The following was previously published in an earlier edition of Media Insider.
I’m trying not to pay too much attention to the news. This is partly because I’m exhausted by the news, and partly because of the sad state of journalism today.
This isn’t just a “me” thing. Almost everyone I talk to says they’re trying to find coping mechanisms to deal with the news. The news industry -- and its audience -- has gone from being an essential part of a working democracy to something that is actually bad for you.
In an online essay from four years ago, Swiss author Rolf Dobelli equated news consumption to a bad diet:
“(translated from its original German) News is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is appetizing, easily digestible and at the same time highly harmful. The media feeds us morsels of trivial stories, tidbits that by no means satisfy our hunger for knowledge. Unlike with books and long, well-researched, long articles, there is no saturation when consuming news. We can devour unlimited amounts of messages; they remain cheap sugar candies. As with sugar, the side effects only show up with a delay.”
This alarming state is due to the fact that the news (in the U.S.) is supported by advertising, which means it has a ravenous appetite for eyeballs. Because of this, it is highly profitable to make news addictive.
As Dobelli points out, this creates a state where even though the news is highly inflammatory, like a constantly jangling alarm bell, almost all of it is irrelevant to our daily lives. While the news we watch pushes all our hot buttons, it doesn’t serve a useful purpose. In fact, it does the exact opposite: It leads to chronic mental and physical ill-being, and may cause us to start ignoring the warning signs we should be paying attention to.
A study done last year (McLaughlin, Gotlieb and Mills) found ties between problematic news consumption and mental ill-being. The survey found that 16.5% of 1,100 people polled showed signs of “severely problematic” news consumption, which led them to focus less on school, work and family, and contributed to an inability to sleep.
Dobelli’s essay goes even further, pointing a finger at excessive news consumption as the cause of a list of issues including cognitive errors, inhibition of deeper thinking, time wasting, creativity killing and passivity, as well as wiring our brains for addiction in a manner similar to drugs.
All these negative side effects come from chronic stress, a constant and pervasive alarmed state. And if you thought Dobelli’s list was scary, wait until you see the impact of chronic stress! It actually attacks the brain by releasing excessive amounts of cortisol and restricting the uptake of serotonin, which can increase inflammation, lead to depression, shrink your hippocampus and impact your memory, make it difficult to sleep and impair your ability to think rationally.
To put a new twist on an old saying, “No news is good news.”
But let’s put aside for a moment the physical and mental toll that news takes on us. Even if none of that were true, our constant diet of bad news can also lead to something known as alarm fatigue.
Alarm fatigue is essentially our response to the proverbial boy who calls wolf. After several false alarms, we stop paying attention. And on that one time when we should be paying attention, we are caught with our guard down.
There is one other problem with our news diet: It oversimplifies complex problems into simple sound bites. Thomas Jefferson said, "An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” But when the news abdicates its role as an informer to pursue profit as entertainment, it is no longer educating us. It is pandering to us by stuffing bite-sized opinion pieces that reinforce our beliefs, right or wrong. We are never challenged to examine our beliefs or explore the complexity of the wicked problems that confront us. Real journalism has been replaced by profitable punditry.
All this leaves us with a choice. Until the news industry cleans up its act (I’m not holding my breath), you’re likely far better off to ignore it. Or at least, ignore the profit-driven platforms that are hungry for eyeballs. Stay informed by turning to books, long articles, and true investigative journalism. That’s what I’m going to start doing.
Failing all that, just think about things. I understand it’s good for you.