Saturday, June 29, 2013

"Bad News!" . . . as in "Bad Dog!"

The article under discussion starts like this:
In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognized the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-colored candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognize how toxic news can be.
Now, I don't know what to say about this. All my life I've been a news junkie. I can't get through the day without knowing what's going on, I read editorials and commentary incessantly, and I look forward to watching the PBS news every weekday. But I have to confess I have not been happy with the way news is gone, particularly mass media news, over the past 20 years. More and more mindless. Ever more dumbed down. Fluff, celebrities, so-called "human interest" stories, and thin thinking. I've even begun to be disgruntled with the PBS news, which I think is following the larger trend, although they're a great pains to deny it.

Here the catalog of sins committed by the news media according to this piece which makes it unprofitable if not to say discomforting to read the news and especially follow it on TV.
  • News misleads: Car drives of the bridge, bridge collapses. Focus of the news: the car and the person, not the structural integrity of the bridge, which is the real news. "News leads us to walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our heads. So terrorism is over-rated. Chronic stress is under-rated. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is under-rated. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.
  • News is irrelevant: Name one article out of 10,000 or so that you watched or read last year that helped you make a better decision about some serious thing affecting your life, job, or career. Can't do it. But media organizations try to convince you that if you don't know the news, you are at some sort of disadvantage. Lots of people fall for this. We get anxious when the cut off from the flow of news. "In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have."
  • News has no explanatory power: accumulating facts will not help you understand the world. "The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that developed below the journalists' radar but have a transformative effect. The more "news factoids" you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand."
  • News is toxic to your body: the bottom line here is bad news, panicky stories increase your stress level, and since that's just about the only kind of news there is, the stress is chronic. There are number of other baleful effects. Read the piece.
  • News increases cognitive errors: "News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias in the words of Warren Buffet: 'What a human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.' News exacerbates this flaw.' also exacerbates another cognitive error, story bias. We want stories to make sense, even when they don't correspond to reality. The "news" always explains stories so they make sense, and unrealistic and cheap way of explaining the world.
  • News inhibits thinking: "Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. Not only does news make us shallow thinkers but worse, it severely affects our memory. anything we want to remember has to pass through the long-range memory/short term memory choke point in our brains. "If this passageway is disrupted, nothing gets through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension."
  • News works like a drug: This is really scary, and I've noticed the symptoms myself. "His stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore. Scientist used to think that the dense connections formed among the hundred billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time he reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It's not because they get older or their schedules become more onerous. It's because the physical structure of their brains has changed."
  • News wastes time: Think about it. How much time every day do you spend snatching this piece of news or that piece of news? And then the distraction and the refocus time. How much does it add up to? Probably more than half a day a week.
  • News makes us passive: You cannot influence things you learn in news stories. Their daily repetition makes us passive. "It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitize, sarcastic, and fatalistic."
  • News kills creativity: things we already know limit our creativity. If you want to come up with all solutions, read news. If you're looking for new solutions, don't.
The author of the article ends with this paragraph: "I have now gone without news for four years, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first-hand: less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights. It's not easy, but it's worth it."

I'm not at all sure that I can do this. I'm afraid I'm hooked like a druggie on news, and I have been all my life. But I've noticed and worried about my shortened attention span, my lessening ability to focus, my impatience with long reads. Not good. Not good at all.

Don't know if weaning off news is possible. But I sure would like to give it a try. Monday's coming, start of a new news week. Hmmmmmm.
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