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
“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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- Actively seek out news sites and stories that discuss actions and solutions, not just problems.
- Figure out the characteristics of news stories that make you especially fearful or anxious. Avoid them!
- Cut back on your news consumption. Recognize the line between being informed and being obsessed.
- 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.
- 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.