All News All The Time Just May Be Very Bad For Your Health

Some say our immersion in the 24/7 news cycle is bad for our health. Others wonder if the rush for headlines and readers has diminished the quality of that news.

When the demand of the 24/7 news cycle chews up and spits out faulty reports and trivial news stories, we’ve surely lost perspective of what’s fit to print. It is time for an intervention?

 

You know how you can look at a tree trunk and detect its age by counting the number of rings circling the center? Or examine the strata of rock and ascertain which evolutionary era it’s from based on what you find in each layer? When historians and students of human evolution look back on humanity starting from the digital revolution and its 24/7 media, they will be able to time/date any era simply by looking at its “news cycle item” of the week, the day, the hour, sometimes the minute. We now mark our existence by the instantaneous and constant reporting of every single thing that happens on this earth and the critical mass of information is not only mind-boggling, it’s occasionally oppressive. We are being overwhelmed, oversaturated, and, in some cases, undermined by the sheer glut of media telling us what happened (spun 1, 000,000 different ways), who and how many were involved, what to think about what happened, what it means, how it affects us, and what we should do about it. No news is too small, no story too irrelevant, no headline too crass. We’re browbeaten by those we oppose, assuaged by those with whom we agree, and can only hope most – some – any? – of what we read is accurate and substantiated. It’s Media Glut 2.0 and it just may be killing us.

Back in the creaky old days of print news and its highly-vetted journalistic reporting (remember All The President’s Men and their painstaking search for the truth?), the sheer physical time it took to gather details, corroborate stories, interview participants, etc., saved many a reporter and their newspapers from mis-reporting events. Without the instantaneous response of the internet, the ease of research with search engines, the up-to-the-second updates from social media, it took feet-on-the-ground time to get a story right and, in that time, news was able to settle in, settle down, reach conclusions, slough off red herrings, etc., so that when a reporter finally turned in his or her pages, or a news anchor finally intoned what had happened – that “so and so was arrested,” or “the number of dead was…,” or “the actual investigation was ordered by…”  – the facts were, by and large, accurate. Vetted. Corroborated. Or, at the very least reviewed by enough sharp eyes with enough thoughtful perspective that odds were good they got it right.

Now? Not only do we have the churning, grasping, insatiable demand for 24/7 news, we have that demand coming from millions (maybe billions) of reporting sources, from high-profile TV and radio news and talk stations, to online newspapers, magazines, journalistic websites, blogs, organizational websites, etc., and every single one of those is competing to get the reader, get the “click” (often the statistic with which sites are paid), and the way to do that is to be the first to get the breaking story, have the most sensational headline, find the best witnesses, report the most details… get the “get.”

The most important word in all that? FIRST. Breaking a story has always been a golden ticket in reporting, but now, in the whirring, swirling eddy of online journalism, being “first” has become blood sport. When information is both constant and instant, the rush to the “sales table” often results in bodies trampled by the stampede (how can we forget the self-tripping reportage of CNN on the Boston bombing?). Facts get lost to speculation, faulty witnesses, incorrect reports. Which leads to “news” that is ultimately no more than a good guess at what happened. But in defense of CNN, it’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” If a news source gets trumped by another for that breaking story, they’re viewed as behind the curve. See the madness?

The second most important word in that list is HEADLINES. Headlines have become the lipsticked prostitutes waving scarves from the windows of brothels, the flower-wielding cult members regaling passersby to “come take a personality test”; the barking vendors handing out flyers to the next freak show. Headlines are sensationalized for maximum drawing power, often with little or no consideration for the story to follow. Most egregious of late was the Huffington Post’s ridiculous image of Obama Photoshopped to resemble George Bush with the headline – “George W. Obama,” leading to a story that had nothing to do with either George Bush or Barack Obama. That image and its (un)related story are now gone (‘we’re movin’ on, people, movin’ on!’), but the clear point of its posting was to get the click; who cared if the headline was a red herring or the story a shell game?

The readers. The readers care. At least some of them. In a recent piece by writer Rolf Dobelli at The Guardian (yes, the same Guardian that made news about the phone records/NSA program) titled, “News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier,” the point is made that readers not only get persistently news-bombarded like geeks in a dodge ball game, but the accumulative effect, beyond being too often misguided, misinformed and mishandled, is that it just ain’t good for you:

News is bad for your health. It leads to fear and aggression, and hinders your creativity and ability to think deeply. The solution? Stop consuming it altogether. [… ]

Society needs journalism – but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Long journal articles and in-depth books are good, too.

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.

He lists ten very bad things news does to us (“misleads, is irrelevant, has no explanatory powers, is toxic to your body, increases cognitive errors, inhibits thinking, works like a drug, wastes time, makes us passive: kills creativity”), some of which I agree with, others I find generalized and alarmist, but the point is made: sitting in front of a computer, TV, radio, newspaper, your smartphone (don’t we see “bent neck syndrome” everywhere?) absorbing the 24/7 “newsfeed” fed to us daily is like over-consuming anything: bad for our health.

In a Forbes piece of earlier this year, “Too Much News?” writer Steven Rosenbaum takes on the same subject, though with the angle that the constant bombardment is dulling our senses, making what used to be ‘news” seem almost routine; not a productive response if the goal is to raise awareness or shake up the status quo:

While it could be said that more news coverage brings issues to the fore, my concern is that just the opposite is happening.

Take acts of gun violence. Today I have trouble keeping track of the shootings. Schools and colleges, movie theaters and wedding parties. Politicians on the corner, or criminals in Times Square. Each story is presented with breaking news headlines, and powerfully scary urgency. But with a lack of context, or perspective, the sheer  volume of ‘breaking’ stories all meld together – and solutions seem harder to comprehend.

The fact of the matter is I have no filter, and the sources that I’ve come to trust increasingly are trying to out-shout each other to keep their brand and their content within my field of vision.

Today – content is ubiquitous. What we’re hungry for is focused, quality, filters. No reader or visitor should feel they’re facing ‘too much news’ – rather, the time is now to have ‘the right news’ come to you. Those organizers – journalists – are going to beat algorithms all day long.

Are we losing ourselves in the immersion in finding out what’s happening elsewhere?  image @InnovationsInNewspapers

Are we losing ourselves in the immersion in finding out what’s happening elsewhere? image @InnovationsInNewspapers

Focused, quality filters. I think that’s the key. For example, with movie reviewers: I’ve learned to find the ones who most often resonate with my artistic sensibilities then limit my pre-viewing reading to their takes on the films I’m interested in. To read every reviewer is to leave yourself victim to a myriad of opinions that are so contrary as to guide you nowhere. The same is true, I believe, in choosing your news providers. It’s not about limiting yourself only to those with whom you agree, but given the glut, there is a point to identifying the “focused, quality filters” that present news as you’d like to hear it or read it, then sticking with those (personally, I’ve never been a fan of the yelling/screaming eye-rollers on either side of the aisle).

So how’s this prescription for keeping yourself healthy while staying informed?:

1. Identify the televised news person/channel (straight news and/or opinion, i.e., Rachel Maddow or Bill O’Reilly) you like best, decide what time of day you like to watch, then limit your viewing to one or two hours at the most. Beyond that it all repeats anyway.

2. Identify which newspapers and/or magazines cover stories with the depth and style you prefer, with writers you respect, and limit your reading to those. Again, decide when it’s most convenient for you to read, then limit your time to those hours.

3. Identify which political/current events sites you find most informative, entertaining, and provocative and limit your viewing to those select few (we presume you’ll make Addicting Info number 1 on your list! :)

4. Decide just how much time you can sensibly allot to social media and its sharing of news and current events and limit your computer or smart phone time accordingly.

Once you’ve made those determinations, like a good nutrition program, the trick is to stick with it. Get the news, current events, political perspective that stimulates your thinking, inspires your activism and keeps you abreast of our ever-changing world, then turn off the TV, put down the smart phone, shut off the computer, put the newspaper and magazine in the recycling bin, and go take a good long walk on the beach, sit and talk with a friend, or just stroll down the sidewalk of your active, engaged, people-filled neighborhood. Eye contact is known to be very good for the soul.