A balanced view on news

By December 13, 2013News

There’s a Guardian article titled News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier which has been retweeted a lot this morning. It makes some good points, but for me the conclusion is wrong. News isn’t bad per se, it’s just over-consumption of news is bad. Let me explain.

The opening sentences from the article set the scene nicely:

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body.

I love the analogy with sugar. We have a part of the brain known as the amygdala which has barely evolved for tens of thousands of years that keeps a constant watch for danger. When we lived as wild animals a well developed sense of danger was critical to survival – seeing the small signs early and running or fighting was the best way to stay alive, and being over-sensitive was way better than being under-sensitive. The amygdala lives on with us today, and it loves to look for those signs of danger in the form of bad news – aeroplane crashes that could catch us next and terrorist threats are good examples. That’s why bad news sells and why our newspapers average a 90:10 good news:bad news split, and it’s also why scanning headlines is so compelling. We’re hard wired at a deep level to keep looking for danger.

This is bad news because scanning negative headlines increases fear and paranoia. Public perceptions of technology are a good example of how this pans out in a bad way. To me it’s evident that on balance technology has had, and will continue to have, a profoundly positive impact on our lives, from decreased infant mortality to more meaningful work the good outweighs the bad. However, if you ask most people about the impact of technology they recall horror stories about Facebook or chemical warfare and start thinking about Terminator style armageddon scenarios. Worse still, confirmation bias comes into play. Headline writers intuit that people want to read headlines that confirm their fears and then we naturally screen out or dismiss the 10% of stories that paint a positive picture.

The advent of social media and news aggregators, especially Twitter, has heightened this problem in recent years by making it easier to quickly scan headlines. I think that’s why the backlash meme expressed in the Guardian this morning is now gathering steam.

However, contrary to what the Guardian might have you believe, the answer isn’t to stop reading news altogether. Returning to the food analogy – the answer is to figure out the appropriate level of consumption. The obesity epidemic engulfed the planet when food costs plummeted after the Second World War and for the first time a large percentage of the population had the possibility of consuming more calories than they needed. Our natural wiring, again dating back to the days of pre-civilisation, is to eat as much as we can when food is available because there might be none available tomorrow and it has taken us a few decades to collectively get to the point where many of us have learned to eat appropriately. Similarly, it will take us a little while to learn to regulate our news consumption.

I also think our collective use of email and messaging systems is following a similar pattern.

My routine is that first thing every morning I scan the last 12-24 hours of Tweets on a couple of Twitter lists I’ve curated and then save the interesting headlines to Instapaper so I can read them at work. Crucially, I then rarely look at Twitter again before the next morning. I probably average 30-60 mins per day checking the Twitter lists and reading the saved articles and I’m pretty happy that’s the right amount of news for me.