The Guardian Is Wrong: News Is Good For You

The case against ignoring the news.

It’s probably no surprise that one of the most popular things on the Internet last week—in a week full of Boston bombings, Texas explosions, attempted poisonings, and an earthquake in China—was a long essay at The Guardian, called “News is bad for you—and giving up reading it will make you happier.

The essay was written by Swiss entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli, who has a book coming out soon called The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions, and indeed, Dobelli’s central point is that news—as currently created and consumed—is a drug that encourages passivity and leads to errors in thinking. Better to spend your time with long-form magazine articles and books rather than 15 minutes each morning with your local paper.

Me, I think Rolf is full of crap.

Yes, the abuse of news-watching can short-circuit the rest of your life—same as drugs, alcohol, or role-playing games. And maybe there’s something about the Twitter-driven, every-second-is-its-own-news-cycle way we track events today that can be weirdly addictive. And yes, maybe I’m biased after spending my career in the media.

But there are reasons we have, create, consume and desire to know the news, and they become apparent while reading Rolf’s jeremiad. Let’s take three of his points, and we’ll ignore the fact that his essay appeared in one of the world’s most-read newspapers.

News misleads. Take the following event. A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? The car. The person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). But that is all irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lurking, and could lurk in other bridges. But the car is flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce.

Actually, we have fairly good recent example of this: The Minneapolis bridge collapse of 2007, in which 13 people were killed and 145 injured. The journalism that came out of that particular event did two things: Yes, it told the stories of the people who survived—and those who didn’t—the collapse. And it drew attention to infrastructure concerns, not just in Minneapolis, but around the country. There were reportedly more inquiries for National Bridge Inventory data in the first 24 hours after the collapse than for any day the previous 20 years.

It’s frequently the case that news emphasizes both the human experience of a disaster and the systemic causes behind it—and that’s fine! Humans are born tellers and seekers of stories. And we’re more than the sum of data, despite Rolf’s snobbery here: We comprehend important things often through the relation of human experience.

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that—because you consumed it—allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognise what’s new.

If we’re more than the sum of our data, we’re also more than the sum of our own experiences. We live in a society. I haven’t been murdered this year, and I don’t know anybody who has, but I know that gun violence in Philadelphia is a serious problem because I read the news. Knowing the news, knowing what’s happening in the rest of my community on a daily level, shapes my citizenship. That’s important to me; I realize it affects community on a granular level, but the news can get enough grains in motion to shift the direction of an issue.

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness.”

News doesn’t make us passive; we either are or we aren’t. Oftentimes, though, news items can show us the way toward action. Were you inspired when Ori Feibush cleaned up a lot in his neighborhood last year, in defiance of City Hall? Or by Emaleigh and Aine Doley, Germantown sisters who have fought for the beauty and safety of their Germantown block? At its best, the news can inspire you to action.

Dobelli’s vision of a newsless society isn’t really much of a society at all—it’s a collection of individuals, each in competition with each other, trying to maximize their own profits, and defining those profits very narrowly. If you want to live in a community, to know what’s going on with your neighbors and the issues that are affecting them, ignore him. Pick up a newspaper. Is it good for you? That may not matter. It can help you be good.