Over the last few years, I’ve come across a few great thinkers who often made a simple suggestion: switch off the news. While I understood the premise – short version: stop wasting time on garbage information – I always decided to stick at it. How else would I stay informed of key events in the world?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s fair to say that my perspective has changed. These thinkers, at least in my view, have been proven right – and unequivocally so.
Let me be unsparing in my assessment. The overwhelming majority of our major news providers are unworthy of viewership and unworthy of the term ‘journalism’. They have served to exacerbate division and fear among populations, perpetuating falsehoods and marching to their governments’ beat. They are the very worst of us, bubbling cesspits dedicated to purging themselves of their latest anxiety-inducing ectoplasm. Servants to an industry of fear porn. At best, they are a lousy use of your and my time. At worst, they are a reductive use of your and my time, invading us with cortisol and etching away at our future time. In short, they are an abomination. We’re better off without them.
With that out of the way, let us turn to some of the specific reasons why you should switch off the news and never turn it on again.
Note: I say you, but I mean we. Indeed, in a way, I’m writing this article to myself to behave as a trigger and a reminder that I should never again be so stupid as to invest more time than absolutely necessary reading and watching the news. (Slaps himself in the face.) Anyway, don’t take it personally.
Why You Should Switch Off the News
Reason #1: The distortion of reality
Back in July 2020, after the first wave of COVID-19, Ketst CNC ran some interesting polling. Among the areas of interest were things like attitudes to mask wearing, levels of concern and expected duration. But perhaps the most revealing insights came in a section entitled “Perception vs. Reality”.
Poll participants were asked how many people they thought had died with COVID-19. In the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, the mean average estimates of poll participants were 9%, 7% and 3%, respectively.
These estimates were not even remotely close. In fact, they were 225x, 100x and 300x the reality of recorded deaths. The gap between perception and reality was nothing short of ludicrous. People believed (and still believe) that COVID-19 presented far more of a threat to life than the statistical reality.
The underlying point I’m trying to illustrate here is not that COVID isn’t a serious disease. Rather, I want to illustrate the extent to which the fear factory that is our news can create unhelpful gaps between perception and reality.
Mainstream news providers filter out nuance and complexity, instead focusing on sensationalism. They put a warm arm around the shoulder (or perhaps a warm hand around the throat!) and they say, “don’t worry about thinking, we’ll do that for you – and boy oh boy, it doesn’t look good.” Why? Because this is easy on our brains, and because fear sells.
Rolf Dobelli puts it much more elegantly in The Art of Thinking Clearly:
“News is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetizing, easy to digest – and highly destructive in the long run.”
Of course, we can’t say for sure that the news directly causes this gap between perception and reality, but it’s surely a significant contributor. And the gaps we grow between perception and reality have real-world impacts. We build a scarier view of the world and we take decisions according to that view. These decisions have impacts on ourselves and others.
Remember: The news is made to sell, not to inform – and sometimes that can have dangerous consequences.
Reason #2: The myth of competitive advantage
“But… but… reading the newspaper and watching the news gives me a competitive advantage over my peers.”
Bollocks. If it’s mainstream news, not a chance.
Here’s an example of some headlines on the BBC news website at the time of writing. You have my word that these are picked from the first page you land on.
- Plymouth attacker’s gun returned after rehab scheme
- NI records highest number of Covid cases in a day
- Prison recall might have stopped Streatham attacker
- Army supporting ambulance services in England
- Mass events ‘can be conducted safely’
Let’s cast the geographical net a bit wider by taking a look at the CNN website. I’m not sure here if I see the same as someone from the United States when I go to the website, but anyway, here are a few examples.
- Chaotic evacuation grows more desperate
- Gupta: Covid isn’t going away. Here are 5 ways to cope
- China insists its zero-Covid strategy is correct. Challenging it can be dangerous
- Storm dumps 7 billion tons of rain on Greenland’s normally snowy summit in ‘unprecedented’ first
- Princess Beatrice is honest about her learning difficulty. Here’s why it matters
Yeah, I’ll say no more. Enjoy that competitive advantage.
The bottom line here is simple: Do you really need to know all this stuff? How will it benefit your decision making? How will it advance you towards your goals?
If anything, for the other reasons that I’m outlining here, it provides a competitive disadvantage. It does us more harm than good, which leads us nicely to our next point.
Reason #3: The anxiety rush
The harms of news extend from mental to physical. Yes, these headlines aren’t simply innocuous trash (well, a minority of the above perhaps are). They are stark, fear-inducing headlines. They are headlines that might produce a psychological and physical fear response.
Let me explain.
When we experience stress, our cortisol levels increase. Cortisol is a hormone released by the adrenal gland which plays a crucial role in regulating blood pressure, sleep, metabolism and inflammation. But create too much, and it becomes a problem. A sustained high level of cortisol can contribute to heart disease, headaches, anxiety, depression, cognitive problems and sleep issues.
Here’s the problem. Consuming the news can activate the sympathetic nervous system. In turn, this forces your body to release additional cortisol. And in turn, that can have all sorts of nasty consequences in the long run.
This isn’t just conjecture either. If we look at the research, it seems that women in particular experience this surge in cortisol when they watch negative-sentiment news. Researchers from the University of Montreal concluded that there is “a potential mechanism by which media exposure could increase stress reactivity and memory for negative news in women”.
Polling also supports this take across the board. For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) found that while 95 percent of adults said they followed the news regularly, 56 percent admitted that doing so causes them stress.
Is it really worth it?
Reason #4: The opportunity cost
My final reason is simple: Reading the news costs time. Yes, that stuff you won’t get back. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, there’s no refund. So, is the news really a good use of that finite resource?
Those articles about the conflict in Afghanistan, COVID cases, storms, the weapon of an attacker and Princess Beatrice – are they really worthwhile?
Of course they’re not. And when we give up our time to read and watch these articles, we sacrifice something else we could have been doing. There is an opportunity cost to our choices.
You could have elevated your physical health in that time. Instead, you might well have undermined it – temporarily at least. You could have learned about a useful concept in that time. Instead, you let your brain jack off to the latest fear porn.
Choices have consequences and opportunity costs. Consider them carefully when you’re consuming the currency of the modern world: information.
I will bring this article to a close with one final thought.
As the world is entering its most chaotic and dynamic state in decades, there is a temptation to be always connected to the breaking news. “I have to stay informed. What if there is an emergency? What if I need to react quickly?”
My retort: someone will know about it and someone will tell you about it. Why? Because there will always be enough mugs watching the news, and there will always be enough people talking about it.
If you can’t reconcile yourself with this view, my recommendation is to at least check your use. Be strict with yourself on when you watch or read the news, and do something healthy afterwards.
Ultimately, our job is to look after number one. I hope this has given some food for thought, but you do you. You decide what is a better use of your time for your health, sanity, productivity and decision making.
It’s clear by now where I stand. Good luck!