Why Do We Follow the News?

News has become an essential part of the human experience. Modern society thrives on news, with a majority of people getting their information from television and social media platforms that are constantly providing updates about current events,.

“Do you follow the news?” is a question that is asked often. The answer to this question can be different depending on who is asking it, what situation they are in, and what sort of person they are. Read more in detail here: do you follow the news.

I prefer to listen to NPR programmes like Radiolab, the TED Radio Hour, and To the Best of Our Knowledge while getting ready in the morning, especially on the weekends. “But first, the news,” the presenter will remark before such broadcasts begin.

I usually find myself immediately quieting down whatever I’m doing (like brushing my teeth) in order to hear what’s coming next.

The news!

The news is on its way!

What’s going on in the news these days?!

The following is a short recap of the “major” news from the day: A mudslide has killed 25 people in one nation; an explosion has occurred in the city of another; the stock market is up or down; a sports team has won a championship; a well-known celebrity has died.

There is almost never anything fascinating or personally relevant going on. My must-tune-in instinct goes off again the next time I hear “First, the news.”

The disconnect between my need for news and what I can honestly claim I’ve ever gained from it has prompted me to ponder a subject that has nagged at me for years: “Is there really any purpose to keep up with the news?” 

The Latest: Modernity’s Unquestioning Faith

For billions of people throughout the world, news consumption — whether by radio, the internet, or television — is a daily habit.

It isn’t a new habit for me. Tribesmen used to reward returning scouts for their observations of what was going on in nature and in the next community (the fact that what they had to say may have aided in survival is likely why we developed such a pull towards the news in the first place). Citizens a century ago didn’t have Facebook, Huffington Post, or Reddit, but they excitedly snatched up piles of newspapers, which were published in many editions every day.

No, news consumption is not a new activity; rather, it is one that has grown more rapid and important to our daily lives.

In The News: A User’s Guide, philosopher Alain de Botton uses Hegel’s concepts to argue that the news has in some ways replaced “religion as our principal source of instruction and our touchstone of authority” in contemporary civilizations.

Morning and evening prayers have been replaced with monitoring one’s news feed as soon as one wakes up and before going to bed. While the devout formerly looked to the Bible for inspiration, it’s now in the headlines that “we aspire to get insights, discover who is good and who is wicked, fathom pain, and comprehend the developing logic of reality.” And if we refuse to participate in the rites, we risk being accused of heresy.”

If the news constitutes a new kind of religion, it is unquestionably one of our least investigated. The media seldom undertakes self-reporting – reports that look at their own value and reliability.

Consuming the news (at least the “hard,” impartial type — though no one can quite agree on what counts as such) is undoubtedly our most respectable diversion in the greater society. It’s easy to come out as an uneducated rube if you don’t keep up with current events and geopolitics (“Can you believe how many Americans don’t know the name of Canada’s prime minister?!”). The belief is that knowing the news is essential to being an informed and involved citizen.

 

But does the news actually make us that way? Are our reasons for sticking with it really that lofty? Today, we’ll look at these issues, as well as the importance of news consumption in a man’s life. At the risk of seeming unorthodox, I’ll suggest that, although news isn’t entirely useless, we might get by with substantially less of it than we do now.

Why Do We Say We Read the News?

When it comes to keeping up with the news, I believe there is a significant disconnect between what we claim we do and what we really do. Because, when you look at the most usually claimed arguments, they don’t stand up:

The news sheds light on truth and reality. Journalists’ (at least serious ones) job is to report on what’s going on in the world; they believe it is their responsibility to give us “the truth.” Without the news, we would be unaware of what is “really” going on in the world, so the argument goes.

However, the media’s truth reflects just a fragment of human reality – typically the portion that is new, innovative, and, most importantly, unpleasant. According to studies, the news has a 17:1 ratio of negative to good articles. We hear about a few dozen murders and pedophiles who were up to no good on a particular day, but we don’t hear about the millions of people who went to work, ate dinner, and went to bed without whacking their spouse or preying on tiny children. As de Botton points out:

“There are a slew of headlines that are both truthful and difficult to publish:

Grandmother, 87, was assisted three stories up the stairwell at the train station by an unknown 15-year-old onlooker.

Despite his affections for a young kid, the teacher triumphs.

After a short pause, a man abandons his hasty intention to murder his wife.

Every night, 65 million individuals go to bed without killing or hitting anybody.”

In the headlines, danger lurks around every corner, every notable individual is a hypocrite hiding a scandal, and everyone has an 87.5 percent risk of developing cancer before reaching the age of 70.

The news media’s lens on the world is so narrow that it usually spotlights just a tiny portion of it while distorting the rest. As a result, the media not only reports on reality, but also contributes to mold it. Because what we read in the news influences our perceptions of life, including our ideas about the status of our nation and our fellow citizens. As a consequence, the outlook is bleakly negative and cynical. Though a lot of things in our family and little town look to be fine, the rest of the world appears to be in shambles.

Which of the two truths is more accurate?

Racism and bigotry are broken down by the news. Keeping up with what’s going on in the globe — natural catastrophes, illnesses, and conflicts in far-flung nations — is meant to make us feel like we’re part of a global community and increase our empathy.

 

Despite this, psychological research after psychological study has revealed the exact reverse. When we are confronted with another person’s pain, we are motivated by compassion for them. However, when confronted with the misery of dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people, we prefer to look away. “The death of one individual is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic,” said Joseph Stalin plainly. When faced with widespread suffering, our empathy antennas retract in order to avoid being overwhelmed by emotion.

As a result, rather than inspiring us to humanize “the other,” the news may encourage us to dehumanize them. Rather from making us more sensitive to human suffering, constant tales of a hundred people murdered in an explosion or a hundred people killed by a sickness may make us jaded to their predicament.

The news keeps us informed so that we can act on critical problems. You may recall a teacher assigning you the chore of reading the newspaper every day when you were in elementary or high school. You were informed that keeping up with the news was an important aspect of being a politically active citizen.

This notion is absolutely correct. However, it is often expressed in a simplified manner, and without certain crucial cautions.

To begin with, being really informed — being able to make sense of the news in order to know what action to take in response to it – requires more than just the news. The news seldom provides context for what it covers, instead presenting a never-ending stream of information and figures. To create connections between these facts, stake out well-founded viewpoints, and make solid judgments, background knowledge in history, psychology, philosophy, and other fields, gathered from books and other more stable, in-depth information sources, is essential.

Second, not every news is immediately actionable or useful to you. In reality, the great bulk of it is about situations over which you have no control, even if you wanted to. And how often does a tale encourage you to do anything, even if it is actionable and relevant? How many of the tens of thousands of news items you’ve read in the previous five years have directly influenced you to make a different choice or act? 1%? 1%?.01 percent?

In fact, it’s possible to argue that absorbing news about everything, everywhere makes us less likely to take any action, anywhere. We are overwhelmed, immobilized, and apathetic, buried in an avalanche of reports about how totally rotten and dreadful everything is. We go between being foolishly scared and powerless in our anger. What could we possibly do to make a difference, and how significant would it be?

Consuming news, according to de Botton, may lead to our being less involved with the world rather than more:

“A modern dictator seeking to consolidate power would not need to do anything as obviously sinister as banning the news: all he or she would have to do is make sure that news organizations broadcast a steady stream of random-sounding bulletins, in large numbers but with little context, within an agenda that kept changing, without giving any sense of the ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short time before, the whole interspersed with cons.” This would be enough to derail most people’s ability to comprehend political reality, as well as whatever determination they might have gathered to change it. The status quo could be assuredly maintained indefinitely in the face of a deluge of, rather than a prohibition on, news.”

 

Why Do We Read the News So Much?

While we can come up with a variety of noble-sounding justifications for watching the news, the majority of the time, our motives for consuming are much less flattering:

For the sake of amusement. The reason we watch news is the same reason we watch other forms of media: it’s entertaining. There’s a lot of action, drama, twists and turns, and suspense. Every genre of fiction has a real-life counterpart in the news:

Suspense, Mystery, and Horror: Why would someone crash an aircraft into a mountain on purpose? What must have it been like for those fateful passengers in the moments leading up to the crash? Who is to blame for the shooting? Is he guilty or innocent?

Who is dating whom in the celebrity world? That was the one who ended the relationship? Who’s having a relationship with whom?

Did you hear about the politician/gaffe? newscaster’s Cringe-inducingly funny!

Will that crooked CEO/spoiled wealthy child ever get his comeuppance in this morality tale? Tune in to find out!

Who won the title in sports (both real and fictional)? Who’s eliminated from the playoffs? Who came out on top in the debate? Who is currently leading the polls?

The news, with its “athletic” competitions, whodunits, and schadenfreude, can be a lot of fun to follow.

For keeping track of other people’s whereabouts. We’re all incredibly status-sensitive beings, as we discussed in last year’s series on the topic. We scan our Facebook feeds for personal “news” from our friends and family to evaluate how they’re doing in relation to us. Simultaneously, the new media environment has made us feel linked to prominent leaders and celebrities of all types, as if they, too, are part of our own status pool.

To observe who’s up and who’s down in the globe, we fly between social media news feeds and mainstream news. It’s very satisfying to see someone well-known fall from grace or be ridiculed (even if it’s someone whose work we like!). Seeing someone being knocked down a notch helps us feel a bit better about ourselves.

As if it were a mark of our own worth. Knowledge of the news is similar to having a college diploma in that it does not necessarily imply that someone is more intellectual or well-off than someone else, but we use it as a sorting tool. The guy who can talk eruditely about current events is considered as an educated member of the bourgeoisie, while the one who does not follow the news is seen as a more uneducated member of the lower class.

One typically does not want to fall into the first group, thus scanning the day’s headlines becomes a need for successfully participating in discussion and keeping one’s standing.

In the hopes of hearing about a major international event. The majority of our lives are monotonous, predictable, and revolve around a 9-5 schedule. Though a part of us does not desire a war or a calamity, another half secretly wishes for something really monumental to occur. Large-scale catastrophes and battles cause a lot of pain, but they also provide novelty, excitement, cohesion, and a sense of greater meaning and purpose. As a result, we tune in to the news, both fearing and hoping that something horrible has happened.

 

To go away from ourselves. Immersing ourselves in the drama unfolding on the international stage might help us forget about the issues we face in our own backyard. Scrolling through all of the links on a news site functions as a type of anesthesia for the brain, turning off and momentarily forgetting about the emotional pain you’ve been dealing with. For the same reason, even though it claims to be instructive and hence cognitively engaging, watching television news has always been the ideal background noise for when you truly want to zone out and forget about your problems.

“To check the news is to bring a seashell to our ears and be overcome by the noise of people,” writes de Botton.

I’m afraid of missing out. Governments are overturned in a week, politicians are deposed overnight, and new technical and scientific discoveries are produced all the time.

Not only do we want to avoid being out of the loop — being the guy in a discussion who has no idea what’s going on — but we also don’t want to miss out on some type of life-changing revelation. Deep down, we all believe that if we could only discover the ideal diet, sleeping pattern, or planning tool, we’d be able to attain professional success, realize our objectives, and even even avoid death.

If we treat the news as if it were a contemporary religion, it would be a faith based on continuous upward growth. We look to the news for new insights about how to live a better and longer life. According to Botton, the oracle responds by treating “the latest findings about red wine, gene therapy, and the benefits of eating walnuts with a superstitious reverence not dissimilar to that which might once have inspired a devout Catholic pilgrim to touch Mary Magdalene’s shin bone — in the hope of securing ongoing divine protection.”

In an age where news items are created in the hundreds and turn over in less than 24 hours, we are constantly plagued by the fear of missing out on life’s mysteries if we neglect to check the news.

Extra, extra, extra! Read all there is to know! Alternatively: In Moderation, the News

Is there anything wrong with ingesting some sometimes important, mainly just enjoyable information, even if we don’t keep up with the news for the reasons we claim we do?

In moderation, perhaps? Certainly not.

It’s tempting to entirely disconnect from any news; such a baby + bathwater method is both inwardly fulfilling and enjoyable to tell one’s friends about. It gives you a sense of accomplishment similar to giving up your television.

Some of history’s greatest minds have also advised for going cold turkey. “Read not the Times,” Henry David Thoreau advised the people. “Read the eternities,” says the narrator. “I do not take a single newspaper, nor do I read one a month, and I feel incomparably better for it,” Thomas Jefferson said.

 

Despite their dislike for the press, these guys weren’t completely shut off from the news. Everyone knew what was going on because of letters they sent with friends and lively chats they had with their peers. Thoreau was well-informed enough about current events to decide to refuse to pay his poll taxes in protest of slavery and the Mexican-American War. And Jefferson maintained enough tabs on what was going on in the country and throughout the globe to be able to lead a country!

It’s the same today: digging into the minutiae of a self-proclaimed news abstainer’s habits reveals that their claims to abstinence are based on their own personal definition of what constitutes news — they eat a little of this but avoid all of that.

The fundamental dilemma isn’t whether or not to consume news, but how much and where to get it. Rather than full abstinence, the goal is conscious intention.

The news is only one of many sources of information. You may liberate yourself from diligently believing it has worth in and of itself, giving upon it a most-favored position, and eating it only because you “should” once you become honest about your motives for consuming it.

To varied degrees, all information sources are enlightening, instructive, and entertaining, and all information consumption has opportunity costs; that is, by selecting one sort of information, you have less time to consume another.

You may concentrate more on the fraction of the news that is significant, relevant, and actionable by replacing much of the fluff with information that is truly enlightening if you come to consider the news as 90% entertainment with an occasional dash of the instructional.

There is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for how much time you should devote to the news as part of your total “information diet.” But, as an example, here’s how much weight I place on it in my own life:

A few times a day, I peruse the headlines of a “hard” news site and my local newspaper, and I listen to NPR some mornings while getting ready or driving about (which gives me both national and local news). This allows me to 1) participate in discussion with individuals if they bring up current events (which I believe has value), and 2) check if there are any articles that are actionable and related to the topics I care about, as well as my hobbies and job. The vast majority of what I read/listen to does not meet this criteria, but every now and then, a narrative will compel me to take action. For example, when Congress was discussing a bill on net neutrality, I phoned my senator, and when there was discussion of permitting an outlet mall to be constructed close to a local wilderness area, I wrote to my municipal councilor.

I don’t spend much time following national politics and electoral struggles, not because I don’t believe in exercising citizenship rights and privileges, but because I don’t have many opportunities to do so where I reside. Oklahoma is the reddest red state in the country, therefore it doesn’t matter how I vote, or even if I vote (which I do) – Republican congressman and presidential candidates will be elected. I’d pay more attention if I lived in a swing state, since the news would be more actionable and relevant to me.

 

Even less time is spent on overseas news. I know it’s meant to be part of being a global citizen, but just a tiny fraction of it reflects issues over which I have control. It would be information for the sake of information (and status), and as I’ve already said, I don’t believe there’s much value in that. Furthermore, I do not think “global citizenship” is either attainable or desirable.

That, I recognize, goes against our common belief in the news: that it is somehow beneficial to us, even if we can’t prove or explain how. But I’m willing to let others indulge in their daily rituals in the hope that such hidden wisdom may one day rescue them.

Whether I’m looking at local, national, or worldwide news, if I find anything that interests me, I’ll read it. If I believe it is actionable or important, I will do more study and read viewpoints and analysis from both sides of the aisle. And I allow myself a few fluff pieces every day, well aware that they are only for fun.

I usually spend 30 minutes a day keeping up with the news, counting both reading and listening time. I spend very little time on clickbait and aggregator sites, and I don’t watch talk programs or the news on television.

I take a (literal) leaf from Thoreau and Jefferson’s habits and read books on a broad range of subjects using the time I save by not watching the news as faithfully. I myself find works on philosophy, history, sociology, physics, and other related subjects to be much more edifying and enlightening — and hence more relevant to my personal and professional aspirations — than the news. While the reality of the news fades away every 24 hours, such novels may be relevant for years, if not centuries, and can pique my interest in ways that the news never can. Rolf Dobelli, a businessman and novelist, put it like way:

“I don’t know a single really creative mind who is addicted to the news – not a writer, a composer, a physician, a scientist, a musician, a designer, an architect, or a painter.” On the other side, I know a group of fiercely uncreative people who are addicted to news. Read the news if you want to come up with outdated answers. If you’re seeking for innovative ways to solve problems, don’t.”

At the same time, books not only provide an education in their chosen topic, but they also provide the background — the many mental models — that enable me to better understand…going what’s on in the news.

 

 

The “importance of international news” is the reason why people follow the news. It’s important to stay informed on what’s happening around the world.

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