You can check a few websites—or better yet, skim an old-fashioned newspaper—once a day and know more than enough about what is going on in the world. You could probably check just once a week and still be plenty informed. The whole business of today’s “breaking” news on the internet (and television) is built on a cycle of outrage → clicks → attention. We think we are the consumer but we are actually the product, our captive gaze being sold to advertisers.
My experience of digital news is similar to that of scratching an itch. There is a significant temptation to scratch it. It feels oddly satisfying while you are doing it. But after an hour of going at it, you feel worse than when you started—and for all of your efforts you are left with nothing but a gnawing wound.
Wouldn’t just about anything else be better use of your time and energy?
I tweeted sentiment similar to the above earlier this week. It was overwhelmingly met with support, but there were also some valid concerns I’d like to address here.
The future of democracy is at a critical juncture and disengaging is willful blindness.
This is a straw-man argument. I’m not suggesting willful disengagement. If anything, I’m suggesting the opposite. Instead of sucking time and energy into reading the latest political story and getting infuriated over it, use that time and energy to actually do something to solve the problem. If everyone who got up in arms about the latest political scandal would divert their hours of digital news checking to volunteering, we’d be in a much better spot.
We need journalists and writers more than ever.
I completely agree! After all, I am one! But there is a big difference between checking the home page of a newspaper’s website (or CNN.com) and reading good longform journalism and column writing. You can do the latter by following writers whose work you admire on social media, going directly to their author page on a website (bypassing the main page, where so-called “breaking” news lives), or subscribing to specific newsletters.
Sometimes news really is breaking.
Then you’ll hear about it! This is what phones and sirens are for. Not many people learn about an immediate threat to their health and safety via their regular checking of digital news. If you are involved in an active threat—like a wildfire, for example—then yes, checking the (local) news repeatedly makes sense. But this is the exception not the norm. Not to mention, odds are you either first heard about the fire elsewhere, or you’d know plenty in advance even if you “only” checked the news once a day.
I need to stay informed.
Ask yourself why? Unless the result of your frequent news consumption regularly changes your behavior, then you may not need to be as informed as you think. And if being informed is a priority for you, research suggests you’d be much better off setting aside a specific time each day to read a paper newspaper than regularly checking digital news sources. You’ll comprehend and recall more this way.
It Doesn’t Take Much Time.
Then you probably aren’t reading too deeply. Which, given the above research on comprehension and recall, begs the question: why you are reading at all?
“If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is,” writes Rolf Dobelli. “You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?”
Here is a brief list of activities that would be better for you (and probably the world) than constant news checking.
- Reading a book
- Listening to music
- Starring at the wall