STOP READING THE NEWS

One of the last books I bought in a bookshop before the March 2020 lock down was a book by Rolf Dobelli called Stop Reading the News. I didn’t read the book because I was so busy glued to the news. What with government announcements, infection rates, death rates and then changes in what we could or could not do, Partygate, the Ukraine war, the implosion of the Conservative party, the tanking of the economy etc…

But then the other day, when my partner was out, for reasons that escape me, I listened to all the local radio interviews that Liz Truss gave. There was about an hour of them and shortly after that I saw the book on the shelf and thought, well, he’s probably got a point. So, brainwashed by Liz I took decisive action (a phrase she used in every one of those interviews) and read it.

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First, I should confess to the extent of my news habit. Wake up in the morning to Radio 4’s Today programme. Listen to it while doom scrolling BBC news website and the Guardian on my phone. Buy the Guardian paper. Check phone repeatedly through the day. Listen to the World at One with Sarah Montague, Radio 4 and PM at 5 also Radio 4 then top it off with some Channel 4 news at 7 to see if Krishnan (currently on leave for swearing at Steve Baker) is wearing his pink tie with the cherubs – used to be Jon Snow and his socks. On Saturdays buy The Times and the Guardian. On Sunday buy the Observer and sometimes the Sunday Times. Listen to Broadcasting House with Paddy O’Connell on Sunday morning, Radio 4 again. Read The Bookseller and Private Eye weekly. That’s about the extent of it.

How did it come to this?

Back in the day I just used to buy the Times in order to read Simon Barnes, the sport’s writer much loved by Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner and then give the rest of it a cursory once over. I was also a big fan of The Independent in its broadsheet days.

Dobelli’s thesis is that with the advent of the internet in the 90s “news is every bit as dangerous as alcohol” and “it is to the mind what sugar is to the body: appetising, easily digestible and extremely damaging.” He says we should assess our news habit as follows:

  • Do you understand the world better?
  • Do you make better decisions?

His answer to those two questions was no. He went news free in 2010 and says that as a result he has:

  • improved quality of life
  • clearer thinking
  • vastly more time and more valuable insights

He advises you to go cold turkey but if that’s too extreme then buy something like the Economist or the Week and then wean yourself off more gradually.

The news he says gets risk assessment all wrong, rewires our brain so that our attention spans are shorter, makes us more passive, gives the illusion of empathy while destroying our peace of mind. If you want to be well informed news is not the place to go but long form essays or books written by experts in their field also text books.

On the subject of risk assessment, he says that our central nervous systems react disproportionately strongly to visible, rapidly changing, colourful stimuli, the shocking, the loud and the personal and disproportionately weakly to the abstract, the subtle, slow developing, and ambivalent. News editors exploit this distortion in our perspective driven by the needs for advertising.  Consuming the news day by day skews our sense of what’s important. An example he gives is that of a banking collapse being overplayed whereas government debt is underplayed. Mind you, not the case currently in the UK.

99 percent of all world events are outside our control. The daily litany of things we can’t change  wears us down and turns us into pessimists. We assume the role of victim. We become passive. We descend into learned helplessness and this doesn’t just make us passive about world events. We become passive in areas where we do have room for manoeuvre. It bleeds into every other area of our lives. It’s much more sensible to focus your energies on things you can control.

It all makes sense. In fact it’s horrifying. I did cut back a bit during the summer when Sunak and Truss were fighting it out because I just couldn’t stand it but when I think of really cutting back on my news intake I worry about the lettuce. If I had been news free, I would have missed the Daily Star’s live lettuce cam. I would have missed what Larry the cat had to say about things. I loved the lettuce and I loved all those puns: How long will she romaine etc. It really cheered me up but clearly I can’t pretend that it will lead to me making better decisions not even in my lettuce purchasing. Does it help me understand the world better? Perhaps how far a good joke will travel. But surely I knew that anyway? Incidentally, the idea of the lettuce came about because one of the Daily Star’s journalists was reading the Economist and a writer had pondered whether Liz Truss’s premiership would outlast the life of a lettuce. I think Dobelli would appreciate that.

I do wonder if since the pandemic he might alter his thesis a bit. Yes, news is bad for us but what about public health messages which are a form of news and aimed to keep us safe. Maybe he would place that type of information in a different category altogether. There is also the question of culture/arts coverage – film reviews, book reviews, exhibitions, sport and then the sudoku, code word, crossword etc. All of which I enjoy.

However, the book has really made me think, especially about how I take in news on my phone. The automaticity with which I reach for it, the automaticity with which I turn on the radio. I am going to try and cut down. And following his advice on reading in depth about questions that concern you, I am going to take decisive action (sorry, but I did listen to her for an hour) and get hold of a book by Isabel Hardiman titled Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. If the last six weeks or so of UK politics has made me want to read about any one issue in depth, it’s probably that one.

What is your news habit? Have you ever thought of cutting down or even stopping completely?

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6 thoughts on “STOP READING THE NEWS

  1. Comments have been going missing so I’m posting this comment I received from my friend Jennifer Leslie with her permission.

    Good heavens V, reading about your news habits felt overwhelming for me, but this is perhaps not surprising given that my ‘confession’ is at the other end of the spectrum. For many years now I have been a mainly news free zone. I ask my friends to tell me anything I need to know. Coronavirus being a good example. They also tell me things I need to know to protect me from the apparently hideous embarrassment and shame of being exposed as not knowing something. Boris having resigned being an example. I am quite prone to embarrassment and shame and can easily think of many things that merit it, but not knowing something that has no immediate impact on me or anyone around me – really?

    All those years ago when we were reading Stephen Covey’s great book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, it made a lot of sense to me that spending too much time focused outside what he calls our circle of influence was dispiriting and being focused within our circle of influence was empowering. I am aware that hearing only what is primarily bad news gives me a skewed view of reality, and I get worn down by so much human suffering I can do nothing about.

    In my mother’s lifetime, we never fully resolved her disapproval of me not being interested in reading newspapers. This was something she enjoyed and she wanted me to discuss it with her, and she negatively judged me as being inward looking for not being interested enough in world affairs (a not uncommon judgement in my experience). We never resolved it because I could not entirely free myself from the fear she might be right. It can take a lifetime to truly separate from mother!

    The final piece of the jigsaw came earlier this year when I came across Human Design, a chart based on your time of birth, which provides an extraordinarily detailed and complex description of your energetic make up. It gave me an astoundingly accurate description of my current life, plus a whole lot of additional information, which resolved several confusions for me. One was the words ‘you are here to be deeply self-absorbed in your own life.’ Wow! The term self-absorbed not being used negatively! This is a first. This statement reflected back an important truth and felt enormously liberating for me.

    Well, this is a long comment. You clearly have touched a nerve! Will my confession be more or less acceptable than yours? I will be interested to read other people’s comments on this.
    Jennifer xx

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jen and many thanks for the comment and apologies for it disappearing into the ether. Dobelli would be with you, I think and would find my news habit ridiculous. He says, ‘An individual has the right not to be sent crazy by things that are clamorously pretending to be new and important. .. Less is the new more.’ It’s a shame this book wasn’t available when your Mum was alive although maybe she would have profoundly disagreed with it! I know my news habit started when I was a child with the vast amounts of papers and journals and magazines we had. Dad wrote for the newspapers as well as being an academic and for him a thorough sifting of the papers was a part of how he earned his living. I also read articles he wrote and heard him on the radio and saw him on TV. So there’s a history there and a connection to him I find through the news. Although not sharing his politics I was proud of his expertise and clarity of thought. I think the world needs mystics as much as journalists and politicians and that the path you choose is as valid as any news junky’s. I certainly aspire to be more judicious in my news appetites!

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  3. Hi V, thanks for the full and frank confession, very entertaining. Now I know what else you get up to when you are not writing or knitting! Though of course knitting and listening to the radio go very well together. I have definitely cut down on news over the years and only buy The Times on Saturdays now. I used to read it all through apart from Sport and Business but now consume the Review and magazine and give a cursory glance through Health, ignoring a lot of the rest. I was an avid fan of Broadcating House but it got a bit too combative at one point so I gave that up. I rely on the BBC website for my news but there appear to be a lot of items about Strictly Come dancing which I am not interested in! My inbuilt conflict-avoidance means that I cannot tolerate interrupting and aggressive questioning so that cuts out some radio programmes. I think FOMO is a definite factor in keeping me engaged with news and current affairs. I don’t want to be someone who can’t join in a conversation about what is going on. But is that a good enough reason to outweigh all the damage it is doing to the wiring of my brain? Probably not…..most definitely a thorny topic you are raising here!

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    • Hi Let thanks for commenting. It is a thorny topic! As I was listing my news intake I was thinking some people will be horrified and others will just think, Oh, that’s not much.’ I know what you mean about aggressive interviews. I don’t like them either. I like Nick Robinson’s series when he interviews a politician and it’s not about combat it’s more about getting to know what makes them tick. They are often much more relaxed because they’re not frightened about being caught out and it allows their humanity to be revealed. I do sometimes turn off the Today programme if it all gets too aggressive because it sends my stress levels up! Knitting and listening to the radio do go really well together as long as I’m not knitting anything too complicated and then get caught up in the action so to speak!

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  4. I tend to see about 10 minutes of BBC breakfast in the morning with my porridge and often watch the 6 o-clock news. I stopped reading newspapers years ago as I could never keep up with reading them and I was a long-time subscriber to the New Statesman until I also ended up getting too far behind reading it. I feel like I have to know the basics since I work in local govt but I’ll often turn it off if there’s a debate on as I don’t really like watching the conflict anymore – which also ended my watching of Question Time! Half the time, I just want to see the weather 🙂

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    • It sounds as if you have a far better handle on things than I do! Sometimes I just use it as distraction. I found the book quite shocking and I have cut back since reading it. We used to get the New Statesman at home when I was a child which was odd given my Dad’s political leanings! I haven’t watched Question Time for a long time but I do every now and again catch up with Any Questions on the radio but shouty slanging matches put me on edge.

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