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Confessions of a news junkie

April 22, 2013

I confess to being a news junkie: wherever I am in the world, I try and buy the local newspaper even though I can get the news online, and on TV or radio. The local paper gives me the flavour of politics as well as the small minutiae of life in the community where I am temporarily located.

Every day, I read this newspaper as well as the Guardian and the New York Times. Often, I’ll scan Haaretz, the Israeli daily, especially when there’s yet another crisis in the region. And when I’m writing about a particular issue, I’ll look up old journals and magazines online that have dealt with the subject.

When I’m in Pakistan, I flip through numerous TV channels, checking on chat shows to give me an idea of the latest crisis. In the UK, I check the BBC and Al Jazeera for world news. For a deeper analysis, the Economist has been a dependable source for many years.

As a result of this heavy intake of news and views, the number of books I read has fallen, much to my regret. I buy books that have been recommended by friends or have been well reviewed, and then find them piling up unread. Often, I start several at the same time, and then jump from one to another, occasionally losing the thread of the story or the argument.

Clearly, this is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs, and one I have recognised I need to change. But given the fact that I have chosen a trade that requires the consumption of large quantities of news, I don’t know how to get off the treadmill.

In my current frame of mind, I was intrigued and slightly disturbed to read an article in the Guardian by Rolf Dobelli, the Swiss author, urging readers to stop following the news. He claims to have done so four years ago, and is much better for it.Dobelli bases his argument on both physical and mental factors. According to him, “news to the mind is what sugar is to the body”. Just as we now recognise that the overconsumption of sugar-rich fast food leads to obesity, so too does an excess of news cause a fall in concentration and creativity.

The 24/7 news cycle, according to Dobelli, is based on sensationalism to catch our attention, and we respond to superficiality by lowering our analytical powers. He quotes this example from Nassim Talib:

The bridge over which a car is passing collapses, causing the car to plunge into a river. TV coverage of the tragedy focuses on the car and the fate of the driver, and the audience is concerned about the immediate story. But nobody poses the really important question: what caused the bridge to collapse?

Continuing with his argument, Dobelli asks which of the thousands of news items we have read or seen over the last year influenced any important decision we have taken? These ‘news factoids’ do not lead to a better analysis; on the contrary, they are more likely to confuse the issue.

Physically, constant exposure to news leads to elevated levels of stress, and the inhibition of growth hormones. Other side-effects, according to Dobelli, include aggression, fear and tension.

Dobelli draws a distinction between the cascade of news that assaults us every day and long, thoughtful articles and books about current affairs. He maintains that investigative reporting has a place in our lives, but casual, unconnected bits of news does not.

Taking issue with Dobelli, Madeline Bunting writes, also in the Guardian: “… The whole point of news sites and newspapers has always been to introduce you to events and ideas you might not otherwise encounter. Cut yourself off from all that and you limit your understanding and engagement in life. You isolate yourself from the collective conversation that news sustains and inspires. In the end it closes down your world to a very small space of who you know and what they know. It denies curiosity, one of the great human appetites that news both satisfies and feeds.”

Certainly, living in today’s fast paced world, none of us can afford to cut ourselves off. From weather to traffic reports, we need up-to-date information. And to act as informed, responsible citizens, we need news on a fairly regular basis. However, as in all other things, there is a need for moderation.

For many, news and political chat shows have become their main conduit for knowledge and information. But these junkies forget that the purveyors of news and views are often deeply prejudiced journalists with an agenda. In their hands, information becomes propaganda.

The other downside of this ceaseless flood of unfiltered information is that it clutters up the mind, filling it with unconnected bits of knowledge that often confuses and misleads. Any newscast will have at least half-a-dozen stories, none of them having any relationship to the others.

In this age of the Internet and social networking, one ends up reading stuff that is simply bounced to you through cyberspace. Often on Twitter, interesting stories are sent to me, and out of curiosity, I begin reading them instead of the books that are sitting unfinished on my table.

The truth is that passively ingesting news is far less taxing than reading an intelligent but demanding book. And here, Dobelli is right: a vacuous focus on news for its own sake distracts the mind, and reduces our creativity. We frequently form our opinions based on sensational, superficial reports, and then argue loudly on the basis of these half-baked views.

There is a growing debate among educationists and sociologists about the impact of the social media and digital games on the ability to analyse, especially among the young. Many fear that while students today are exceptionally well informed, their ability to analyse and build up logical arguments is being impaired.

As for me, I’ll try and fight my addiction before my brain turns to mush.