Weekly 3: Are you addicted to news?

Idea Journal Weekly 3


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Idea Journal Weekly 3

August 15 · Issue #204 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Consuming news can be addictive. And there’s a limit to being usefully informed. This issue explores a few ideas to help you see the value of news clearly.
(~4 min read)

#1. Keep your intellectual independence
In his book The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, author and university president Steven Sample compares his experience of curing his addiction to news to quitting smoking.
While he was president of SUNY-Buffalo, Sample conducted the following experiment: he stopped following all news for six months to see if doing so would have any negative effects on his ability to do his job “as the leader of a large and complex institution.”
For Sample, the first few weeks of the experiment were just as difficult as the two-week period he went through when he quit smoking: “I really wanted to see a newspaper – so much so that I would sneak a peek at the headlines whenever I passed a newsstand, or surreptitiously read what I could when the person sitting in front of me on a place was perusing a newspaper.”
But as with quitting smoking, Sample found that after the initially challenging period, he felt a new sense of freedom and autonomy. 
He points out that one of the problems with the popular news media is that “we let others decide for us what we should pay attention to and what we should ignore.”
Sample realized that he had become addicted to the popular media, and in so doing, he had handed over a large part of his intellectual independence to a group of editors and reporters whose core values and interests were not necessarily congruent with his own.
The most surprising lesson from the experiment was that within twelve hours of a story first appearing in the popular press, he was often better informed about the facts of the story than many of his colleagues and friends. While they were still addicted to following the news, Sample was getting his news orally from his closest advisors — people whose biases he knew, and who had his best interests at heart.
Sample acknowledges that this way of getting news wasn’t as efficient as scanning articles, “but it was far superior in terms of quality of content.”
Above all, it allowed him to retain his intellectual independence, and decide for himself what was and was not important.
#2. See news for what it is
In their book How to Watch TV News, media theorist Neil Postman and journalist Steve Powers recommend that when you’re preparing to watch a TV news show, you should keep in mind that it is primarily a “show.”
As Postman and Powers note, many of us think of a TV news show as a public service or public utility, but it is more than that: “it is an enormously successful business enterprise.”
For Postman and Powers, this reality about the news leads to the following four implications that are worth remembering: 
1. The news is a commodity that is used to gather an audience, which can then be sold to advertisers.
2. The news will be delivered as entertainment because audiences find this palatable.
3. The whole production gives priority to the values of show business. For most news shows, this means attractive anchors, comic relief, and an exciting musical theme, among other qualities.
4. Tomorrow’s news will have nothing to do with today’s news: “It is, in fact, best if the audience has completely forgotten yesterday’s news. TV shows work best by treating viewers as if they were amnesiacs.”
#3. Has the news helped you live a better life?
Author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli writes in his book The Art of Thinking Clearly that “We are incredibly well informed, yet we know incredibly little.” 
Attack in Pakistan. Earthquake in Sumatra. Man holds daughter captive in a basement for thirty years. Plane crash in Russia. Record salaries of bankers.
Do you really need to know all these things?
For Dobelli, the answer is no. 
He suggests avoiding the news altogether, for the following two reasons: 
1. How our brains react to certain types of information
As Dobelli points out, our brains react disproportionately to different types of information. Things that are fast-changing, loud, people-based, scandalous, and shocking stimulate us. Whereas abstract and complicated information sedates us.
News producers capitalize on this with garish images, gripping stories, and sensational headlines. 
The result is that everything complex, profound, and subtle is filtered out, and “we walk around with a distorted mental map of the risks and threats we actually face.”
2. News is irrelevant
Dobelli notes that in the past twelve months, you’ve probably consumed roughly 10,000 news snippets – as many as thirty each day.
He challenges you to name one of them that has helped you make a better decision related to your business, career, or life in general. Of all the people Dobelli has asked to do this, none have been able to cite more than two useful stories — out of 10,000.
Instead of consuming news, Dobelli suggests reading long background articles and books: “nothing beats books for understanding the world.”
Quote of the week
“Daily news and sugar confuse our system in the same manner.”
- Author and statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile
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