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Culture

Why I don’t read the news

Most people who know me would probably assume (based on how eager I am to discuss current affairs) that I have a couple of news apps, a newspaper subscription or a twitter feed filled with news content. Three years ago, they would have been right. Not anymore. This is a post about why I don’t read breaking news – and what I do instead. First, a brief overview of my argument against breaking news. That way, if this is the limit to your attention span, I’ve managed to get my point through to you.

Broadly speaking, all breaking news falls victim one or several fatal (but oh so human) errors:

  1. It is reactionary and status quoist
  2. It is divorced from context, and
  3. It exaggerates threats to your person

Breaking news is the problem

Nearly all news coverage is conservative. Even ultra-liberal outlets like The New Yorker have this assumption at their heart: “the world is originally good and people are flawless; institutions corrupt them”. But newspapers and fortnightlies have to (by their very nature) take a measured, balanced approach to their curation. Breaking news’ original sin is that it focuses on what’s being broken more than what is being built. When you need to put something out every few minutes, you can be sure than a lot of that something is nonsense.

I think we diminish the constructive value of change in societies. 24/7 news coverage tends to warp our understanding further and makes us react to emerging news rather than sit back, take a breath and assess where things are going. The news industry (and those on the periphery like social media sites) profits from creating false narratives out of non-issues. Everywhere around you, there are non-issues being blown out of proportion. Go on Facebook and you’ll see this playing out in real time: your kooky uncle shares some government conspiracy to take away his medical supplies; your distant cousin thinks that China created Coronavirus to break Western dominance and emerge as the undisputed superpower. All of these ideas and narratives have always existed, but breaking news amplifies the impact of such fringe voices by giving them airtime. Whether it’s for casual mockery or serious debate, most “news” isn’t actually news: it’s just plain hand-wringing about change.

There’s a wonderful Quartz article from a couple of years ago that made me realize the stupidity of a 24/7 news cycle:

As news organizations embrace the internet economy, they’re pushed to publish with more immediacy, more emotion and more frequency. They’re speeding up to fill infinite space — and in the process, they’re losing sight of their responsibility to help readers understand their world.

The paradox of this false urgency is that we end up with far more words being written, far more time spent reading, and far less clarity, context and understanding.

Rob Howard, writing for Quartz

In that sense, breaking news and rollercoasters are very alike: they provide excitement and evoke fear of change while ultimately leading us nowhere.

Questions of quality

Another consequence of relentless news coverage is entirely predictable and all too human: people get complacent and fall into patterns of lazy behaviour. Sometimes, it creates stories with absolutely no fact-checking, no context and nothing to hold it up other than some flimsy reporting. In the grand scheme of things, we are still naked bipeds running scared from fearsome saber-toothed monsters of the night, and we use bad reporting to cover up our inherent prejudices and biases in a facade of “journalism”.

Consider the now infamous case of some Muslim men arrested in India for “links to ISIS”. The story was trumpeted by every newspaper, website and magazine at the time. It was reported that 9 men were nabbed while communicating with each other to take care while handling some “hazardous” chemicals. Of course, the police victoriously proclaimed that they had stopped a terror attack, and civic society had just been handed a jump scare, only to realize that it was nothing to worry about.

The truth?

Though reports spoke of “chemicals”, the only chemical named in all of them was hydrogen peroxide, because one 100 ml bottle was labeled so. Known as a hair bleach and a mouth rinse, hydrogen peroxide was described by the Anti-Terrorism Squad as a chemical “preferred” by the Islamic State to make bombs (DNA, January 24).

Between 2015 and 2017, Europe experienced six bomb blasts in which hydrogen peroxide was indeed used. Three of these explosions were planned by the Islamic State. However, the other chemical used in these blasts was TATP or triacetone triperoxide. There was no mention of triacetone triperoxide being found in the homes of those arrested in Maharashtra.

Jyoti Punwani, writing for Scroll

And that’s the state of news media in the 21st century – first at the scene, quick to label, eager to point fingers, and almost always wrong. And that’s why I try to avoid reacting to news pieces, especially when they’re fresh.

My news diet

Over the years, I’ve figured out a stable cadence at which I’m comfortable with absorbing news. I’ve realized that no matter how much I try to avoid it, people will insist on discussing developing issues without having much reliable information about it. This happened with the Iran crisis, early COVID-19 reporting and now again, with the economic impact of COVID. I don’t like to be uninformed, but I don’t really want to be reactionary either. Far too many people I know just regurgitate whatever opinion they get off Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, Hasan Minhaj and John Oliver. I don’t want to be one of those. So, I’ve subscribed to a news briefing by Axios just so I’m aware of big news. Every weekend, I catch up on the week’s major stories through a couple of podcasts and magazines. That’s it. This level of awareness takes me approximately 1 hour per week, and I’m not measurably less-informed than any news junkie.

Along the way, I’ve also developed trust in some media outlets, and I generally don’t trust all outlets with all news equally. Here’s the summary:

  • Headlines: Axios – I used to use the BBC podcast, but it was taking up too much of my time so switched to Axios about a year ago
  • Local: Stuff (NZ), The Hindu (India), NYT (US), Axios (US)
  • Culture: The Atlantic, Scroll, Quint, Quartz
  • Business: Livemint (India), NZ Herald (NZ), Wall Street Journal (US), The Economist (World)
  • Politics: WPR (World), The Guardian (UK), NPR (US), FiveThirtyEight (US)
  • Science: Nautilus, ScienceDaily, Undark, New Scientist, HeritageDaily, Phys.org
  • Opinion: BBC, Guardian, Aeon, The Nib, Longreads, Marginal Revolution, UnHerd

I use Google News to catch up if I feel like I need the top headlines. I change the region from NZ to US to UK to India, and by the end of it I generally know enough to get by. Of course, you can make it even simpler by setting up a Feedly – it takes 10 minutes and you’ll be forever grateful you did it.

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