Is there actually any point reading the news?
Increasingly I wonder if there is any point to reading the news.
It becomes ever more difficult to keep up with developments which make every story seem so important. The foibles of Donald Trump and the rolling cycle of deals and votes surrounding Brexit are just two examples of the ways in which the news rushes at us relentlessly, like a wave. And with our phones, notifications of major news stories can be pushed to our homescreens, drawing us out of the moment where we are and beckoning us in to the constant swell of international news.
In general, we consider knowledge of current affairs to be a social good. Read the news, they say. Become an informed citizen, read all about it so that you can vote and talk about the budget at a dinner party.
It’s taken for granted that keeping up with news events is beneficial, even morally sound. When I have suggested in conversation that I’m not sure exactly why reading the news is so important, I have been met with righteous indignation. Even if you don’t consume news media every day or don’t have a particular interest in politics, there is always that pressure lurking in the background that says you “should” read the news.
Why should I read the news? Why should I feel obliged to sign up for incessant updates and the constant sense that I need to catch up with everything else that’s going on in the world?
If you eat too much, you consider changing your diet to eat less or eat better. If you have a problem with drink or drugs, you go to Alcoholics Anonymous or refer yourself to a rehabilitation centre. If you shop ‘til you drop, you might try putting your money out of reach.
But when it comes to consuming news, swiping through social media platforms, the constant stream of notifications and updates, we’re only just becoming cognizant to the dangers of gorging ourselves.
The cycle of news presents a mental and emotional burden, both in terms of content and form. The content we read, the images we see, the stories to which we are exposed are detrimental to our psychological. The Huffington Post ran this piece about the mental strain of constant bad news, with one medical professional saying: “negative news can affect your own personal worries. Viewing negative news means that you’re likely to see your own personal worries as more threatening and severe, and when you do start worrying about them, you’re more likely to find your worry difficult to control and more distressing than it would normally be.”
We receive this content in an unrelenting stream straight to our inboxes, our devices, even to your lock screen. The technologies we use to connect us with the world tend to position us as passive recipients. The world just happens, and we are notified about it after the fact.
It might seem odd that a university educated writer from a middle-class background takes such a stance against news reading. I do not advocate total disinterest in events beyond their immediate lives. There is more, however, than simply “read news” and “don’t read news”. Consumption should be selective in order to be meaningful. It would be impossible for any single individual to keep abreast of every story, and would also be a completely redundant effort.
The Minimalists Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, whom I have quoted several times on the blog and to whom I owe much inspiration, say this (or words to this effect): If it’s breaking news, that means it’s broken. Not everything can be equally as important, all of the time. This is just another form of that millennial condition, burnout.
In the age of information and a (mostly) open and (largely) democratic internet, it is the ability to sift for relevance that counts, rather than sheer volume. Discernment is essential in a rising tide that mixes both the sensational and the urgent.
The real problem with news production and consumption is that the vast majority of it lacks any depth. We hear of crises, emergencies, wars, acts of terror, natural disasters and human catastrophe in isolation. These events, while tragic and significant, are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The recent terror attack on mosques in Aotearoa shows this: a horrific flashpoint that brings to light the underlying problem of racist legacies, white supremacy, and mythic nationalism.
The world is turned into a succession of sound-bites, not a web of deeply complex, historically situated narratives. We need an attitude toward world events that is not interested only in momentary tragedy, but in the continual and quiet trends that surface in the headlines. Otherwise we are like a gathering crowd craning our necks to see what the latest fuss is about, before being drawn to newest happening.
Though current patterns of news consumption lean toward tweet-able quotes, loud headlines, and dank memes, there is actually a desperate need for depth, for long-form journalism, for reading less and reading deeper. In my own news diet, I try not to shy away from publications that produce longer pieces or to skimp on articles of length. You might imagine there’s no time for reading of this kind, that it’s all well and good to suggest reading essays but more difficult in practice. I’d say there’s no time for absently scrolling through my feed, letting images and headlines wash over me for half hour. Concentration is like a muscle, anyway, and it won’t get stronger if I don’t put in some of the work.
I also take interest in particular areas or themes, rather than trying to take in absolutely everything. I have little interest in sport commentary, tech news, business. On the other hand I follow design, literature, cities, and environmental issues. For an internship that I recently started at the Organization for World Peace I write about current global conflicts, so I keep myself aware of developments in these issues.
I suppose this is really about consuming on my own terms, not just chomping away at the media that tech platforms and ad corporations would have me swallow down. That is the fundamental attitude that Ruth and I want to develop toward our habits. We’re not against consumption, as such. We’re just against mindless, unquestioned consumption.
As we attempt to live minimally, we are cautious before bringing new objects into our house. We hold each thing and ask if we need it, or do we just want it. We ask if this will add to life, or become a burden, another possession cluttering our home, requiring attention and storage. The same is true of news sources and media: is this something that I need in my life? Is it adding any value? Am I even reading this because I want to, or because I feel somewhere that I should read this?
There is obvious value in reading the news, but it’s not the unequivocable good that we make it out to be. It becomes more helpful when it’s a form of consumption that we take the time to interrogate. Against the backdrop of “Take Back Control”, this offers a way for us to regain agency and autonomy in our lives, if we are not spluttering in the constant current of bad news.
Otherwise, like anything else that we might consume, the news will come to overrun us.