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07 Oct 2015, 07:00

No News is Good News

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Today, I cancelled my subscription to the New York Times. I like the Times, but the reason that I cancelled, aside from a couple of minor issues, was that I’m less sure that consuming the news on a daily basis is a good idea.

I’ll start out with a big caveat to this post, I haven’t figured this out for myself yet. I still have a subscription to the Washington Post, because it’s in a free trial. This post is as much my trying to work out what I want to do as it is an attempt to highlight a concern with how we consume the news.

A few years ago, I read this blog post by Aaron Schwartz, and it resonated with me. I don’t agree with everything that he writes there, however, I do think that he’s got a couple good points. I’ll try to summarize my key takeaways from his post:

  • Consuming lots of disparate information first thing in the morning does not help one trying to be productive in intellectually taxing work.
  • Long form articles with good analysis, or books that can dive in depth on a subject can be much more impactful than trying to piece together a story from the daily news.
  • Committing to a long form work forces you to focus on what you are interested in and find useful, as opposed to trivial noise.
  • Much of what’s reported in the daily news is not terribly useful information to most of us.

Here’s a choice quote from that post:

The news’s obsession with having a little bit of information on a wide variety of subjects means that it actually gets most of those subjects wrong. … Its obsession with the criminal and the deviant makes us less trusting people. Its obsession with the hurry of the day-to-day makes us less reflective thinkers. Its obsession with surfaces makes us shallow.

Over the past few weeks, there has been quite a lot of coverage of the 2016 presidential race. There were two interesting bits of information that I came across. Vox published an article comparing Donald Trump’s polling numbers against his media coverage. His polling seems to increase following heavy media coverage. Then, they show that Fiorina’s numbers rise as the media focuses less on Trump. Could be coincidence, maybe not. If I’m being honest, when the talk shifts from focusing on Trump to Fiorina, I start questioning Trump’s position, and start wondering if he’s begun to fizzle out yet.

Then, there was a story on NPR about how much Sanders is fundraising compared to Clinton, and how Clinton has raised a substantial amount from individual donors. Clinton handily beat Sanders in the previous quarter, if there were any questions. This is interesting in light of all of the negative press that she’s received, reports of her low poll numbers, and constant talk of the email scandal that appears to be making a lot out of a little. My view had certainly been steered towards Clinton becoming a weaker and weaker candidate in an eventual general election, and wondering who was going to come out on top in the primaries.

The above two stories are examples of how the media can shift public perception, or at least mine.

Then, over the weekend, Nicholas Kristof wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times that got me thinking about this issue again. Kristof wrote about how 95% of Americans surveyed on global poverty levels were completely wrong about how those levels have changed. (Over the last 20 years, the level of extreme poverty has halved, respondents thought it had either doubled or stayed roughly the same.) Kristof writes:

We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off. Indeed, maybe the most important thing happening in the world today is something that we almost never cover: a stunning decline in poverty, illiteracy and disease.

He then goes on to discuss the issues that accompany the public’s misperception of the real trends. That since the public believes that no progress has been made (or that it’s gotten worse), despite all the effort already spent, that they see little reason to allocate more resources in trying to improve them. Whereas the reality is that things are getting better rapidly, and what we have been doing has been paying off.

My key takeaway from his piece was that even for people who try to stay informed, even consuming sources as well written and produced as the Times, that most people do not end up with a worldview that is reflected in reality. Not even close. This made me think about why I read the news, and what I want to get out of it.

I decided that the reason that I read the news is to inform my worldview, to try to better understand the world that I live in. Yes, it can be a sort of intellectual entertainment, however, for it to be worthwhile, it must serve a purpose. Is consuming daily news serving that purpose?

On the other hand, there’s no way that I would have even been able to put this post together if I hadn’t been keeping up with the news as much as I have. Or, is this a waste of time too? Have I gotten it all wrong myself?

My goal is to try to have as accurate and complete a view of the world as possible. Obviously, it’s impossible to have complete and accurate knowledge of the world, but I’d like to do my best to move in that direction anyways. With that in mind, I need to be honest, and try to cut down on things that are apparently moving me away from that goal, as much as I like them.

For now, I think that I’ll try cutting down on my daily news, and instead, spend that time reading non-fiction works that may help to improve my understanding of the world. The Facebook community, A Year of Books is a good place to start, I’m about half-way through last month’s title, Why Nations Fail.

One of my focuses is to understand as best I can people in emerging markets, especially those groups of people who are being lifted out of poverty. Poor Economics was a great read along those lines. The New Digital Age was another good one that I read shortly after it came out, and touched on emerging markets a bit. I still need to go back and finish Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

As the election cycles approaches, I will probably read books by the candidates, as well as seeking out long-form pieces on some of the issues. When I do consume the news, it will likely be in the form of podcasts like Planet Money, or Vox which has done a great job of contextualizing the news, and explaining it, as opposed to just giving the snapshot.

This isn’t something that I’m excited to give up, and I probably won’t ditch it completely. I wrote most of this last night, and this morning, I had the urge to pull up the Times app on my phone in bed, and then listen to NPR when I got into the kitchen. I liked having the news as part of my routine, but I think that it’s a worthwhile experiment to try to look for alternatives.

I will report back with an update at some point, and discuss how it’s going.

Update

I’m ditching this experiment, it turns out, I like the news.

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