Recently, I stopped reading the news.
I guess that’s not strictly true. Tumblr and conversations with friends occasionally tell me about news events of interest to my social group (apparently California is having a very bad drought?), I still have a feedly to keep track of the bloggers I really would feel sad about not reading, and I have yet to learn the trick of not clicking on Facebook articles which I know are going to upset me. But for most of my life I either read a newspaper or an online news aggregator every day, and a few months ago I… stopped.
And I think this is an excellent life choice which I wish to recommend to everyone.
If you ask people why they read political news, a lot of times they say “because I want to be an educated and informed citizen!” But if you look at the actual political news, it clearly doesn’t seem to be optimizing for informed citizenhood. Do I really need to know the Five Craziest Conservative Reactions to the Pushback on Indiana’s LGBT Discrimination Law (four nonpoliticians and one senator from a state I don’t live in)? Is my life improved by knowing that the Big Gay Hate Machine Closes Christian Pizza Parlor, given that I neither live in Indiana nor have any interest in going to that particular pizza parlor?
If you were coming up with a plan for becoming an informed citizen, you would read serious books full of statistics written by experts, taking care to explore all sides of the issue. You would probably want to figure out which issues you find most important and how to weight them: in my case, probably foreign aid, anti-war activism, and open borders globally, and The Rent Being Too Damn High locally. And then you would take fifteen minutes to research which candidates agree with you on those issues. The Five Craziest Conservative Reactions To The Big Gay Hate Machine would mostly be notable by their absence.
But political news isn’t just a misuse of your time; it’s actually harmful.
The news has something called the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. Think about how terrible the news reporting is on any subject you know well: perhaps computers, mental health, or biology. That is roughly as bad as you should assume the news reporting is on any subject.
Of course, there’s some nuance here. The primary problem is that news reporters aren’t experts on the topic they’re reporting on. Anyone who hasn’t taken a biology class since they were fifteen would probably do an equally poor job of reporting on the latest biological discovery. So you can expect news stories to be fairly accurate about any topic where they have someone who is supposed to report about that exact topic. Washington politics? Fairly accurate. Science reporting? About as accurate as you would expect it to be if you told someone “now you have to learn all of social and hard science.”
Furthermore, the news fucks with your availability heuristic. Normally, if you can think of a lot of examples of something, you think it is more likely to happen. This is pretty reasonable; if many of your friends have been harassed by someone on the train, you might think that harassment on the train happens a lot, even if you have never been harassed yourself. Unfortunately, the news enjoys taking examples of things that legitimately don’t happen that often and blowing them up so everyone thinks they happen all the time.
The world has been getting less dangerous, but people perceive it as more dangerous, in part because the 24-hour news cycle is continually covering how often people get attacked or murdered. Terrorism is relatively rare, but every time someone commits a terrorist action, we have to hear about it constantly for the next two weeks. Even my beautiful newsless bubble won’t protect me from having to learn about whatever mass murder just happened!
Similarly, news tends to be fairly partisan. If you read liberal news sources, all the death threats sent to liberals will be covered in slavering detail; if you read conservative news sources, all the death threats sent to conservatives will be covered in slavering detail. If you read liberal news sources, every conservative gaffe will be covered; if you read conservative news sources, every liberal gaffe will be covered. And since you can think of lots of examples of the outgroup being evil and stupid, and much fewer examples of the ingroup being evil and stupid, you naturally conclude that your outgroup is uniquely terrible. This is not an aid to good reasoning.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with reading the news if you happen to find it entertaining. My favorite TV show is a serial killer show, which is probably as bad for my availability heuristic as the equivalent number of hours of cable news. But if you’re reading it to be an informed citizen, it is probably making you less well-informed. Read a book instead.