To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.(Nassim Nicholas Taleb,
‘The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms’)
I used to be a news junkie. I used to cut out and keep articles and opinion pieces and punditry in the belief that I’d use them somehow for fiction writing or blogging. I spent hours each week reading The Times (London), the BBC website, New Scientist, and if the week seemed particularly intense, The Economist or other journals. Sunday mornings would disappear as I ploughed through comment and analysis in the Sunday editions. I thought this would make me well-informed and knowledgeable, and that whatever opinions I had would be Pretty Damn Good, or at least Worth Listening To. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?)
The trouble is, I didn’t have much time for a whole load of other stuff I wanted to do. I spent an inordinate amount of time playing computer games with News 24 in the background – at which point it became rather obvious that although content varied, I was essentially watching the same report over and over.
Progress on creative projects was glacial. Other things I wanted to do didn’t even get started. I had to make time, rather than simply have the time.
Something had to give. When my girlfriend and I moved into our own flat after renting for years, I went through my insane backlog of newspaper cuttings. Anything that was still valid, useful and insightful I would keep. Otherwise, I would chuck it in the bin. These snippets covered science articles for writing projects in the 1990s, descriptions of life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, petty political squabbles in the UK that filled many column inches, arguments and predictions about terror attacks and wars… and it was all a load of bollocks.
With the benefit of a decade’s hindsight, all the ink spilled across the pages in the run-up to the Iraq War, or crowing about how strong the economy was, looked utterly pointless. Nobody can predict the future. (In an episode of West Wing, President Bartlett was assured by one economist that the dollar would rise; another said it would fall; Bartlett said that in a year’s time “One or both of you will look pretty stupid.”)
The political scandals were only important because Westminster Bubble journalists made it seem that way; in the grand scheme of things, they amounted to ‘gotcha! moments, catching minor lapses or moments of incompetence, and ignoring far greater problems lurking in the background. As Rolf Dobelli (2010) put it:
As a result of news, we walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads.
Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated.
The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated.
Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated.
Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC reports are underrated.
Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated.
It’s possible that the news will leave you less well-informed. One must watch out for the use of statistics, tricking the unwary into thinking small problems are bigger than they actually are. Reading Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News also made me think a lot more about what I was being presented with, and I enjoyed Charlie Brooker’s breakdown of how it was presented. Little things started to bug me – such as News International’s consistently negative reporting of Facebook, in light of the knowledge that it also owned Facebook’s competitor Myspace and completely buggered it up.
When a couple of columnists I enjoyed reading in The Times left, I decided there was little reason to keep getting it. The BBC’s rolling 24-hour news kept repeating the same old stuff rather than the variety of reports and insights found on its global channels – it was happier to stick with sport, weather and a repeated script. So I stopped watching it. (Could be worse; other channels like to interrupt matters of import with celebrity trivia.)
For one thing, I’m not wasting nearly as much time as I used to – and when I do waste time, it’s because I choose to (rather than habit), and I’m very conscious of the fact that I could be doing something more productive and creative instead.
Instead of filling my head with someone else’s opinions, I’m thinking for myself a lot more. I’m also a lot stricter about what I choose to think about. (When asked about what he thought of David Cameron, Christopher Hitchens replied, “He doesn’t make me think.” I’m finding this can be said about rather a lot of things in the news.) I’m not deluding myself I’m engaged with the issues any more. (And remember the best rule of the internet: don’t read the comments.)
Some bloggers argue that the news is relentlessly negative and that this alone is a reason not to indulge in it. There may be something to this, as Syrians in Aleppo have reportedly given up on the news because in February 2015 it has only death to report.
I can also live without the clickbait. I’ve blocked sites like Buzzfeed because they have nothing that could possibly enrich my life. But here’s a double-edged sword I’m still playing with: Facebook.
I’m lucky enough to have a good number of highly intelligent friends who work in a wide variety of sectors. Knowing them has enriched my life far better than reading op-ed pieces ever could. Reading discussions and arguments – which, being skeptical types, they pepper with links and articles – has been a great way to understand (or in some cases, begin to understand) what the bigger picture is.
If I disagree, I am forced to ask myself why I disagree. If I haven’t got a clue what the issues are, I can see the links or explanations they provide. If I offer my thoughts, I’d better make damn sure I know what formed those thoughts. Ideas clash; my friends don’t.
So: by giving up the news, I’ve got more time; my mind’s freed up to be more creative; I’m gaining better insights from a wider variety of sources. What’s not to like?