Do you need the news?

Published on Feb 10, 2020

Last update: Feb 17, 2020

The news: pleasure, superfluous, or necessary evil?

When it comes to keeping up with the news, I’ve noticed three camps of people:

  1. Pleasure: they love keeping up with the news and aren’t afraid to admit it. These are usually the types of people who have the TV on all day, get real-time notifications on their phones, etc.
  2. Necessary evil: they don’t want to keep up with the news, but they feel guilty if they don’t. Conventional wisdom tells us that for democracy to work, everyone needs to stay on top of all the latest developments. They might also get pulled in through social media and respond to things emotionally. They hate that it’s part of their life, but they can’t help getting dragged in.
  3. Superfluous: this is a growing group of people who 100% cut out the news. Their argument assumes that your friends in groups #1 and #2 will keep you up-to-date with the big news that you need to know. The rest is just noise that you’ll never miss.

Articles like this keep popping up in my life and they’ve made me wonder, should I stop reading the news?

The main argument I hear for quitting the news is that you’ll be happier and less anxious. The news is intentionally designed to invoke emotions, which are probably bad for us long-term. Especially when you’re given doses multiple times per day.

I totally get that. And if you’re the type of person who gets hung up on the latest political strife or viral outbreak or threat to the economy, I could see how this option might make sense for you.

However, my personal opinion is that quiting the news for this reason is like taking a pill to treat your symptoms when you should be treating the cause. Sure, the world is crazy. People do stupid shit that makes no sense. But the fact of the matter is that the world will never organize itself exactly to your preferences. The world isn’t perfect though anyone’s eyes. If you let that bother you, it’s not the world’s problem, it’s your problem. You should of course have preferences and opinions and pursue those with passion. But most people don’t have preferences, they have requirements.

Your obsession with willing the world into a specific shape is the source of your unhappiness and anxieties. You can cut out the news to reduce the symptoms, but you’re not treating the cause.

My view is that only you can treat the cause, but it’s a battle that takes place internally and avoiding the news will never solve.

The passive observer

I think too much news is bad for anyone. Not only is it a waste of time, you’ll also be in a constant mental battle with yourself to not get sucked in.

But I’m not sure cutting the news out 100% is the answer, either. I was discussing this topic with one of my Austrian friends who pointed out that if everybody were to give up the news, there would be no friends who would share important news developments with you. And when society is disconnected from what’s going on, people like Hitler end up in power.

I think that’s a valid point.

I don’t use social media, nor do I troll my favorite media outlets day in and day out. This isn’t because I’m afraid of the stress and anxiety it will cause me, it’s because I feel like it’s a waste of time. I don’t need to know the latest news updates more than once per week, and I think this rule would apply to most people.

The news used to make me anxious, but I recognized it was an internal struggle and fixed it. Now I approach the news as an observer. I’m not there to verify my beliefs. Or to disprove other people’s beliefs. Or to gather information to predict the future. I’m there as a passive observer. I find things interesting. I analyze them. I debate them. But I don’t let myself get attached.

I think the most important aspect to detaching yourself from the news is a commitment to never make predictions. You can read about the latest viral outbreak, but don’t believe predictions about its spread. Nobody can accurately predict that and you do yourself no good making predictions of your own. Focus on the present.

If you read or hear something that invokes an emotion, stop and explore what made you feel that way. Was the article you read about how fast housing pricing are going up and now you’re anxious about getting into the market before it gets too expensive? Or maybe the yield curve just inverted and now you’re worried about the economy?

I’ve noticed that almost all negative effects of the news take place when we read something that’s happening now and use it to imply what will happen us in the future. This causes fear that our predictions won’t come true, and anxiety over what will happen if they don’t.

Follow this one rule, and I promise it will reshape the way you experience the news:

Read the news as a passive observer, ignoring other peoples’ predictions and resisting the temptation to use information about what’s happening now to predict what will happen in the future.

Benefits of news consumption

While there are undoubtedly negative symptoms you can experience from consuming the news, there are also a lot of positives effects it can have on your life.

The news should be viewed through the lens of what’s going on now. Understanding the present gives you power. Not because you can use it to predict the future, but because you can recognize opportunities that exist now because other people obsessing and overreacting in line with their predictions of the future.

I also think that understanding more about the human condition leads to a richer life experience. That’s not necessarily enhanced through Fox News, but I’d still consider most non-fiction to be in the realm of “ the news.” People often don’t read non-fiction to understand what the world is like now, they want to make extrapolations about what will happen in the future so they can feel prepared and in control.

When you resist the news, you resist knowledge (of varying degrees depending on the source). And when you resist knowledge, I think you miss out on part of the human experience. You’re blinding yourself because you’re scared of the implications you’ll instinctively make about the future and the anxieties you’ll cause yourself.

My advice is to train yourself to be a passive observer of the news. Keep your consumption to a minimum. Question everything. Use your knowledge to make decisions now, but never use it to predict the future.

Like most thing, I think making the debate on news consumption black and white is the wrong approach. Maximum benefit almost always exists in the gray areas.

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