shallow thinkers.

News Is Produced By Journalists.  Journalists, in this day and age, often see themselves as intrepid reporters, forcing people to confront the truth about themselves and their action, or about hidden things that no one sees.  They are activists, out to change the world by revealing the truth to everyone and calling them to action.  In reality, journalists are nothing more than skilled writers whose main ability is crafting narratives.  They are as deserving of one’s trust as lawyers are.
News Is Manipulative. In his excellent book How To Watch TV News, Neil Postman observed that news is nothing more than entertainment, intended to sell ads.  He also noted that the news (and, more broadly, television programming) is indeed influential, as evidenced by the fact that TV stations could sell brief ad spots on the grounds that thirty seconds of viewing television was sufficient to convince someone to buy a specific product.  Of course, then, news is manipulative, for it is like all other TV shows in its ability to manipulate behavior.  Any journalist who says that news is not manipulative needs to return advertisers’ money.

News Gives Us The Illusion of Caring.  This describes a roommate I had in college, who would constantly ask me if I had heard the latest news about nonsense that happened in the world of sports, or in the world of politics, or just in the world in general.  I often had not, since I refused to keep up with things I considered to be inconsequential.  My roommate, upon hearing that I did not keep up with every new piece of irrelevant trivia, would occasionally claim that I didn’t care about things that were happening around the world.  Of course, he was quite correct in his assertion.  However, he failed to realize that, even though he read about things happening around the world, he never actually did anything about them, and so he didn’t care about those things either.  He simply allowed himself to believe that being aware was the same as caring, and so he developed this wholly undeserved sense of superiority.

As might be clear, I don’t ever really read the news, and haven’t for some time.  I’ve never watched the news, and cannot stand to watch any of the news networks, like CNN of Fox.  I cancelled my subscription to the WSZ when I was a sophomore in college, and killed all the news sites from my RSS feed a couple years ago.  I don’t regret it, as I’ve found that I can generally find the important things by relying on filters.  I’ve also found that most of the stuff I once read on a daily basis was pretty much irrelevant.  I highly recommend the linked article, as well as its recommendation to avoid the news.  Furthermore, I recommend reading more books, particularly those that delve deeply into highly specific subjects.  You will think better and more deeply, and be better able to make sense of the world.  Also, your time won’t be wasted with pieces of inconsequential fluff.

2 comments:

  1. Another thing about news is that the more you put it off, the better your returns are. During the presidential election season, you could spend your entire day reading article after article, and every last one of them becomes completely worthless the day after the results. Same deal with watching a war or revolution (provided it's not in your own country).

    That said, it's still ok to follow news... as long as you're honest with yourself and don't delude yourself that you're investing your time or anything. Rather, that you're doing it for the entertainment, nothing more. (It's basically identical to following sports.)

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  2. @GFM- Yeah, I've found that both sports analysis and political analysis leave me pretty cold. Prior to the game/election, it's all worthless because it's speculation. And most of what happens after the game/election is speculation as well (why things went wrong/right, what could have happened differently). At the end of the day, what happens is what happens and the frenzied intellectual masturbation before and after the event is always worthless.

    It is, like you said, mere entertainment, except I no longer find it entertaining.

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