Why I Stopped Watching the News

News media today is markedly different from news media of the past. For example, social media enables anyone to disseminate information. Publications like Vox and Buzzfeed offer trendy, snack-sized takes on a wide range of complex issues. Legacy cable news organizations ratchet up the temperature of their reporting with 24/7 breaking news and a priori political agendas.

These changes are due in large part because of the advertising-based revenue model. Companies want to keep people on their platforms for as long as possible to maximize the number of ads they see. To achieve this goal they must publish extremely compelling content. This may mean resorting to clickbait or selectively filtering stories that are the most captivating—typically those which involve fear, uncertainty, panic, tragedy, corruption, or injustice. Media outlets also turn dull stories into entertaining ones by deliberately withholding certain facts or providing information out of context. These strategies ought to be expected given that they are businesses and are operating to earn a profit. But as consumers, we should recognize the mental health consequences of their strategies both ourselves and our loved ones.

Because keeping up with the news in the modern world is often a harmful activity. Most people have strong emotional responses to other people’s suffering. We also have strong responses to fear, tragedy, and injustice. Constantly being exposed to heart-breaking stories make us feel depressed or hopeless. Studies have shown that being exposed to as little as 15 minutes of television news can decrease positive affect and increase anxiety.

Furthermore, the massive scale of news today means that no one can successfully digest all of it. The rise of smartphones and social media has led to the explosion of newsworthy content since every event can now be recorded. In the past, we were ignorant of most news and rarely had footage of it. But that is no longer the case. And in a country of 330 million and a world of 7.6 billion, at least one tragedy or injustice will be captured on video each day. We haven’t evolved to witness such pain and suffering while remaining undisturbed. 

To make matters worse, news companies have intensified their use of manipulative techniques amid rising competition for people's attention. CNN, for example, doesn’t compete only with Fox News. It competes with BuzzFeed, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok—even games like Fornite or Candy Crush. All of these products are competing for the finite resource of consumer attention, which produces a perverse race to the “bottom of the brain stem,” as Tristan Harris of The Center for Humane Technology says. Companies must adopt clickbait or sensationalism because if they don’t, someone else will.

The reality is that most news is useless to most people. Unless you happen to work in politics, journalism, or some other form of public commentary, non-specific news can safely be ignored. It rarely changes perspectives or teaches individuals to act more effectively in the world. At its best, it entertains or informs. At its worst, it frightens, enrages, or agitates. Of course, for any given person, there still exists a niche of news that will be useful. As medical students, for example, staying up to date on healthcare policy may be a good use of time.

The main pushback to these arguments I receive is that if one were to avoid news altogether one would miss out on important current events. Or that it is one’s civic duty to stay informed of the state of our country. Or that one at the very least must pay attention to the unending stream of injustices around the world so as to not ignore their plight. In some ways these concerns are valid. 

But they do not acknowledge that there is an infinite number of problems in the world and that individuals only have the capacity and competence to deal with a select few. Physicians can take care of patients. Electricians can fix circuit-breakers. Artists can produce music. But none of us can respond to every need in the world. And exposing ourselves to a constant stream of tragedy or injustice does no one any good. On the contrary, it makes us less able to tackle the singular problem we can best solve.

They also do not account for the ability of our social network to inform us about issues that matter. If aliens landed on Earth tomorrow, do you think you would not hear about it from your friends and family? Of course you would. Passively relying on your social network is one of the best ways of getting news, because it ensures you receive only the most consequential information without a for-profit enterprise livening it up with deception and hyperbole.

News is now more pervasive than ever. The unfortunate truth is that companies do not have your best interest in mind. They seek to make the world’s problems your problems so that you continue tuning into their coverage. Protect your mental health. Protect your wellness. If we each focus on solving the one problem we were destined to solve, the world will become an amazing place.