Save Yourself! 5 Compelling Reasons to Ignore the News

I upset my grade 3 teacher, Mrs. Martin, when I announced that I didn’t care about the war in Vietnam. She kept me in at recess to plumb my psyche. Didn’t I think it was important to be informed, to bear witness? “Nope,” I replied with nine-year-old certainty. “If I can’t do anything about it other than feel bad, I need to ignore the news.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t heed my own advice. Over the years, like most of us, I have consumed tens of thousands of news stories–in print, on television or radio, via social media and the Internet. I follow the news for the reasons Mrs. Martin suggested. I want to be knowledgeable, able to hold my own in conversation with others. I fancy myself a citizen of the world whose opinions and beliefs are rooted in evidence. And if something awful happens to someone halfway around the globe, the least I figure I can do is feel bad about it. I don’t want to be that egocentric person who attends only to what directly impacts me.

However, I have recently come to the conclusion that nine-year-old Karen knew what she was talking about. Sorry, Mrs. Martin, but from here on out I’m going to do my best to ignore the news.

The News Ain’t What It Used to Be

In Grade 3 current events class, we’d take turns sharing news items we had gleaned from the newspaper. Over the course of the year, we each had to come up with an equal number of local, national, and international reports. Samantha always got the best marks and the most praise from Mrs. Martin because her dad subscribed to The New York Times, while the rest of us were stuck with the Toronto Star or Telegram. News, especially international news, just wasn’t that easy for nine-year-olds to come by.

Fast forward a few decades to the Oklahoma City bombings. That was the start of the 24-hour-a-day news cycle. Relentless exposure to news has since become the new normal, exacerbated and amplified by sharing via social media. It is incredibly difficult to ignore the news.

Broadcast Versus Narrowcast

Worse, cable and the Internet have meant that newscasts can now appeal to increasingly narrow audiences. While it seems counterintuitive, we might have been better off when just a few networks controlled the majority of TV programming.

…if you surround yourself with like-minded people, you’ll end up thinking more extreme versions of what you thought before.

Cass Sunstein
At least, that’s the argument put forth by professor of journalism Charles Seife in his excellent book, Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True? Seife explains:

“A news network program had to try to appeal to the entire television audience–it had to be, quite literally, a broad cast–if it was to compete with the other two networks that were taking the same strategy. This meant that the networks couldn’t become too partisan or take an extreme position on anything, for fear of alienating its potential audience.” (p.71)

Cable television allowed for increased choice. This resulted in the Fox News and MSNBC networks leading the way in creating news programs narrowly targeted to specific subgroups–far right Republicans and far left Democrats respectively. The result, says Seife, is that

“Narrowcasting is gradually beating out broadcasting, and the casts will get narrower and narrower as the audience becomes harder and harder to find. In effect, as audience becomes more narrowly defined, the viewer is getting more power about what kind of news and data are served up and what kind of news and data are ignored.” (p.72)

And Then There’s the Internet

As this Statista chart indicates, 18-44 year-olds are more likely to consume their news via the Internet, while those 45 and older tune into the news on television. According to Reuters, the reason for the difference is as simple as what you grew up with and therefore became accustomed to.

The Internet is to news what car horns are to music.

Tom Rachmann

chart showing main news source by generation

Maybe I’m just exceptionally naive, but I was surprised to learn that watching the news on CNN.com or BBC.com, for example, isn’t the same as watching the CNN or BBC television stations.

When you look at the news on the Internet, the website is tracking which stories you read and which ones you ignore. That information is then used to present you with news items that will appeal to you personally.

Seife concludes,

“The Internet is allowing narrowcasting on a scale never before dreamed of…You might not even be conscious of it, but your online behavior is dictating what news you’re exposed to, what data you’re being served. In a very real sense, you are controlling which elements of the outside world you see and which you don’t.” (p.72-73)

It’s Not About You

Here’s another thing that I learned in childhood but, to my regret, forgot. I remember being amazed when my Grade 8 teacher, Mr. Rice, announced that my favourite television programs existed to support the commercials. What? I’d always believed that the shows I loved were the priority and the annoying commercials were there to pay for them. It took me a long time to get my brain to flip its perspective.

We need to remember that news, in whatever form we consume it, is a for-profit business. While there are many well-intentioned and competent journalists contributing important, thoughtful news items, the organizations they work for require advertiser support or they cannot survive.cluster of press people gathering with cameras

If It Bleeds, It Leads

Advertiser support is based on views, and therein lies the problem. Our brains are wired to seek novelty. We tune in to what is awful, popular, extreme, or unusual. In a challenge to her readers to ignore the news, life coach Kathy Hadley gives some interesting (although unsourced) statistics that I’ve paraphrased as:

“Every day millions of things happen–85% good, 10% neutral, 4.9% unwanted but not really terrible, .1% really bad. News selects what they want to show from the .1% and we give it our attention.”

Novelty is enhanced by urgency, the concept of ‘breaking news’. Do you remember when we could count on breaking news to be, well, breaking news? Those days are gone. A local radio station, for example, developed a three-tone sound when the twin towers collapsed. It was an alarming sound to match a terrifying experience.  That same sound is now used for everything from a school bus delay to a forecast of rain three days hence.

How Angry/Sad/Grateful Are You?

Please take a look at these two coffee commercials. Each are just a minute in length.

Brain researchers have taught advertisers and news agencies quite a lot in the last couple of decades. The Tim Hortons commercial capitalizes on two of those learnings, specifically: We think in story   and emotion drives attention.female marionette puppet

These findings play out in the news in a couple of particularly egregious ways. In television news, for example, “If you don’t have good video, you don’t have a story.”  Returning to the fact that our brains seek novelty so we tune into what is awful, popular, extreme, or unusual, it’s easy to see what kinds of stories make for good video. Hint: It’s not the thoughtful conversation by a panel of experts.

Advertiser support comes from views but,  just as important, those viewers need to stick around. Therefore, the more that a news item can play on your emotions, the longer you will watch and the more ads the network will sell. An easy way to do this is to share opinions and feelings and disguise them as facts.

To add insult to injury, the local television news station I’ve been watching likes to tell both the on-camera interviewee and the viewer exactly what emotion they are supposed to be feeling. They do this by asking leading questions like, “How angry are you that x happened?”

5 Compelling Reasons to Ignore the News

I don’t want to create the impression that the big bad news media companies are master puppeteers, gleefully manipulating our poor, defenceless minds. First, as I said before, there are thousands of fine, upstanding journalists working hard to bring us meaningful, important news stories. And second, our brains do a great job of messing with us, totally independent of others’ intentions.

If you aren’t willing or able to completely ignore the news, I’ll give you some ideas of what to do instead so that you can hopefully counteract most of the negative effects. But first, let’s consider five reasons we all might want to listen to nine-year-old Karen and choose to ignore the news.

1. Feeling negative and fearful all of the time is harmful and wrong.

Steven Pinker, author of Better Angels of Our Nature, has the evidence to prove that “Our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.” Unfortunately, we don’t believe him. In fact, Gallup polls conducted in the United States consistently show that people believe that everything, from values to terrorism, just keeps getting worse. 

Our brains are a big part of this problem. As a teacher on parent interview night, twenty-nine parents might compliment me and one parent criticize me. You know whose words I would replay as I lay in bed that night because this reaction is true for all of us. Our brains are hardwired for survival which used to require paying attention to what scared or angered us. We no longer need to fear an animal eating us for dinner, but we are still hardwired for negativity. Two-thirds of neurons in our brain’s amygdala are geared toward bad news. We process negative data faster than positive data, and we are quicker to store negative data in our long-term memory.

Remember our thirst for novelty? Bad news taps into that need and our negativity bias keeps us coming back for more. Then another bias – the availability bias – kicks in, convincing us that the horrific events we read about or view over and over and over again in “breaking news” happen far more frequently than they do.

“Jihadists killed 94 people inside the United States between 2005 and 2015. During that same time period, 301,798 people in the United States were shot dead.” But we fear terrorism more than guns, and airplanes more than cars, because terrorist attacks and plane crashes are more novel, more visual stories that we see repeatedly broadcast in the news.

2. If we’re talking quality of life, the news is mostly irrelevant and sometimes harmful.

Other than weather forecasts, traffic reports, and the occasional book review or health promotion piece (neither of which are really news), can you name a news items that has positively affected a significant decision you have needed to make in your life? I can’t.

However, I can name times when I’ve felt resentment or even contempt towards a group of people based solely on how they have been portrayed on the news. Again, this isn’t unusual. We tend to view the people in our community quite positively. But when it comes to others who live elsewhere, the news is often the sole source of our judgments.

The most important decision a man will ever make is whether he lives in a friendly universe.

Albert Einstein

Research shows that the news affects our political stance. According to a report in Scientific American, “When people feel safe and secure, they become more liberal; when they feel threatened, they become more conservative.”

Perhaps this is a good time in our world to recognize that choosing to ignore the news is also a political act. As spiritual teacher, Jack Kornfield reminds us,  “The quieting of our mind is a political act. The world does not really need more oil or energy or food. It needs less greed, less hatred, less ignorance.”

Politics aside, negative news has also been shown to have an impact on the quality of our day. In a 2015 study, 110 people were sorted into one of two groups. One group watched three minutes of negative news stories before 10 a.m.; the second group watched three minutes of news stories where the focus was on solving a problem, such as inner city children working to succeed in a competition. All participants were emailed six hours later and asked to fill out a survey sometimes in the next couple of hours. Participants who watched the three minutes of negative news were 27% more likely to report their day as unhappy, even six to eight hours after viewing.gumby like characters showing see, speak and hear no evil

3. The news makes it easy for us to do nothing.

People who choose to ignore the news are sometimes criticized for being ostriches with our heads in the sand. After all, terrible things will continue to happen even if we aren’t watching. Choosing to be oblivious wouldn’t seem to serve anyone.

However, when we view the news and do nothing, we’re really no different from the person who has ignored the news and done nothing. As missionary David Livingstone said, “Sympathy is no substitute for action.” Neither is empathy or outrage.  It is easy to get stirred up, share our feelings via social media or in person, and consider ourselves done.

It is equally easy to feel overwhelmed by all of the bad news. We might be convinced that there is no point voting, or donating, or working to improve our health. This state of learned helplessness doesn’t serve the people we are concerned about, and it doesn’t serve us.

4. Negative and scary news stories put our bodies in a state of chronic stress.

Fear initiates the release of cortisol, a stress chemical, into your bloodstream. In a fascinating study out of UCLA, researchers found that people who watched six or more hours of the Boston Marathon bombings on the news suffered more stress than people who actually witnessed the bombings.

It is important to note, however, that news stories cannot make you clinically depressed or anxious unless you were already predisposed to those conditions.

5. “We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press.”

Those are the words of Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions. Dobelli goes on to say, “If you think you can compete with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong.”

Dobelli is referring to mental biases we all possess. The confirmation bias shuts down critical thought. Warren Buffet explains the confirmation bias this way:

“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Charles Seife elaborates:

“Getting rid of our wrong ideas is a painful and difficult process, yet it’s that very process that makes data truly useful. A fact becomes information when it challenges our assumptions. These challenges are the raw material that forces our ideas to evolve, our tastes to change, our minds to grow. With news and data that is tailored to our prejudices, we deprive ourselves of true information. We wind up wallowing in our own false ideas, reflected back at us by the media. The news is ceasing to be a window unto the world; it is becoming a mirror that allows us to gaze only upon our own beliefs.” (p.73)

Then the story bias mentioned earlier kicks in. Because we need our beliefs to make sense to us, we readily accept simplified stories even if they don’t match reality.  Your story bias is at work whenever you believe that a complex problem can be attributed to a single cause.sculpture of man on bench reading newspaper

5 Actions to Take if You Can’t or Won’t Ignore the News

I honestly don’t know if I will manage to ignore the news. It is everywhere all of the time, and it is compelling. If I can’t ignore the news completely, I’m going to ramp up my efforts in the following five actions:

  1. Actively seek out news sites and stories that discuss actions and solutions, not just problems.
  2. Figure out the characteristics of news stories that make you especially fearful or anxious. Avoid them!
  3. Cut back on your news consumption. Recognize the line between being informed and being obsessed.
  4. Look for news that doesn’t support your preconceived ideas. Be willing to examine evidence from all sides of an issue. This often means looking at books, journal articles, and long blog posts.
  5. Make conscious choices. Whether you are consuming news online or on television, every view is a vote in favour of more of the same.

If nothing works, I’ve got one more option in my back pocket.  The 7 Simple Steps to Creating Your Very Own Micronation are looking simpler and saner by the day.

Your thoughts are always welcome.

20 comments

  1. Excellent post with much food for thought! When I was at school, it was the Troubles in Northern Ireland that dominated the news here. I remember being quite shocked when a teacher said to me “I just can’t watch that any more”. I think she was at the end of her tether with it and saw it as unsolvable – and yet 40+ years later it’s not exactly solved but NI is largely peaceful. I though South Africa was going to end up as a bloodbath – again, it’s nowhere near perfect but apartheid has officially been dismantled. I think what I’m saying is that keeping up with the news means you can track progress over time and say “well, that got solved, why shouldn’t this?” Not saying I don’t often lose hope mind you…..

    It also struck me that I buck the trend for my age group in that I consume news almost entirely online. I listen to the radio at breakfast time but that’s it. I gave up regular viewing of TV news in 1997 (blanket election coverage). I subscribe online to a newspaper which reflects my political views and keep an eye on the BBC website – but I think the Internet can be quite helpful in keeping up with opposing views e.g. via Twitter and Facebook. One rule I wish I could stick to though – never read below the line! The comments are almost always toxic.

    1. Hi Anabel,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate your point that if we can take the long view, watching the news can actually help us feel hopeful rather than hopeless. I wonder if that’s something we can do more readily as we age. When I was younger I sure wouldn’t have been able to take that perspective.
      I also appreciate the great way we can get alternative viewpoints at the click of a mouse. And when I read those viewpoints I definitely avoid the comments below the line!

  2. I’ve been honestly trying to avoid the ‘news’ for years…which is quite difficult to do when living with a husband who is extremely interested in all types of news–especially news that is polically based. I like your points about managing the news in our lives. I also like Anabel’s example of selectively choosing which news sources work best for her.

    1. Hi Donna,
      I suspect that managing the news rather than avoiding it is the way I’ll end up going too. I don’t have the excuse of a spouse with a keen interest in political news. It’s actually me who gets caught up in today’s politics. I have trouble averting my eyes from the train wreck. But I want to, I really want to.
      I wonder if your walk will make any difference to your news consumption. I’m thinking of Jack Kornfield’s “quiet the mind as a political act” comment. When you’re home and have had time and space to reflect, I wonder if you will look at life differently than you did pre-walk. That’s why I’ve always wanted to do a walk like that. I’d love to see how/if it changes me.

  3. Excellent article Karen, as always. I have tried to avoid the news both on television and online as much as possible. The state of the world and all the crime, terrorism and political mumbo jumbo just drives me up a wall. I am convinced that the world is getting to be a scarier place with things getting nothing but worse. When I do look at the news I tend to look at our local paper online (North Bay Nugget) rather than anything with a wider spread and even perusing that online comes to a screeching halt when I find I am reading items containing a lot of negativity. I prefer online to television so in that I am, like Annabel, bucking the trend for my age group but then I am savvy with computers and my first instinct when researching things is to hop on the net.

    I am also aware of what we read online being studied and used to present us with news, ads and offers that we may find more to our liking based on our previous viewing habits. Have you noticed that after looking at something on sale on the Best Buy website, say, all of a sudden that same sale item is posted alongside your timeline on Facebook? No surprise there, websites use cookies to tag your computer and hold information about sites you visit so the next time you visit their website – BAM – oh it’s you… here you might like to see this is on sale it is similar to what you were looking at the last time you were here.

    Since I have a history of clinical depression off and on over the years I find that consuming news online or otherwise just makes me feel worse. My life is much more peaceful when I take note of newsworthy items but stop far short of obsessive consumption of the news. As a result, I find I am knowledgeable to a point when it comes to both world and local news so I can hold my own in conversations but am not plunged into a deep depression leaving me rocking in a corner hugging my knees to my chest.

    Thanks for bringing this whole topic to our attention, Karen. I for one think 9-year-old Karen was wise beyond her years. Sorry, Mrs.Martin.

    1. Hi Susan,
      Love your last line! And the body of your comment too, of course. I think it’s very, very wise of you to know yourself well enough to know what you need and what you don’t. And then to make sure that your life, your consumption of the news, mirrors those needs.
      By the way, I think you’re right that it’s very possible to hold your own in a conversation without immersing in the news. I don’t think it requires much knowledge to participate in any news related conversations!

  4. I must admit that I like consuming news… mostly via NPR. My husband and I, stunned by the presidential election outcome started to watch MSNBC, but I soon grew weary of their ongoing outrage (not that I didn’t share some of that emotion) so we stopped. I think it’s important to be informed and aware, maybe just not overwhelmed and overly angry… which too much of what passes for “news” these days will plant in our psyches.

    1. Hi Janis,
      I have such a tough time walking that line- between informed and aware and overwhelmed and angry. I spend way too much time in the latter camp.
      I’ve heard good things about NPR. I’ve never checked to see if I can access it here in Canada, but maybe I’ll check into that. If it’s working for you, that’s a good recommendation for me.

  5. Hi Karen,
    A great deal of food for thought. Although I follow the logic of your article, like Janis, I also feel the need to consume the news. When we were in Tashkent we quit subscribing to satellite and only watched TV that came to us via our aerial. Every station that we got (mostly) was news. We could watch news from the American perspective, British perspective, German perspective, French perspective and Russian perspective to name a few. Mostly it was all the same news although some stations spun the story from their country’s basis which drove us crazy after a time. Now that we have returned to Canada we still find we hunt for that same experience of being informed. Instead we find the morning shows more “talk and entertainment” than the “news” we got overseas. It drove us mad when we first arrived back in Canada! We find the news on television here tends to mix hard world news with heartwarming and cute stories. Right now these shows do not satisfy me.

    Another note, we do find the news tends to paint a picture of chaos and danger in the world. When we lived in Egypt we would frequently get emails from people worrying about our safety, and yet I would often get on the bus and wander through the streets of Zamalek, a suburb of Cairo, without any concern. My relatives would be worried about the bombing of the airport in Istanbul. We passed through that airport on the way to Tashkent once again without any fear. News does feature the “blood” and in doing so paints a picture of total danger, when in fact life goes on in those places as normal.

    Finally thanks for the reference to NPR. I took a peek and it looks like it might give the balance of information I am looking for.

    And finally, finally, I found your research on people age interesting as well as your list of ways to handle the news. That list was excellent.

    1. Hi Fran,
      You make such a good point about the news being quite different depending on the country where you view it. I think it would have been quite fascinating to watch news from different perspectives as you did while in Tashkent. But you’re right – what passes for news on Canadian television is “newstainment” with an emphasis on the entertaining or, more often, the most alarming aspects of the news.

      Whatever the perspective and however well or badly the news is handled, the negativity does disturb me. There’s such a broad brush of it applied to almost every situation. I find that as I get older, I’m wanting to make more conscious, deliberate choices to surround myself with all that is positive and uplifting. I’m struggling a lot with whether or not that will make me an oblivious ostrich! The jury’s out. Lots to think about.

      1. Another comment to be made is that the coverage of news like the Barcelona story is that it gives other idiots the idea to repeat the atrocities.

  6. First, what I don’t understand is why viewers still put up with advertisements. The frequency and length with which they show up would drive anyone watching a program crazy, I would think. But, maybe people have gotten used to it. I just never watch TV. When we happen to be in a house which has one (surprisingly, maybe, most people we watch their house and pets for have reduced their TV time to Netflix and Amazon TV) and we have an hour to veg or kill in the evening, we get confronted with the constant interruptions of commercials that don’t interest us, non-consumers. Annoying, and each time we mumble “That’s it, no more TV.”

    When we were living on our sailboat (and before in our camper), it was easy to ignore the news. We barely had internet and when we could get it (or searched for it), we needed it to work and socialize. It was almost blissful not to feel the sadness and agitation that most of the news would bring us – we had enough challenges already anyway.

    Then, when we moved ashore to house and pet sit, the internet was unlimited! Perfect for work, but it also means that my husband follows the news every day and reports back to me (still blissfully in my own world, ignoring what bothers me in the real world). I liked knowing a little bit of what was going on, since I do find it important to be aware of big decisions and developments in the US and abroad. But… when this whole last presidential race was going on, we talked about nothing else and our frustration and stress level rose substantially. We had to take a step back and we did.

    Ignoring the news is certainly easier when one travels a lot and when the focus goes entirely to work and social interactions online. That being said – and I’m ashamed to admit it – I’m getting some of my news from Facebook. Luckily, I now know not to think about all what I see there as facts, and I have Mark to discuss the topics with. He always checks different sites to get both views/sides (democratic and republican) of every event and form his opinion.

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      I wondered how news consumption would be different for you, not only because of your nomadic lifestyle, but because you are determined to live “a life less ordinary.” So, thanks for answering my unspoken questions with your comment.

      I enjoy movies so I do watch television in the evenings. But I must say that I much prefer to record a movie in advance so that I can fast forward through the commercials. Sometimes I count as I’m fast forwarding and there can be as many as 12-15 commercials. You’re right that it is absolutely crazy what we accept as ‘normal’.

      I envy you being able to be blissful, not feeling the sadness and agitation that the news brings. I envy you, yet am fully aware that I can have that state too – it’s just a matter of choice and determination.

      Thanks for your comment, Liesbet. You’ve reminded me of the choice I want to make (I’d already sort of forgotten in the last couple of day, that’s now pervasive the news is in my world), and you’ve inspired me to be more determined.
      Karen

  7. Thank you for this in-depth thought-provoking post. I struggle with the balance of being informed and being overwhelmed with the volume of negative news. I have asked myself how being informed of a disaster or act of violence which I do not plan to act on helps me or the victims, but I still feel guilty for turning away from someone else’s suffering. For now, I am limiting my news consumption. I scan the headlines of our local newspaper–both the national and the local section. If I see something that feels uplifting or that I think will affect my actions, I read further. I like your suggestion to “Actively seek out news sites and stories that discuss actions and solutions, not just problems.” Does anyone have advice on finding those types of sites?

    By the way, I found you through your guest post on Retirement Reflections. I’ll be back!

    ~Christie

    1. Hi Christie,
      I really understand the feeling of guilt at turning away from another’s suffering. It makes me wonder how people who deal directly with suffering every day manage to cope. They must develop an ability to distance themselves a bit or they’d be lost.
      What a good idea to scan the headlines, looking for uplifting or action oriented stories. I’m going to try that. It seems a great way to limit news consumption while still accessing the best that news has to offer.
      For positive and uplifting news, there’s actually something called goodnewsnetwork.org. I haven’t spent much time there, but I’m going to give it a try.
      Welcome to Profound Journey, and thank you so much for your comment, Christie.
      Karen

  8. I have always thought that the news and how it is reported is constructed in a rather bizarre way. And the news that is selected for presentation is gendered as well. It leans heavily toward natural or man-made disasters, and various forms of men killing men. I guess those topics are what get the views and clicks, and therefore the most exposure for advertisers. I cynically believe that it’s all about making money — not social conscience, not being informed, not what’s most important, and not “facts.” If news broadcasts were about what was important, then we would be watching a lot more programming about climate change and how to take action to slow it down, and about effective ways to reduce world poverty levels, and so forth.

    There’s my rant for today!

    Jude

  9. Rant very much appreciated, Jude! I haven’t checked it out yet, but I was just talking with a psychologist friend who helps people with traumas. He told me that he favours the following news sources: The Guardian (UK), The Intercept (Brazil) and Democracy Now (U.S.). He says that all three manage to “avoid the capitalist filter of dehumanization.”

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