Thursday, April 18, 2013

Is news bad for you?

I have just read an article by Rolf Dobelli, entitled "News is bad for you - and giving up reading it will make you happier", published in the Guardian. Since I wish to discuss several points raised in this article, readers would be advised to read the whole article first.

On the face of it, the writer makes a strong argument against people's tendency to become addicted to the news. I must admit that I am probably one of these addicts. However, when I read the individual points, I found myself thinking of counter-arguments. While this may in itself be an example of confirmation bias and my own unwillingness to change my opinions and behaviour, I have decided to work through this issue in writing and see where it takes me.

Under the subtitle "News misleads", the writer describes examples of the news presenting the wrong sort of information, choosing dramatic and personal stories, emphasizing rare risks and thus creating a distortion of our risk assessment, and he ends this section:

If you think you can compensate with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.

I find it quite offensive that he assumes everyone is incapable of thinking clearly enough to know that the stories reported in the news are rare events, and therefore are less likely to be relevant to our daily lives. Comparing everyone to bankers and economists is also misleading. Bankers are not motivated by seeking the truth but by increasing their profits in whatever way possible. Their reality is distorted because the rewards are great and the risks are low even when they fail, because they get bailed out. As we know if we read the news. And most economists seem to me to be ideologically motivated and have a real confirmation bias in the way they view reality. Intelligent readers need not necessarily have these cognitive or behavioural disadvantages, and arguing that if these two professions can't think straight nobody can seems to me to be rather unfair.

The section "News is irrelevant" contains the following challenge:

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.

I would say that in a democratic regime voters have a duty to know what their representatives and candidates say and do, so that they can make a more informed decision on how to vote. I know many people who changed their voting decision shortly before the elections based on what candidates said they would do. Or perhaps voting in a democracy is not "a serious matter" to this writer. I also believe that some understanding of the economy can help individuals make decisions like when to buy a home or which career path to choose.

In addition, the idea that news is irrelevant seems to reflect the life of someone living in a country that is not experiencing war and constant existential threats. Here in Israel, the news is such an addictive drug precisely because at any moment your city could be attacked by rockets or suicide bombers, or a larger-scale war could break out. I admit that this causes most Israelis to live with a high level of anxiety, but surveys have also found a high level of happiness here compared to some less anxious societies.

The next section of the article is entitled "News has no explanatory power", and states:

Will accumulating facts help you understand the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is inverted. The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below journalists' radar but have a transforming effect.

I strongly disagree with this idea. I have accumulated facts from news stories that have helped enrich my understanding of the world. For example, I believe many people in the west may have learned about the city of Timbuktu only when it came under attack by militants. Learning about the history and culture of places far from my everyday reality contributes to widening my horizons. Yes, you have to pick and choose from among the details presented in news stories, and in some cases it is worth doing a bit of your own research and study. Also, the "slow, powerful movements" that are so important do sometimes get some news coverage, eventually, precisely when their "transforming effect" is being felt. For example, protest movements such as "Occupy", and the growing acceptance of marriage equality among the public in developed countries. People who follow the news intelligently can form an impression of long-term trends.

One of the strongest arguments presented is in the section "News is toxic to your body". I accept that it is probably true that news triggers the limbic system and creates chronic stress. But later in this section "desensitisation" is listed as another side-effect. Personally I know that I am not desensitized, and often still have serious emotional responses to upsetting news. Yes, I can shed tears when something terrible happens, even if it's completely "irrelevant" to my life and happens far away. But just deciding not to know about the news as a defence mechanism seems morally wrong to me, and perhaps to display a lack of empathy and compassion. If you'd rather not know that there are bad things happening in the world because it might make you stressed or upset, that seems rather selfish.

The section "News increases cognitive errors" discusses confirmation bias, the tendency to pay attention to things that support your beliefs and ignore those that don't, and story bias, the preference for things that "make sense" even if they don't reflect reality. These cognitive errors are very real, and people need to learn to evaluate the information they receive carefully. However, I don't think that avoiding the news will make us into more rational people. If you have a confirmation bias, not being exposed to a wide variety of facts and opinions will only strengthen it. And a statement like:

Any journalist who writes, "The market moved because of X" or "the company went bankrupt because of Y" is an idiot. I am fed up with this cheap way of "explaining" the world.

is somewhat unhelpful. Yes, journalists may be simplistic, as may some readers. But those who think more deeply would see through the "explanations" offered in some news stories and form their own conclusions.

The next section, entitled "News inhibits thinking", ends with the statement "News is an intentional interruption system".This may be true, but it is not only news that acts in this way. We are constantly interrupted by phone calls, emails, and other distractions. In fact, I have been interrupted by phone calls and urgent emails while writing this blog post. News is not the only medium that contains hyperlinks, either. The short attention span has been created by many things, including television (which I don't watch). So avoiding the news does not guarantee an end to this sort of interrupted thinking.

I don't disagree that "News acts like a drug", but with the description of how this drug changes people:

The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless.

I may be in a minority of "news consumers", but I still read books and long articles and can maintain my focus for many pages and even hours. I agree that current social and technological trends encourage skimming and multitasking, and I have written against these trends in the past. We should all know when it is necessary to skim something, but also when concentration and focus are required. Blaming the news for this change seems superficial.

The following sections have the titles: "News wastes time", which may be true, but so do other things, and if you are able to learn something from the news I don't see it as a waste; "News makes us passive" - not necessarily. Sometimes a news story can spark a public reaction or a personal decision; and "News kills creativity", in which the writer states:

I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter.

I would reply to this that some of the most creative and imaginative science fiction writers I know are inspired by news stories to create extrapolated future societies and technologies. Their work is informed by knowing the present, and while I can't confirm that they are "news junkies" as such, it wouldn't surprise me. I believe creativity can draw from many sources, and among them could be news, along with reading fiction and non-fiction, learning about the world and society, and creating connections between various pieces of data.

The article ends with two important passages:

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don't have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

So now the writer is saying that it's not news as such that is bad for us, but the way news is currently presented in the media. Nobody would dispute this argument, and reform of the media would be of benefit. If news consumers feel the need for this sort of change, then the way news is presented to us will follow.

And he adds on a more personal note:

I have now gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights. It's not easy, but it's worth it.

I am happy for anyone's happiness. But I don't think you can conclude that this would work for everyone. Just as different people benefit from different sorts of nutrition, so people can find out whether they need news, and if so, it what form and frequency they consume it. How is saying that avoiding the news makes you happier any better than saying, to quote an earlier example the writer disparaged, "The market moved because of X"?

My own personal take on the news is as follows:

It is important to know what is happening in the world. It is not essential to take the news at face value, but instead, it is important to evaluate it carefully, within the context of the reader's other knowledge about the world. Knowing what is happening locally can be relevant to decisions individuals make about their lives, and to their participation in the democratic process. Learning what is happening in the wider world can expand people's perspectives and help them find both what is common to all people and what differences exist between groups.

Many of the accusations Rolf Dobelli makes against the news should be directed at a wider range of current social trends, including the "always-available" world of mobile phones and email; social media and the Internet in general; the shortening of our attention spans; and the dumbing-down of society.

Since I absolutely don't agree that "ignorance is bliss", I consider avoiding the news to be an extreme measure. I have what I consider healthy curiosity about the world, and would feel somewhat disabled if I denied myself access to information about things happening beyond my immediate surroundings.

My conclusion from thinking through this issue is that there are still many good reasons for reading the news despite the problems raised, including what I see as the responsibility of citizens in a democracy to educate themselves so they can make informed decisions about voting. News should be consumed as part of a balanced informational diet, combined with regular cognitive exercise.

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