These thought experiments about whether or not to quit the news were featured in Vol. 6, Stay Sane in Crazy Times of The Unconventional Monthly, a newsletter that gives you fresh ways to live a little more extraordinarily on a new topic every month.
Quit the News? Or Acquit the News?
Should you quit the news because it’s the junk food of your information diet? Or is the news necessary, a vital way to keep in touch and be a citizen in a democratic society?
I sure as heck don’t know. But I do think it’s worth asking the question from time to time.
And in my case, that time is now. With the chaos and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, I’ve been following the news more than ever. I even signed up for Twitter! And now I’m starting to worry my news habit has become an addiction.
So I briefly put down the newspaper, stopped refreshing my Twitter feed, and started to research the pros and cons of following the news. Unsurprisingly, most of what I found was as one-sided as the news itself.
I don’t need someone telling me what to do. You don’t either. So to decide whether I should quit the news and help you do the same, I put together the following thought experiments and questions.
Thought Experiments on Whether to Quit the News
The Brain Surgeon General
Imagine there’s a “brain surgeon general.” This person is responsible for setting guidelines for a healthy information diet. How much news would they recommend?
I feel like the news would be the carbohydrates of an information diet.
- Whole is healthier. The more you process and simplify, the less healthy it gets. News needs to be full of fiber and hard to digest to be healthy.
- Measured amounts. Too much becomes unhealthy, even for the healthiest news.
- Refined snacks are bad. Over-processed and simplified news is addictive and bad for your health. You can devour a lot of it without feeling full.
- You can survive without it. Maybe even thrive, the cognitive ketogenic community would argue.
Conclusion: No more on-the-go news snacking for me. If I want news, I should find some nutritious stuff and take the time to sit down and make a meal of it.
The $100-a-Time Times
Imagine the only way of getting the news was from a personalized newspaper. It contained all the relevant news (whatever that means to you) between the time that you last read the news up until now. It costs $100. How often would you get it? And how long would you spend reading it?
I’m cheap and I blog for a living, so $100 is a lot for me. I would never buy this paper. Maybe if it were $10, I’d get it once a month. More likely, I’d mooch off of family and friends who want to pay for updates.
Conclusion: If I won’t put my money where my attention is, it’s not worth it.
The Lazy Learner
To get an A+ at school you can’t just listen to your teacher and quickly read the textbook. You have to study: take notes; summarize; challenge your knowledge with practice tests. So shouldn’t you do the same if you feel the necessity to learn about important topics in the news?
I have little interest in taking notes on or actually learning more about most of what I see in the news. So I guess most news I consume is more for entertainment than for knowledge.
Conclusion: I should pull up a notebook and research instead of pulling up the news if my objective is to learn.
The Twenty-Fifth Hour
If you were given a twenty-fifth hour every day that you could only use for relaxing personal entertainment, how would you use it?
I would probably watch more TV and movies, read more fiction, and look at hot chicks and funny videos on Instagram. I would definitely not consume any gossipy news.
Conclusion: I shouldn’t go to the news when I want to relax and be entertained.
The Battle of the Brains
Instead of fighting a war, two countries decide to each nominate an intellectual champion for a head-to-head battle of the brains. Whoever wins, wins the war on behalf of their country. Let the most eloquent, intelligent, and erudite win! One champion spends hours a day learning through the news. The other trains their brain news-free. Who do you think comes out on top?
If it’s my country, I’m hoping the news-free brainiac’s on my side.
But maybe there’s an even more optimal middle ground. Maybe a brainiac who takes a minimal daily dose of news would benefit from being exposed to a wide range of topics and researching further on the ones they find important.
Conclusion: Less news and more studying is generally a better way to train to be a mental champion. Smart people may follow the news, but they aren’t smart because they follow it.
The Naive No-Newser
If you quit the news, how will you get timely information like if there’s a traffic accident along your commute, an approaching hurricane or alien invasion, a change in the tax law?
Or, in my case, if the South African government extends or shortens the 21-day lockdown that I and the rest of the country are now under?
I’m pretty confident that someone would tell me about anything extremely important or that I’d put two and two together. If the beach in front of me is full of people, the quarantine’s over. If it’s empty and all my neighbors are packing up to flee, a hurricane or alien invasion is coming.
For smaller things like traffic jams, that’s a price I’m willing to pay to save the time and worry of checking the news. Google Maps will tell me, anyway.
Conclusion: It’s not worth following the news only to be informed of immediate risks and rewards that affect me.
The Tour Guide
Imagine you’re a tour guide for your home country. Two clients have just landed from abroad. Tourist A had read all about your country in the international section of their newspaper back home. Tourist B didn’t even know your country existed. Assuming the two are of equal intelligence, who do you think you’d be able to help get a more accurate understanding of your country and culture during their visit?
Tourist A probably has tons of preconceptions that would take a long time to fully wipe out. Tourist B’s a blank slate. So I’d go with B.
On the other hand, I could much more easily brainwash Tourist B by only showing them the aspects of my country I want them to see.
Conclusion: If I want a true understanding of a foreign country, I shouldn’t count on the news to give me it. But I should protect myself from being misled. History books, conversations with different people from there, and even Wikipedia are better than the news.
Imagine you’re a suicide bomber and you have to choose between two cities to attack. In one, everyone reads the news. In the other, nobody does. Which city do you blow yourself up in?
My message would be delivered much farther and wider in the city of news junkies.
(So by reading the news, am I in a small way contributing to making my city more of a target for terrorist attacks?)
What about positive terrorism? (Love-ism?) What if the “attack” was sending a guerrilla team of heavily-equipped doctors into an impoverished hospital to save dozens of lives? Doesn’t the megaphone of the news help in that case?
For sure. But if the two attacks happened simultaneously and affected the same number of lives I think we’d all pay too much attention to the terrorism and not enough on the love-ism.
Conclusion: I don’t know what to do about this. Can I somehow consciously pay attention to positive news and ignore the negative stuff?
The Outsourced News Source
Imagine you have an identical twin who’s exactly like you but 20 IQ points smarter. They offer to follow all the news for you and report back everything you need to know. Would you accept this offer?
I can’t see why not. And if I really want more, I can read the original source for all the details.
This makes me wonder if I can’t reasonably replicate my smarter identical twin with a carefully curated list of people with newsletters who are smarter than me, read more news than me, and have similar interests. Probably. A lot of people meet those criteria.
Conclusion: I should spend more time curating a list of news curators—newsletters, round-ups, thought-leaders—than digging through the news myself.
The Return to Reality
Imagine someone kidnaps you and locks you up in an isolation chamber for a month with no access to information from the outside world. When they release you, how much time would you spend catching up with the news you missed? And how would you do it?
I’d first ask Kim what I missed. Then I’d spend time on my favorite sites catching up on things I’m interested in but she isn’t. I’d spend more time than usual reading the news to catch up, but not thirty times more. Maybe two or three.
Conclusion: I should spend more time as if in an isolation chamber and less reading the news.
The Unconcerned Concerned Citizens
Imagine a world where everyone stopped following the news and refocused all that mental effort, energy, and money towards doing something good. They volunteered, attended community meetings, and/or worked more and donated their additional income to charity. Would the world be a worse or better place?
I’d say better. And I’d say this is a strong argument against any news defenders who claim if you don’t read the news you don’t care about the world. Caring is nothing more than spectating unless you get out of the stands and jump onto the court, or pay someone else to.
Conclusion: If I really care about something, I should give my time and money. Giving my attention is doesn’t help nearly as much.
The Nearly Perfect Politician
Imagine you’re campaigning to be the leader of your country and a supreme being has given you a foolproof step-by-step guide to exactly what you need to do to improve everyone’s lives. The only problem is this being didn’t tell you how to win the election and you’re competing against a multi-billionaire, maniacal, megalomaniac master media manipulator. How much news would you want the voters to consume?
The less news voters consume, the better my odds. I don’t want them to be manipulated by my opponent. I much rather they get themselves an unbiased education on the key topics so they make the right decisions.
Conclusion: The news does not necessarily help me make the best voting decisions. Media-savvy, big-budget politicians have an advantage. I’ll make better decisions by educating myself away from the news.
The Demise of the Dispassionate
Imagine a town holds a referendum. Exactly 50 percent of the population would benefit from it passing. They run a local newspaper and all follow it. The other 50 percent suffer if the referendum passes. None of them follow the news. What’s the most likely referendum outcome?
The news followers. So if I and people like me quit the news, this may decrease our political power relative to other groups who use it heavily.
Conclusion: I need some way to stay engaged. If not the news, something else.
The Endangered Journalist
What if the whole world were to quit the news tomorrow? Would investigative and explanatory journalism disappear? And would this open the door for corruption and abuse of power?
I really don’t know. Without the platforms and salaries that major news agencies give journalists, I wonder how they could continue protecting the public by holding people in power accountable.
I feel the vacuum created by everyone abandoning the news would partially be filled by more long-form journalism. But a lot of news junkies would replace the news with other junk that doesn’t support journalism at all, so the pie may shrink.
Conclusion: Even if I were to quit the news, I should support journalism in other ways. Buying more books and listening to more in-depth podcasts, for example.
The Truth Puzzle
Imagine the breaking news as a puzzle. When it breaks, all the pieces are everywhere. Journalists and news outlets scramble to collect and assemble them. All the while, pundits look at what’s available and speculate on what the final result will look like. Do you benefit at all from spectating during this puzzle assembly process?
Unless I want to become a puzzle assembler myself one day, I rather wait until everyone’s done to take a look. I guess it’s fun to speculate along with others, but it’s not too productive. It could even become counterproductive if I were to come to premature conclusions.
Conclusion: No more breaking news for me. I’ll wait until the truth has been assembled before taking a look.
A Girthier Earth
This thought experiment comes from Rolf Dobelli, author of Stop Reading the News.
Imagine the earth measured twice as much in diameter so that the surface area is four times as large. Assume this bigger earth has the same population density so there would be four time as much happening and four times as much news to keep up with. Would you up your news consumption to keep up?
I definitely wouldn’t consume four times more news. I would barely consume any more at all. So if I could get by knowing one quarter less of what’s going on in this bigger world, I guess I could do the same on the earth I’m on.
This got me thinking: What if the earth were a million times smaller? I wouldn’t consume a million times less news. I’d still want to know a bare minimum of what’s going on around me.
Conclusion: I should focus more on what’s happening closest to me, i.e. my one-millionth of the world, and less on the rest of the world, however big it may be.
Imagine some calamity strikes your city. A terrorist attack, an earthquake, or a pandemic, for example. All the news would reasonably focus on it. But what about the other unrelated news that’s happening? How much time would you spend looking at it relative to non-disaster-related times?
Less. Partly because nobody would be covering it and partly because I wouldn’t care as much.
Conclusion: Any news that wouldn’t interest me in the time of a disaster shouldn’t interest me in calmer times.
The Indefinite Conclusion
Looking back through these questions and thought experiments, things seem strongly in favor of quitting the news.
It also looks like I’ve been incredibly biased in that direction. That’s almost certainly true. But I swear I tried not to be. If you can balance my thinking with thought experiments that support reading more news, please share them in the comments.
Until then, my temporary conclusion is that I should consume a lot less news. Not none, but closer to nothing than what I’m been consuming.
And for the rest of this 21-day lockdown I’m stuck in, these thought experiments have convinced me to try an extreme experiment of quitting the news entirely. Not even sports (…no big sacrifice these days when they’re all canceled.) If I want information, I’ll ask my fellow inmates here or I’ll read a book.
What’s there to lose? It seems I have a lot more to gain. We’ll see…
What are you going to do?
- Good news. There’s reason to believe that reading good news is good for you. If you insist on continuing to follow the news, this site with pretty visualizations of positive news is worth sprinkling on top to keep things healthy.
- Bad news is good news. This article uses evolutionary explanations and scientific findings to argue that we need bad news in our lives.
- Anti-news maven. If you’re anti-news, you’ll enjoy Rolf Dobelli’s arguments. Start with his paper, Avoid News. It provides 15 points against the news and advises what to do instead. Then read his short book, Stop Reading the News, for his complete takedown.
- A Rebuttal to Rolf Dobelli. I found tons of reports, blog posts, and studies about how the news is bad for you. This is one of the few rebuttals I found.