Guess what, I don’t have any news to share in this blog post, breaking or otherwise. Yesterday I read this piece, Reading the news is the new smoking: I quit. I feel great. You can too, by Adam Mastroianni, courtesy of a link JK provided and this is something I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. This article felt like a breath of fresh air, dispelling all sorts of beliefs about how important following the news is to “being informed.” Mastroianni tackles all the common arguments I’ve made to justify wasting so much time following all the ins and outs of the spin information war blazing across American media every single day and he refutes them quite thoughtfully. This piece might prod you to rethink your news consumption habits, if you’re spending a lot of time trying to keep up with all the latest news flashing across your screen every day.
I’ve scaled back my news consumption for weeks at a time, but then I start drifting back to wasting too much time following the news. And yes, most of that time is wasted and does not lead to improving my life in any way or really informing me about much of anything. Before delving into the benefits this writer reports from quitting his news consumption, I’m going to explain my news habit.
I grew up with the news being just something that took up a very small part of most people’s daily lives. Radio news was a few minutes, while TV news was short broadcasts, spaced throughout the day. I read our local newspaper daily, starting in my early teens. I was married and my oldest daughter was a baby when we first saw CNN in 1981, after returning to the States from Germany. I was quickly hooked on 24/7 news.
I was in my late 30s when we bought our first PC in 1997. We were late to that trend, because I kept telling my husband a PC would just be a more expensive gaming system for our sons and I couldn’t understand why anyone would need a computer in their home. I thought of computers as tools for scientists, engineers, etc., not as a tool useful to ordinary people in their homes. My husband finally went and bought a PC and brought it home. Once the kids started using it and showing me how to use it, I quickly was hooked on cruising through search engines and clicking on links and more links. I began to spend a lot of time online reading – especially news.
Of course, cell phones came along and once most people were using their phones to access the internet and social media rather than as a phone, cell phone usage exploded too. I think most people actually read less news articles through now than in the old days and I suspect the vast majority of people who are posting content on social media about news-related information base their hot takes on headlines, what some pundit said in a short video or what other content creators posted. Few people, even professional journalists seem to really do deep dive researching events and background for stories they write or broadcast. Too many of them seem to be more invested in promulgating partisan political agenda and ideological viewpoints… and sharing their outrage, largely via virtue-signaling, rather than getting the facts right.
Even more problematic, I think, is that most of the news industry drives on fear-mongering and sensationalism, not on presenting balanced reporting. In other words, inciting people keeps them coming back for more outrage theater.
So, now on to this article about quitting news consumption and it being a positive choice. Most of the people I see on social media who get outraged or worked up daily about the hot take news events insist they’re not fearmongering and they speak like they believe how they view the events reported in the news are unbiased, fact-based, are that their reactions are perfectly rational. A whole lot of it is often fear-based reactions to news, often biased, it’s not fact-based and their reactions aren’t perfectly rational. Trust me, I’ve done this myself too, only later realizing that I overreacted or that some news I reacted to wasn’t even true. The news is designed to sensationalize events, create drama and focus on negative news, so we’re all being played by the news media – it’s all infotainment.
The author explains how he used to react to the news and while he was consuming liberal news media and you might be consuming right-leaning news media – it’s all the same animal. The news industry wants to grab your attention, stir your emotions, and create plenty of drama to keep you tuned in. They aren’t going to get many viewers if they say everything is going smoothly and all’s peaceful.
Here are the first few paragraphs of the article, https://experimentalhistory.substack.com/p/reading-the-news-is-the-new-smoking:
“One of my major pastimes used to be reading the news and being mad. I’d wake up, grab my phone, and get a quick primer on all the day’s outrages. “They raised tariffs on soybeans!” I would cry, unsure if the tariffs were bad, or if it was bad that they had waited so long to tariff them, but very sure that something about soybeans and tariffs was definitely outrageous.”
“During the Trump administration, I would devour news of the president’s latest impropriety and imagine myself throttling one of his supporters. “WHY DID YOU DO THIS??” I would shout, squeezing the life out of them.”
“I started to feel like maybe this was a bad thing.”
“So in the summer of 2020, I stopped. I swore to only read the news on Saturday mornings. Since then, I’ve given it up almost entirely.”
“And I feel better. Way, way better. It feels like a war that used to be fought in my backyard is now being fought on Neptune instead. I feel relieved of my duty to keep track of the whole world, and I now realize I never had that duty in the first place. My brain got quieter and I started hearing myself think instead of hearing myself worry. And I stopped imagining myself choking people to death, which was a big improvement.”
The article goes on to explain research the author has done into news consumption and includes a lot of links, which, me being me, clicked on. He raises the important point that being informed, which is why most of us say we follow the news, largely does not happen when you consume news all the time. Mostly, what we get, I believe is sound bites, partisan messaging, that’s repeated non-stop, and a whole lot of negativity.
This writer isn’t alone in writing about quitting the news habit and reporting what a positive change it made in their lives. I started googling and looking around on the internet and found several videos and articles by other people who quit the news too and reported feeling much better and talking about how much time it freed up to pursue other interests.
Reading the news is not the same thing as being informed, because to understand many things being reported in the news today, you need to understand a lot of things that led to today’s news. And that requires reading more than tweets, headlines or repeating sound bites.
Mastroianni has a section in his piece, titled, “How to garden a mind,” which struck a chord with me. He describes gardening as being about keeping bad things, like pests, out and good things, like water, fertilizer and sunlight in. He uses that analogy to explain, “Cultivating a human mind works the same way. You have to keep some stuff out (lies, noise, fear) and some stuff in (knowledge, experience, love). You can’t grow your mind directly; you don’t get smarter by yanking on your frontal lobe. All you can do is create the right environment and hope your brain-folds get deeper.”
While googling other articles on quitting the news, I came across this one, Why I Stopped Reading The News, by Ryan Kane, which offers some different arguments, including one I’ve made often – focus on what you can control, not on things you have no control over.
I’ve been working on moving back to reading more books and following less news for quite a while, but I haven’t had the willpower to quit cold turkey yet. Oddly enough, I smoked when I was younger, quit cold turkey in 1993 and stuck with it. I’ve never regretted quitting smoking and I suspect if I make the leap and quit the news, I’ll feel much better for it.