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In Defense of The News: Information Pulse and Content Overload

(Photo credit – http://www.cubebreaker.com/1950s-hong-kong-street-photography-fan-ho/)

It’s become very fashionable, in business/productivity circles, to hate the news.

And with good reason: the news can feel cheap, trite, designed for a brief spike of rage or indignation or fear…and not much else.

I don’t watch the news” is up there as a humble-brag along with “I don’t even own a TV.”

“Your life will be the same no matter who’s president,” is another line I hear quite a bit, perhaps a cousin of “I don’t even watch the news.”

All these statements can feel right because, in fact, the news is quite unpleasant. And being too tied into the news does have negative effects.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, distressed, and helpless – constantly bombarded by bad news you can do nothing about.

We all have enough stress in our lives already.

But I would argue that the smug dismissal of “the news” as something that only rubes pay attention to has its own risks.

For one, so much smugness can hardly be good for your health.

More seriously, “the news” is really code for “engagement with society at large”…a responsibility that is dangerous to abdicate.

Why do we need news, anyway? What purpose does it serve?

Primarily, it does one thing:


It lets us know about events/things we would not have otherwise known about.

(After all, you don’t need the news to tell you what you had for breakfast this morning…you need it to tell you about things that happened outside your immediate sphere of influence).

That may sound really obvious, but think for a moment about what things are generally outside your sphere of influence:

  • People who are unlike you
  • People in situations unlike yours
  • People in power

The news, then, is one of our primary channels for developing empathy – since it’s hard to feel empathy for people you neither know about nor understand.

It’s also our primary channel for accountability – it’s hard to hold those in power to task when you have no idea what they’re doing.

The news is one of the few ways we have of reliably seeing others – and without truly seeing others, we are often unable to truly empathize with them.

The mind’s eye is where empathy is born.

Skip the news, and you skip the ability to develop this empathy over time.

The “no matter who’s president, your life will be completely the same!” is a great example of this lack of empathy problem. People’s lives DO change significantly depending on who’s in power…just, perhaps, not the people in your immediate sphere of influence.

Migrant children outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas – 2019. Photo Credit

As just the most blatantly obvious example – the kids pictured above would have wildly different experiences, depending on the immigration laws in place.

You might think that’s good or bad – but the point is that their lives would be different.

The same goes for people of lower socio-economic status in general, and people for whom policing policies have a strong impact, and people for whom health care policy have a strong impact.

That you are not affected by political changes does not mean people are not affected.

They just don’t tend to be people you know about.

And because you don’t know about them, you don’t care about them.

This is not a moral failing – we’re just terrible at extending sympathy and empathy to those we can’t picture.

Call it a vestige of our more tribal days, where we operated in a limited sphere of moral concern. Back in the day, if I didn’t know you, if I didn’t depending on you for food, or resources, or companionship, then I didn’t care about you.

We live in a democratic society – a social construct that asks us to think deeply about not just our own needs, but the needs of those around us. That’s hard. It’s really, really, really fucking hard, and we’re all bad at it.

But the news – our window into what happens elsewhere – is one way we counteract this tendency.

If The News Is So Great, Why Does It Make Me Miserable?

Here’s the thing:

Information has a pulse.

You can think of “pulse” as the speed at which information is delivered and consumed.

On Instagram, I might scroll through a hundred different posts and stories in a few minutes – it has a high pulse.

On Facebook, I might consume less than that, since I have to slow down to read more/the content is less visual – it has a lower pulse.

And of course, reading a book that was written 100 years ago has a very low pulse – not only is it slow to consume, it took time to get to me.

What’s important to note is that information is filtered over time – so information with a higher pulse will, by necessity, be less filtered and more “noisy.”

It takes a few seconds to tweet something – so misinformation travels fast, and is both consumed and regurgitated at a rate that makes adequate vetting of information impossible.

High pulse = immediate, but with a much higher chance of being wrong.

Books, on the other hand, tend to be more valuable, on average, the older they are. You can relatively sure that there’s something of value in anything that has survived a century of criticism.

What makes us miserable about the news is not the news itself, but the pulse of the channels from which we receive the news.

Twitter is a great social network for conversation, but it’s terrible for news – consisting mostly of “hot takes” that are forgotten as quickly as they are consumed.

TV is a great entertainment medium, but it’s a terrible place for news – focused on attracting eyeballs at any cost, with all incentives structured for rewarding speed and immediacy over impact and accuracy.

So, how can we consume the news – and develop empathy, and hold those in power accountable, and deepen our understanding of the world – without making ourselves miserable?

Lower the pulse of the news.

Slow News Day

For my money, the two best ways to consume the news are:

  • Newspapers
  • Long form journalism

My personal preference is the Sunday New York Times; that’s just my opinion, of course, but the “Sunday” part is no accident.

By Sunday, the big stories of the week tend to have been established, and “summary” articles are included. Most of the “noise” has had time to filter out – the false starts, the outright lies, the mistakes, tend to have been more or less ironed out by Sunday.

Is that always the case? Of course not. But the signal to noise ratio is significantly higher over the weekend, so you end up getting a more balanced picture of the week by skipping the news entirely and just catching up on Sunday.

In terms of long form journalism, I’ve been partial to magazines like Harper’s or The New Yorker because I’m an East Coast Liberal Elitist – but pick any magazine of similar bent.

These periodicals tend to address timely issues, but to do so in a non-time-crunched, more in-depth way.

Are they as low-noise as, say, books? No.
Are they anywhere near as low-noise as, say, books published over the previous 50 years that are still in print? No.

But the pulse is significantly lower than trying to “stay on top of” the news each day.

And because the pulse is lower, the effect of the news is very different.

Rather than feeling stressed out about fires half the world a way…

You can start to learn about the effect those fires have had.

Rather than reading tweets about the continued villainy of those on the other side of the aisle…

You can start to get a deeper understanding of how their policies are affecting communities outside your own.

Empathy starts with awareness.

Accountability starts with awareness.

And we need both to be responsible citizens – to be the kind of people that engage with the world around us, rather than simply shutting our eyes as tightly as possible while we “optimize” our lifestyles and bank accounts.

So.
Read the news.
Pick out what’s interesting to you.
Slow the pulse.

I think you’ll find the benefits to be substantial…
And the rest of the world needs you.

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2 Comments

  1. Josiah Ferguson

    I found this to be a really insightful take on something I’ve always thought about. Keep up the good work

  2. Ingrid

    Hello, its a really good post about information and stuff, but i have to disagree with you about the news thing, i dont know if it’s because im from another country and the news here can be different but i believe the news can actually decrease empathy, not the other way around like you said.
    You see, here, everyday we see awful news to the point population doenst care anymore… Just a thought i wanted to share.. thanks for the article.

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