Stop reading the news

reclaim your rationality!

A few years ago, a text flashed on my phone screen from a friend who conspicuously asked if I owned a kindle or another kind of e-reader. Intrigued, I replied in the affirmative. This friend was eager for me to read a document he had stumbled across and quickly shot off an email to me.

I curiously opened the email to reveal an essay titled Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet. My interest piqued, I immediately read the piece with inspired ferocity. Ever the contumacious contrarian, I was enthralled by what I was reading. Never before had someone ever uttered to me that I should at least question my consumption of the news. I’d certainly never read such statements.

Don’t all sophisticated people stay up-to-date with current affairs? Isn’t it part of one’s civic duty to know the ongoings of their locality or country? Shouldn’t an interesting person be able to eloquently describe the most recent headlines of car bombings in Kabul or Marrakech, or Istanbul?

For a long time, before I received the enlightening text from my friend (I should add here this friend is himself a journalist), I had questioned the benefits of the news and our societal obsession with it. Furthermore, I felt visceral that something was awry with the mainstream media. I’d been a reader of The Guardian and the BBC for many years. Throughout that time, I began to think that much of what I was reading was tainted by opinions of people I did not know and whose agenda, typically partisan, I was dubious. In my undergraduate studies, I raised these thoughts to a fellow student reading law, who proceeded to mock my ruminations and laughed at me. I questioned my allegiance to the news (and the capacity of sequacious Bristol law students to have coherent arguments). I then carried on more or less as before, until the fateful day I read Dobelli’s manifesto.

I found Dobelli’s essay to be highly rational, and in this respect, it was appealing. I, too, had been questioning whether the news aimed to solely appeal to my emotions - to rile me up on particular subject matter using expressive language and to distract me from issues much more pertinent to my own life. I had been long questioning its relevance. It had begun to seem a redundant indulgence performed more out of boredom or self-loathing. Nobody reads the news to feel great about themselves or the world they live in (if they felt great before, they wouldn’t afterwards). On the contrary, I found reading the news to be tantamount to self-harm. Reading the news was an assault on my emotional state and intellect. It made me unhappy and convinced me that things were in a worse state than they were. It dumbed me down by inflating my ego that wanted to feel like it knew everything when, in reality, the news gave it the superficial knowledge of a dilettante.

Dobelli’s manifesto makes fifteen significant points;

1. News misleads us systematically

2. News is irrelevant

3. News limits understanding

4. News is toxic to your body

5. News massively increases cognitive errors

6. News inhibits thinking

7. News changes the structure of your brain

8. News is costly

9. News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement

10. News is produced by journalists (haha!)

11. Reported facts are sometimes wrong - forecasts always

12. News is manipulative

13. News makes us passive

14. News gives us the illusion of caring

15. News kills creativity

I figure that it would be a waste of time to divulge each of these points when you might be better served reading the essay for yourself. I urge you to do so here.

For a long time after reading the manifesto, I did my best to avoid the news. However, I would subconsciously be drawn to it and navigate to news sites when faced with tedium during work. It was almost like I was trying to pacify myself with a stream of negativity. Nevertheless, after going cold turkey, I managed to quash the addiction and no longer began to crave the news. It became easier to concentrate on matters much more relevant to my life and those around me. I started to feel more present and engaged. My concentration improved, and I could read long-form pieces without being distracted (very helpful in academia!)

Then, at the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 took centre stage of world affairs and a flood of mis- dis- and cis?- information sprouted from every imaginable medium and every one of your friends. The news media, not known to pass up on an opportunity when they see it, made hay while the sun shined and turned on the tiny red dot signifying LIVE. They have yet to turn it off.

My press abstinence was broken, and I began to sully and spoil my mind’s clarity with the dross hastily churned out by mainstream journalists competing for my attention. I was once again nibbling on morsels of bait, lacking any intellectual sustenance, getting high for a moment and crashing into a state of anxious melancholy moments later, clicking on news links for my next fix like a junkie hitting a slot machine.

This destructive pattern continued for some time through the pandemic, but luckily I had the insight to see what was again happening to me and all of those around me. The news dementors were out in force, and everywhere you looked, someone was receiving the kiss.

The effects of this day-to-day were ghastly and profound. I witnessed people walking around in choleric states, spurting vitriol and yelling imprecations if someone moved past them at what they deemed to be ‘danger close.’ An air of despair shrouded whole cities and countries. Stock markets around the world temporarily crashed (which was fantastic for anyone that kept a clear head). People genuinely started looting for toilet paper.

Here in Australia, which is home to a far more acquiescent and obsequious population than I ever realised (the larrikin is either extinct or was just a myth), Australians tuned into the news at exactly 11 am daily to watch the Premier deliver an update on the COVID-19 situation. DAILY! Australians are so wired into the governments fickle requests that they somehow are always prepared to wear masks and take alternative methods of transport home from work when the Government demands them to comply with news “laws” that will be ratified by 5 pm. Madness. What other country has a population that is so in tune with the instructions of its officials? I am not aware of one. According to my good friend Charlie Jay—it is not South Africa!

The news in Australia became a soap opera itself, with news zealots devoted to the recurring characters. Memes were made of Gladys Berejiklian. Even a game. Like a real movie, we had cameos of celebrity figures. People followed “the numbers” like they were football scores.

Seeing how other people were reacting to the news reports solidified my will to avoid the news at all costs, and caring about the sanity of others, implored me to evangelise its detrimental effects on us all.

I made a pact with myself to forgo the news for good and, in lieu of this, to read more long-form articles and investigative journalism. You see, banishing the news from your life is not about becoming an isolationist hermit. It is about reclaiming your sovereign mind and guarding it against external toxicities. It is about being of sound mind, able to effectively scrutinise arguments. It is about seeking out information that nourishes rather than diminishes.

Overall, I’ve made good on the promise to myself. I generally avoid the news. However, I do still creep onto news sites because of old habits. When I catch myself doing so, I try not to chastise my behaviour but acknowledge it and quickly get back to what I was doing. More often than not, finding myself on a news site signifies that I need a break and a walk. It’s a sign I should just be and meditate or concentrate on my breathing for five minutes—a much more refreshing endeavour than scrolling on a screen displaying the never-ending ills of humanity.