The news – why do we subject ourselves to it?

by Antonia Case on July 27, 2013

Every night at 6.00 pm, I want you to sit in a room for half an hour. During that time I will speak to you, but you can’t speak back. In a monotone voice, I will read out information that’s predominantly bad or nonsensical disasters, disease, crises, accidents, jumble. Although this information is not about you, and doesn’t affect your day-to-day life, I will try and make you feel as though it’s your responsibility. I will not pay you for your time. Nor do I ask anything in return.

I now ask you to listen to me at intervals during the day. At 9am, I will sound a loud musical note for two to three seconds and then, in a monotone voice, I will read out information that’s predominantly bad – disasters, disease, crises, accidents, jumble. Although this information is not about you, and doesn’t affect your day to day life, I will try and make you feel as though it’s your responsibility.  I will not pay you for your time.

Nor do I ask anything in return.

I now ask you to do this daily for 10, 20, 30 years. I will not pay you for your time. Nor do I ask anything in return.  Now, let me ask you: as the subject of this experiment do you think you would be well-informed? Better served to carry out your life? Happy?

“Girl tricked into abortion”; “Man shoots himself in primary school”; “A supermodel’s social media tips”; “The doodle that melted a nation.” These are leading Australian news headlines from our largest media outlets on a Friday morning. A discussion on the economic conditions in Venezuela reads: “Country runs out of toilet paper.”

By age 50, the average person has been subjected to news hits hundreds of thousands of times – via television (morning and evening news, news updates), the radio (news on the hour), newspapers (both on- and off-line) and social media. A person who consumes news intermittently online, either on a computer or digital device, is getting zapped many times an hour.

When I ask Australians why they subject themselves to the news, they overwhelmingly state the importance of being informed. They like to keep tabs on politicians, keep abreast of the ups and downs in the economy, learn more about far-flung places like Venezuela. To many, to not read the news is akin to living with your head buried in the sand.  News provides discussion topics, and these shared stories are used to form connections with others, to add spice and drama to one’s life. At cafes, particularly, the consumption of news is a way of interacting: a man is riled up over the political pages as though engaged directly in the political arena; two women bemoan a tragic event, acting out their sympathy in conversation.  News consumption enables people to feel politically engaged or socially minded without having to do anything, other than read.

Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly argues that consuming news has a darker side. He argues that the daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It saps our energy. It grinds us down. It impacts our ability to make good decisions and think clearly. It attacks our creativity. “I would not be surprised if news consumption at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression,” he writes.

“Viewed on a timeline, the spread of depression coincides almost perfectly with the growth and maturity of the mass media.” Dobelli encourages people to avoid news consumption, citing 15 reasons – news misleads us; is irrelevant; limits understanding; is toxic to our body; increases cognitive errors; inhibits thinking; changes the structure of our brain; is costly; is often incorrectly reported; is manipulative; makes us celebrate the wrong people; makes us passive; gives us the illusion of caring and kills creativity.

“The human brain is highly plastic,” he says. “Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including consumption of news, we end up with a different brain. Adaption to news occurs at a biological level. News reprograms us. That means our brain works differently even when we’re not consuming news. And that’s dangerous.” Dobelli stresses that the less news you consume, the bigger your competitive advantage in life. You will have more time for starters, and without the distraction of hundreds of arbitrary headlines in your head you will have the focus to engage in worthwhile activities. “Things we already know limit our creativity,” Dobelli writes.  “Mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age because they are oblivious to much that has been tried before. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas,” he notes. “I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie,” Dobelli argues. “On the other hand, I know a whole bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs.”

Journalist Madeleine Bunting argues that not consuming news, which she oddly terms “free riding,” is not a serious option for anyone. In her view, the news is important because it introduces you to events and ideas you might not otherwise encounter.

But here we must question: are those events and ideas worth encountering?  Or are they pure distraction?

Pure marketing? Entertaining, but utterly irrelevant. One could well argue that the best minds, the most successful and creative people encounter events and ideas from well-researched books, specialist journals, galleries, the environment – not the news.

Bunting admits that reading about the Boston bombings brought her to tears. It’s the stuff of life, part of our shared life as humanity, she writes. “At its root there is a responsibility to know and understand the world and age you live in. That is the root of democracy.” What’s disconcerting about Bunting’s argument is that the news is not life. Life is what you see out the window.  Life is talking to your neighbour, attending a community event. Life is not reading the news.

And over the years, how many of those ‘oh so important’ news stories can you actually remember? How many offered understanding? How much of the news aided democratic thought? How often did you read about petitions, protests or legislative change? Are protests even covered in the news? Those that I have personally witnessed received no news coverage of any kind.

If you want democracy, join a political group. Don’t just sit around crying over the news.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society…We are governed, our minds moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is the logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organised.” Edward Bernays, Propaganda.

Antonia Case is the literary editor of New Philosopher.

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