Reading the news considered harmful

I’ve been without Internet, email, or telephone (brought the phone; forgot the charger) for two weeks here in Greece and therefore have missed out on the news.  Checking today from Santorini it appears that absolutely nothing actually new has been reported.  Hurricanes and typhoons have struck various places that get hurricanes and typhoons every year.  People who have hated each other for a long time continue to skirmish.   Politicians have given speeches and interviews where all questions are answered vaguely and blandly.  I’ve long thought that it is much better to invest time in books and magazine articles rather than the newspaper and every time that I’m away from the news this belief is deepened.  Yet most people can’t resist reading the newspaper in the morning or clicking the “News” icon in the Google toolbar.  Could this be a source of economic and intellectual stagnation?

A very creative and productive friend says “I’ve found that if I read the New York Times in the morning I won’t get any serious work accomplished for the rest of the day.”  His theory is that because the information in the newspaper is scattered, without supporting background information or sustained argument, the result is a disrupted and scattered focus in the reader’s mind.

Thoughts and experiences?  Anyone else noticed a correlation between refraining from catching up on the news and getting real work done?

25 thoughts on “Reading the news considered harmful

  1. I’ve been checking in at once a week or so for the last few years and, with a few notable exceptions, don’t feel like I miss too much at all. Sure, I’m not up-to-the-minute with breaking news, or the status of another freeway car chase, and I miss out some of the clever soundbites that dominate the news, but most things that I’ve found to be important (to me) trickle down through friends or during my once-a-week glance through

    At first I was a bit embarassed in conversation that I didn’t hear about the latest murder in the mid-West, or the blizzard that buried a small town in Montana, or even who had entered a local Mayorial race on the day that city hall stopped allowing people to throw their hats into the ring, but it quickly became apparent that the information that had some importance or impact got to me in due time and the rest was (mercifully) filtered out.

    Instead of getting media opinions and one-liner soundbites to “help” me establish an opinion on the news, I got news from friends and collegues and was able to have thoughful conversation about what they found was important, if I needed more information, I could check the breaking news on-line or read a day-old newspaper and see what the rest of the story was.

    News used to be more interesting to me many years ago, and it is swinging back to being interesting to me again, because the newscasters I listen to are now people that have a personal opinion about something or are genuinly enthused about a topic (sometimes, they too, have a political slant or a bias of some sort, but at least I can tell them they are full of it to their faces and not have to talk to my TV).

    I haven’t read the paper since 1997 and rarely watch the local or national news, and I don’t think I miss much

  2. I have noticed the same effect as Philip’s “very creative and productive friend”; alas I’ve also noticed that it has gotten much worse with the rise of the Blog – now my feed-reading program alerts me to a steady stream of interesting bits of news and diversion. Including, of course, Philip’s blog 🙂

  3. Oh yeah…..

    I’m trying to get better, but with a few hundred feeds to read plus all the other websites…. Well not long after I read all the sites… pretty soon it’s time for lunch.

    Then when I get back… They’ve all updated!!! Well not long after I read all the sites… pretty soon it’s time to go home.

    I had to cut back to less than a dozen blogs (you made the cut Phil!). Most just parrot what others are saying anyway.

  4. I had the same thought. I read Philip’s blog as part of the news. Then my mind is so scrambled from it all that I have to lie down for awhile and read a book — I try to pick a funny one.

    Seriously, though, isn’t the cause-and-effect here completely non-shown? I get a lot done on days when I don’t read the Times because I don’t have time to read it in the first place — too much to do! What I do to save time is look at the photos and information graphics in the print edition, which are both always excellent informative and thought provoking. And which cannot be replaced by chatting with a friend.

    Years ago Alan Lakein suggested in his book ‘how to get control of your time and your life’ that you just read the 1st page on the newsstand, above the fold, saving both time and money.

    Certainly anyone who watches TV news with its incredibly low information content is a dupe of the first order.

  5. Phil,

    I agree that mainstream news is dull and repetitive after the first occurrence of an event. But, I find that certain sources, notably news consolidators like Mosaic: World News from the Middle East (with RSS feeds), Unison, an Irish newspaper portal , and my favorite, Newspapers on the Web a break from the mundane. I enjoy going to the source when an important international event occurs. I especially like Reuters TV on the Web, also syndicated with RSS.

  6. I read alot of news every day, mostly because working within politics, its a requirement. I’ll spend 3 to 4 hours a day reading news: CNN, NYTimes, The Record,,, ect.

    But I’ve noticed recently I’ve been reading a lot more blogs like Gawker. Gawker is of course not hard news. But I read it just the same. With a limited number of hours in the day I have a limit to how much I can consume.

    This is why blogs are great. If you find a good blog / blogger they will winnow away the hard news thats pointless and link to the news that is important [Like the important news that Kevin Smith is being considered for Stars Wars TV].

  7. I was watching Bernard Henri Levi (of Who Killed Danny Pearl fame) on tv the other day and he said something interesting about intellectuals: they have a different relationship with time.

    On the same channel I saw a historian (Victor Davis Hanson) talking about how the 24 hour news cycle retards our perceptiveness – a war that has been won is being lost in a matter of 10 hours.

    In a two week period, sans something like an unprecedented 9/11, what could really happen?

    So my opinion is that our attitude towards time is skewed by constant bombardment and media.

    I don’t have access to the Times but I do print up a lot of stories from online. I get the same effect; I actually read *less* because I’m scattered all over the place. So instead of browsing Arts and Letters, I just work on a good book and instead of CNN, it’s the Atlantic.

    I’d agree, a less scattered me is a more productive.

  8. Newspapers are in the business of getting you to read them every day. If you pick up a paper after being up the mountains for a month, you get the feeling you needed to read yesterday’s too just to figure out what’s going on.
    I generally just buy the Sunday paper and glance at it (maybe read one article). I prefer weekly sources like “The Economist”, and some online sources of news/opinion (e.g. The Economist is great as it always fills in enough background to put you in the picture while giving you the latest story.
    I no longer use an RSS aggregator as the amount of “interesting” stuff is overwhelming. However, you do get a lot of people just replicating what they saw on other sites.
    In short, the news media do their best to make us feel that we’re missing out if we don’t consume them every day. However, not falling for this scam gives you a bit more distance (at the expense of not necessarily knowing who “so-and-so” is).

  9. Objectively, Philip, I think you’re probably right — most people do not need the vast majority of information they consume, be it through newspapers, magazines, weblogs (cough), email, TV, etc.

    For most people, however, the thirst for knowledge primal and irresistable. Honestly, I think part of is, humans just like to tickle their brains, hoping an epiphanous thought might pop out (it does, at the most random times), or at the very least they might remember a forgotten appointment or goal.

    That said, I think there is a massive untapped market for packaged news “briefings” on a one week, one month, quarterly and yearly basis. It is true that most news media assumes way too much background knowledge on the part of the consumer (this is coming from a newspaper reporter with experience at daily and weekly newspapers, an up to the minute website and a monthly magazine).

    One should be able to wake up on election day, having read nothing for the past two years, and review a digest of all relevant news on candidates — certain votes, incidents/investigations that shed light on character, certain positions on issues that are likely to come up in the future, some financial backers, etc.

    Ditto for, say, Sudan, or Bosnia, or the estate tax.

  10. There is certainly a correlation … but for me at least, the causality is vice versa. I get real work done when I throw myself completely into it, and it is because of that focus that I don’t pay attention to newspapers, my growling stomach, or anything, for the several days or weeks that the work spurt lasts. I haven’t noticed, in myself, the phenomenon of focus fragmentation after reading news, but it seems like an interesting effect to try to pay attention to. As for the “sounds-familiar” news ennui, I certainly get that all the time.

  11. Phil, I suggest that you do two things:

    1. Find and read the aricle by Michael Crichton called “Mediasaurus” – it appeared in Wired about 10 years ago … looking … here you go, from September 1993:

    2. Keep a newspaper or magazine around for 6 months without re-reading it; then re-read it at about the 6 month point. Will give you perspective and show you how crapulent the media “insight” really is.

  12. I’ve found that the more news you watch the more depressed you can be. So I tend not to watch much news, but I do read things on the Internet.

    I would have to say that C-Span is the best place to get the “news” because they just roll the tape and don’t give commentary. In fact, they let the viewers be the commentator and I think that’s the best commentator of all. If I do say so myself ! 🙂

  13. Philip,
    Reading any news source passively is just begging for a dissociative disorder.

    Every newspaper/magazine/newsfeed/blog is chock-full-o well written compelling attempts to get you do believe somebody elses load of garbage.

    I grew up in a media market dominated by Dan Quayle’s family. I read the one newspaper daily, from front to back, even bothering to note the spelling errors. I soon realized that there were other errors, factual (in news and advertisements)and logical (mainly in the opinion section). For the most part the political messages were driven to the right, and everything else was driven towards the advertisers.

    What this did for me was to develop an awesome wall-o-skepticism that has served me well. Maybe more people should learn these skills, otherwise we will al be lostFNORDin a see of over-information.

  14. I am reminded of a remark one of my favorite college professors made–a really, really bright and engaging guy who also seemed to radiate a kind of serenity.

    “I was almost fifty years old before I figured out that I didn’t have to read the New York Times every day to be happy.”

  15. I’ve made it a policy for years not to read anything written on paper by anyone I couldn’t pick out of a crowd. Which permits the emissions of all my favorite authors, but rules out newspapers and magazines. I journey to news-related web sites occasionally, but generally only read things if they seem likely to be interesting. Getting one’s news on the internet provides the capacity for really efficient filtering, if one has the self-discipline to use it.

  16. I still firmly believe that the more interrupt driven your life is, the less you will get done. Of course, this is coming from a college student that is currently going though ~120 tabs opened in his ever-streaming RSS reader on IRC and AIM. Maybe if I worked at a helpdesk I could have a critical mass of interrupts and get nothing done.

  17. While I tend to keep an eye and/or ear on the radio and TV news and for a few minutes each day, I gave up on “real” newspapers a long time ago. (Although I do pick up the free rag called Metro most mornings on my way into work on the tube, but skip the “serious” coverage or take the conclusions it makes with a pinch – make that a bag – of salt) There is just too much news in them too hastily interpreted and judged by the editors. The only way to get value out of those is read many different ones of them front to back every day as most can’t stick with a story to see how it develops, hastily abandoning it as soon as it turns out different from what they predicted the day it first broke.

    That said, I like to read the “liberaly approved” international edition of Newsweek regularly. In fact, I’ve just taken out a subscription, so make that weekly now. It gives a bit more depth without being too judging and almost completely void of the negative tone seen in most mainstream publications.

  18. Logically, it seems that the amount of news that one has to ingest on a particular topic should be dependent on both (a) how involved you want to be in the particular issue and (b) how intelligent you want your involvement to be. For example, if you don’t want to vote or if you don’t care how intelligent your vote is, then you do not need to read anything about the elections. This is not the best example (after all, sometimes the answer is painfully obvious without much research), but it illustrates my point: by saying you don’t want to know about the current affairs somewhere, you acknowledge your unwillingness to be intelligently involved. That is fine, as we cannot be involved in everything. But I think the world would be a better place if we were all intelligently involved in a few issues, especially on the global scale, where our decisions (purchases, votes) have most significant consequences.

  19. Christian, only if those debates actualy touched on some interesting issues. By all accounts, they didn’t.

    (Haven’t seen them, only reports on them and heard some soundbites. And since when can you trust those anyway!)

  20. I missed the ‘live’ airing of the debates ’cause I was watching my sons hs football team march on to victory…

    From what I heard of the analysis, cspan was the network to watch. I did watch “analysis” on the Daily show (tongue in cheek) and a re-broadcast fo the debate on fox.

    Fox new is pretty funny, they lined up the shots of the two candidates so that bush didn’t look that much shorter than kerry. It was glaringly apparent though because the bushes podium was higher on the screen and he was still shorter.

    I do not know what is more amazing, that a campaign would expend so much effort in negating the ‘height advantage’ or that a network would play along with them.

    Debate wise, kerry did a pretty good job of handling bush. But, gore did the same in ’00 and look where that got him.

  21. I believe it was Mark Twain that said “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”…

    Where would one be without Doonesbury, The Boondocks, Frank & Ernest, and Hints from Heloise? And don’t forget Dear Abby!

    Seriously, you are correct, in that you could insert $variables in for names and places and the same copy could be rerun over and over. Except for stuff like road closures and obituaries…

  22. You should always believe all you read in the newspapers, as this makes them more interesting.–Dame Rose Macauley

    I’ve been following things for forty years. The only consistently reliable and worthwhile source I have found is the Wall Street Journal. They have to be right because money is on the outcome no matter the subject. The are worth the read every day.

  23. i think gary (3 post previous) has it right:
    he “missed” some “news” due to actual exprience of personal reality.
    i have been news-fasting for a few years; it’s been pretty easy since it started when i gave up television – the best thing i have done since walking away from the amaerican dream (giving up a high paying engineering job to pursue actual happiness).
    i feel more focused and centered, and i get more work done with much more time left over for fun!!

  24. I prefer monthly or quarterly publications over daily and weekly. I like when the author takes a deep breath and puts things into perspective.

    Unless you are in politics, business, or a market trader, why would you need to read or watch the news daily (and lets forget the state of the media today). What purpose does it serve…

    I think the same could be said about email. Which reminds me of Donald Knuth’s web page about email 🙂

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