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avoid news

An interesting essay that's been making the rounds recently - ironically after being published in a Dutch newspaper - is 'Avoid News' (PDF) by Rolf Dobelli. Subtitled 'Towards a Healthy News Diet', this polemic article gives 15 reasons why consuming news is bad for you. In a nutshell:

...news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long, deep magazine articles (which requires thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, like bright-colored candies for the mind.

To be sure, much of Dobelli's subsequent argument is not new, and can in fact be summed up as a combination of a couple of recent influential books. Besides Nassim Taleb, whose work on black swans, randomness and risk ("Our risk machinery is designed to run away from tigers; it is not designed for the information-laden modern world.") provides the basis for several of the arguments, two other sources need to be mentioned.

First, Nick Davies' 'Flat Earth News' (2008) showed how the quality of journalism suffers dangerously from commercial pressures and PR tactics. And second, Nicholas Carr's 'The Shallows' (2011), building on his earlier article 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' (2008), warned about the chronic distraction effects of the internet and its interactive delivery of - mostly - endlessly linkdumped and retweeted trivialities.

And yes, as most news junkies will affirm, in online news the worst qualities of journalism and the internet combine to form a debilitating echo chamber of sugary factoids. Fortunately Dobelli ends his essay with some tips on what to do instead, after you've gone cold turkey on news.

Read magazines and books which explain the world - Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don't shy away from presenting the complexities of life - or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity. Try reading a book a week. Better two or three.

Of course articles and books representing the world's complexity are hard to find too, especially when it comes to analyses of current affairs. Ultimately, the oldfashioned advice about a varied diet applies to intellectual consumption as well - just make sure it gives you ample sustenance.


journalism warning labels

Great initiative, Tom Scott's pointed set of ' Journalism Warning Labels ', spreading some much-needed media scepticism - like a do-it-yourself ' Flat Earth News '. Even if you can't be bothered printing stickers, doing some mental labeli… Read the full post »

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