The 3 levels of the News Diet

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By Robert Gehrlach

Recently I went on a diet. It was my first ever diet, and an unusual one on top of that. It was not food that I cut out of my diet, it was the Daily News. And ever since I have been on this diet, my productivity, well-being and creativity have improved noticeably.

Before I went on this diet, I checked the daily news several times of the day. I skimmed through the list of headlines and sometimes read an article or two. After the ritual has been performed, I felt ‘informed’.

The news media is in trouble

Except that I was not informed. Daily News were probably never the best source for well researched and in depth investigative journalism, but recent developments have hardly improved the situation.

For one, the shift away from print to online media and the disruption of classical daily news business models resulted in a long and continuing decline of profitability of the news industry, and along with it the quality of much of the daily news we consume. This is especially true for online news: even the New York Times, not long ago hailed as a beacon of hope, is struggling with a continuing loss of online advertising revenue and slow online subscription growth.

There are many reasons for this decline. The most important one is the low value that we, the consumers, place on being informed. If we are not willing to pay for high quality journalism, we have little right to complain about diminishing quality. Our unwillingness to pay for quality information makes it difficult for the media to reconcile a desire to maintain market share and profitability with the vision of an impartial ‘Fourth Estate’ informing the public.

But there is yet another major difference between today’s news and those in the offline era. Essentially, news editors simply became too clever for their own good.

Nowadays, editors and journalists know exactly what core readers and potential new customers are most likely to click on, share, comment on, and read. It has proven too difficult to resist the temptation to trade more clicks and thus higher advertising revenue for lower content quality by adapting the product to the user’s consumption behaviour. And direct real time feedback from your behaviour to the news editor is why the daily news are bad for you.

6 reasons why the daily news is bad for you

1 Negative bias

Editors know, for example, that disaster news is generally more popular with their readership than stories about scientific breakthroughs in energy research. They simply respond to the negative bias of their readership: humans are predisposed to focus on negative news over positive news. And they give us what we ‘want’: the large majority of the news we consume is negative, creating a picture of a world that is far more dangerous, depressing and hopeless than it really is. Whist this distorted reality is what we crave, it is detrimental to our wellbeing and the opposite of what we really need: a hopeful, realistic outlook on the world that encourages active engagement with the world around us.

2 Sensationalism and poor coverage of important issues

We thirst for excitement and distraction. Sensationalist stories are dominating the news and important but less stimulating issues are poorly covered. How often do you see articles discussing topics such as education, incentive structures in the political system or the threat of the rising complexity of our world to our institutions’ ability to make proactive in the headlines?

3 Echo chambers

We love to remain in our comfort zone, and are often allergic to views and opinions that oppose our own, even if they are rationally convincing. As a consequence, we often only read a limited selection of newspapers that support our existing views. This is especially true if consume news via social media. Whilst this is what we want, we actually need to leave our echo chambers and be subjected and listen to the opinions and views of the people from ‘the other side’. Only this way can we understand one another and replace the feeling of antagonism with one of connectedness and prepare for respectful dialogue.

4 Lack of depth and context

We are short on time and are living in a world of an increasing number of distractions. Therefore, news articles tend to become more simplified and often include even shorter summaries to cater to time-poor readers. For the same reason, news also often lacks the necessary context or information on the underlying systemic issues when presenting information. This lack of depth and context can sometimes result in news-snippets that are generating the illusion of information, but actually are, in their entirety, merely a plethora of disinformation.

5 News cycle

We have short attention spans. That is why the news reports on certain news stories excessively for a limited period of time, followed again by silence regarding the former hype topic. The loss of coverage of the specific topic by the news creates the illusion of a simultaneous loss of relevance of the topic, for example in the case of the Panama Papers. More importantly, this phenomenon known as ‘The News Cycle’ creates the illusion that everything that is important happens now, and lets us disregard the importance of historical developments and ancient wisdom for our daily lives.

6 Information overload

We have limited bandwidth and ability to manage information. Frequent news checking contributes to a general overload of information and subsequent conditioning towards mindlessly seeking out information stimuli. This can have potentially negative consequences for our ability to learn and retain information.

There are of course many other challenges, such as Fake News, a decline in the public’s trust into the news media and tendentious reporting, but I guess you get the picture.

Go on a diet!

These and other reasons result in more and more people subconsciously avoiding the daily news, as they realise that they simply feel better this way. So I too began to ask myself a number of questions:

1. When was the last time I received important information via the daily news which I would otherwise have missed?

2. When was the last time I made a better decision after reading the daily news?

3. When was the last time reading the daily news gave me a new idea?

4. When was the last time I felt positive and motivated after reading the daily news?

5. What is the last positive and progressive daily news I can report?

6. When was the last time I gained a new and important insight into a systemic issue our world is facing?

My answers to these questions were revealing and motivated me to start a systematic daily news diet. I completely stopped reading or watching daily news.

Since I started this diet, the lack of information overload and regular disruptions resulted in rising productivity, concentration and increased focus during my day. The lack of constant influx of negative stories was a further benefit. At the same time, I felt that by avoiding the daily exposure to news snippets lacking depth and explanatory power I started to spend more time exploring interesting issues in depth myself, often resulting in interesting observations and input for conversations with friends and colleagues. What was surprising was that really important information reached me almost without any delay regardless, via friends and other sources.

Four months into the diet, I feel absolutely no need to go back to consuming daily news. Whilst there might be some drawbacks to the diet, such a possible lack of small talk topics related to current affairs, the overall advantages outweigh the disadvantages for me. Especially as there are great alternatives to daily news.

Nutritious alternatives

Remaining ignorant to what is happening in the world is not an option for most of us. A news diet therefore should ideally still offer you a balanced diet of information. According to your preferences, you can choose from three levels for the diet:

Level 1: The Beginners Diet:

Try to increase the times between checking the news, for example check the news every 3 days only and switching off your news notifications on your phone. Whilst this diet helps you become more productive, it does not yet address any other of the issues mentioned in the previous section. It is a good start though to test out the waters of the ‘No Daily News’ life.

Level 2: The Balanced News Diet:

Completely avoid all daily news and instead only read and buy (!) weekly or monthly news magazines, such as ‘The Economist’, or subject specific magazines that interest you, for example the ’Harvard Business Review’ or the ’MIT Technology review’. These magazines often offer more in depth reports and address underlying issues, therefore providing you with a more nutritious news diet. Another great source of in depth information are essays found in publications such as ‘The Atlantic’ or ‘The New Yorker’ and in-depth documentaries, such as the ones by Adam Curtis.

Level 3: The Hardcore Diet.

This diet is for the most extreme souls amongst us. Avoid all news and only read essays on selected blogs and quarterly or yearly magazines, for example the ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’ yearly review. At the same time, increase your consumption of classic and contemporary works of literature, philosophy and the arts in form of books.

Over to you

Personally, I found Level 2 to be a good compromise, and would encourage anyone to at least try out cutting down on the news to make up their own minds. You might be surprised by how much better your life can be if you cut out a previous essential.

Robert Gehrlach is a senior consultant at mm1 in Berlin and a student of life. He is passionate about sustainable innovation, technology and society.

Note: Robert has also published this article on medium.com