I’m a news junkie and I spend a large portion of each day with my addiction. It’s not just one particular drug, in my case we’re talking about a veritable cocktail.
Here’s my daily news media diet: Five newspapers in electronic format, of which I read two more or less completely. Several blogs and podcasts, mainly about tech and economics. Bloomberg TV for a few hours before the markets open in the U.S. When in Finland I usually watch the main TV news broadcast at 8:30 pm. I read a few magazines, mainly Finnish and American. And finally there’s the Twitter feed, which in my case almost completely consists of news from various sources.
I’m aware that my daily dosage is extreme and close to unhealthy levels. The average American spends 70 minutes a day taking in the news according to the Pew Research Center. In Finland, where news consumption is considered a virtue and taught from the early years in school, the number is probably higher. But even in Finland I’m without a doubt categorized as a heavy user.
Lately I’ve been starting to question my habits. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons behind my daily behaviour. Why would somebody consume the news 24/7? What is the alternative cost to all this? Could it actually be better in terms of happiness and prosperity to consume less news?
What if I would stop consuming news altogether, as many public profile intellectuals like Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Steven Levitt have chosen to do.
It was actually a Freakonomics Radio podcast titled "Why Do We Really Follow the News?" that got me thinking about this entire thing. In this episode Stephen Dubner, along with a number of other people, go through the typical reasons for why we follow the news.
As expected, there are a lot of noble reasons like “news make us smarter”, “news allow us to make better decisions”, and “news give us perspective and are beneficial from a social perspective”.
But what if we’re just deceiving ourselves? What if, as Dubner puts it, it’s all just entertainment?
Sure enough, there might be some truth to that claim, but I’d say it’s more a question of human beings trying to make sense of the world and their own lives. The importance of story telling is well known throughout history and people have always had a yearning for being able to place themselves in the story. In many ways news are like stories and anthropologists have shown that if you have a society, there will be a way of finding and distributing news.
One of the key problems with news is that they don’t make me too happy. On the contrary, very often news cause anxiety, frustration, and stress. The fact that I’m using so much time to find and absorb news is also a source of dissatisfaction. Furthermore, as Professor Mitchell Stephens from NYU/Journalism points out, very little of news are of practical value. It might be interesting to become aware of event X but in the end it often has very little relevance for your life.
An entirely different discussion is how trustworthy and good today’s news journalism is and how we can ensure that we don’t get our news from siloed sources. Let’s face it, a lot of news is generated for purely commercial or political reasons and it’s designed to hook you with suspense and surprise.
It’s also easy to end up in a situation where most of the news is biased, because we seek news that confirm our own biases. In other words, the news and the stories we get are the ones we already agree on. This phenomenon is accentuated by social media and Facebook in particular.
I'd really like to find a better balance between my news consumption and my other activities. I’m fairly certain that a redistribution of my time and focus would have several positive effects on my overall well-being as well as my social life.
How to achieve this change can however turn out to be difficult. To be honest, I don't even know exactly where to begin. All good ideas and suggestions are more than welcome!