Cartoon of news desk

Why I’m avoiding the news for a month

Good evening. Here is the news

When I was younger (Oh, no it’s one of those …) news was a fixed point in the day. You would tune in to the news on BBC or ITV at 6 o’clock and hear a 15m bulletin. If you wanted more depth you might get it on the 10 o’clock news. Then if something interested you, you’d wait until the next day’s newspaper and dig into it there. Later I discovered Radio 4, and for most of my life, that kind of talk radio has been a constant companion.

There was a shift when satellite TV began broadcasting 24h news. At first it seemed like a good thing – you could dip in at any time, there would be a wider range of topics, and ‘breaking’ events could be covered as they happened.

Fill Me In

At the same time, however, there was an unintended consequence which wasn’t immediately obvious to me at least: they had 24 hours to fill. So they had to fill it with something. So they started rolling out commentators on everything from every time: ‘Ben McMarkham, you used to empty David Bowie’s bins in Beckham – what kind of man was he?’ ‘Here to discuss the crisis in the Conservative party are three former junior ministers from 1912 to 1968.’ You couldn’t have dead air so you had to find someone to comment on everything.

Living on the grid

The news is a different animal now. Like most of the population I no longer read newspapers regularly, and the evening TV news is something I’ll occasionally dip into if I’m around, it’s no longer a regular date. Yet I feel like a massive consumer of news. Where does it come from? Mostly my News app on the iPad, and in second position, Facebook.
This has felt less and less satisfying and more and more uneasy, and last week I gave up both.

I began to notice it during the campaign for the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 and it’s been the same since then. In its simplest terms, a strong to-and-fro rocking of the emotions. A constant urge to grab this story and that and the next, read just one more before I put the thing down, then when I’d read each, an ‘anti’ feeling. Depending on the article, somewhere between disappointment and revulsion. Want, want, want, grab, grab, grab, puke, puke, puke. There seemed to be no nourishment, just constant goads, like electric cattle prods:

  • Why this policy or that will end in disaster
  • Why you shouldn’t believe what xxx writer says
  • Why ‘they’ don’t want you to know about xxx
  • Why this celeb or that is an idiot for their view on xxx
  • Look at this outrage – be outraged! Sign a petition and make more people outraged
  • What MSM (main-stream media) don’t tell you about xxx

I’m not criticising anyone here, I swallowed daily bucketfuls of this stuff. I’m slow and dense so it’s taken me years to realise that it’s an addiction, like the sugar addiction it so closely resembles. Thinking at last, I realised I was getting presented with different stories from other people because Apple News and Facebook were figuring what stories I was more likely to click and giving me more of those. And because I value my friends I’m predisposed to clicking anything that a friend has shared. Which they shared because a friend of theirs had shared it.

Who writes this stuff?

Moreover the MSM employ (i.e. pay) journalists who were trained in getting the story behind a story and in the craft of writing. Then the internet challenged them with ‘citizen journalism’ – a world of serious, informed bloggers. Great. But that’s not what we have now. That world is drying up. It’s not about the writing, it’s about the headline because the people who write the articles are students or interns or would-be writers who are only paid if people click the headlines. So the number one skill today is writing an attention-grabbing headline. And how do you grab attention? Outrage, suspicion and vicious attacks (especially on figures we, the audience, dislike).

Most of my friends seem to despise MSM, but I’m uneasy about the reducing lack of trust in sources, because the void is filled by conspiracy theorists and flaky pseudoscience.

And there’s the question of how this stuff comes to us. This isn’t just a stream of everything available. This what Facebook and Google’s algorithms have decided to show you. They’ve decided that the likelihood is that you’ll react in some way to this headline rather than that. Your reaction may be cheering, anger, curiosity, indignation – anything but you’re likely to click it. As Steve Dotto put it in a recent webinar on fake news – if the algorithm puts a headline in front of you and you click it, it’s done its job. Google isn’t providing the answers to your questions, objectively – it’s providing what it thinks you’ll want to see (and click on).

Have I Got News For You? No

So I’m a week into a ‘news fast’. This isn’t a lifetime strategy, just a month-long experiment to see how it feels to be out of the loop. I did a month without Facebook last year with no great loss of … anything. This is slightly different. I’m avoiding news sites, news aggregators, radio and TV news and current events-related posts on Facebook. Posts by friends or about my other interests are OK. How does it feel after a week? Pretty good, actually. I’m using the breakfast and break time I used to spend on news sites to read books or magazine articles. I haven’t felt like I’ve missed anything (I’m sure if a major politician got shot someone would tell me). I also thought I might feel somehow irresponsible, as if I should be monitoring the world like International Rescue to see what causes are worthy of my support or outrage. I don’t feel irresponsible at all.  It’s hard to describe but I feel a bit lighter not thinking about Brexit or any of that stuff. It’s all about circles of concern and circles of influence, but that’s a story for another day.

My news fast was inspired by a couple of articles

PS

I’ll be back to writing about music next week. In the meantime I’ve updated my Now page with the music I’m working on.