Jun 4, 2013

Is reading the news helpful or harmful?

Is reading the news helpful or harmful? This issue is important to me for several reasons. First, I am monitoring my heart rate because I have tachycardia/arrhythmia, racing and irregular heart beat. I take two medications to keep my heart rate low. Reading the news makes my heart beat faster, much faster. Reading the news cancels the effect of the two medications. For me, that illustrates the mind-body power of reading the news.

When I was younger, I was emotionally repressed, but now, at 68, my emotions—which are responses to seeing my values threatened or supported—flow freely. When I read news of a U. S. diplomat being murdered in another country, I do not merely note that fact. I see the victim suffering. I see the murderers gloating. I feel anger at the murderers and at those who allowed the murder to happen. I feel fear for the future, for me, and for my friends. Those powerful feelings have physical effects.

Second, reading the news is intellectually disruptive. It fractures my thinking about my current project. After reading the news, I must take the time to calm down emotionally, and I must reset my focus on my current project. This effort to reset is akin to the struggle fiction writers have after an interruption in their work, when they need to get back "into the story."

Third, reading the news even affects my dreams and therefore the quality of sleep. When I read the news, my dreams are stressful, anxious, and threatening. About a week ago, I stopped reading the news. My dreams have become more peaceful.

Understanding the effects of "reading the news" requires a clear grasp of what is usually meant by that term. First, what is "news"?

NEWS. "News" is a certain kind of information; it is information about past or current events; it is information that someone else, a reporter of the news, thinks (1) I have not heard before, and thinks (2) I will find it to be intriguing enough to set aside what I am doing and follow. News is information that a reporter—a fellow employee, an announcer at a sports event, or a newspaper journalist—shapes for a particular purpose and audience of his choosing.

WHAT "READING THE NEWS" DOES NOT MEAN. "Reading the news" does not mean simply reading (or listening) to acquire information. Reading a 500-page scholarly text on the decline of the Roman Empire is not "reading the news," even though the information in the book may be new to me. When I select and read such a book, I take the initiative to define my specific purpose, buy the book, develop a reading schedule, think about what I am reading, and take notes.

WHAT "READING THE NEWS" MEANS. "Reading the news" typically refers to an individual immersing himself in a stream of reports. An hourly, five-minute news segment on radio is an example. For five minutes I will hear a stream of reports about events that the reporter thinks are important for his audience. The reports are about dissimilar events (a bombing in Baghdad, a lottery prize going unclaimed, and the closing of a bridge for repairs). The reports usually are about events that are out of the control of the reader, either because they have already happened or because he lacks the power to change them. The reports are typically sketchy and provisional, subject to revision.

INTEGRATION IS KEY. The most fundamental factor distinguishing "reading the news" (in the meaning used here) and investigation is integration. In an investigation the investigator has a particular purpose that integrates his actions, the information he gains, and the information he already has. Jumping into a stream of news is an act of non-integration. "Being informed" is not a specific purpose. One can "be informed" about a topic, such as the state of one's culture, by investigating the subject once or occasionally—and then thinking in principles.

Examining a news stream does make sense for some individuals. An editorial cartoonist might frequently scan a news stream for subjects for his daily cartoon. A professional weblog writer might daily peruse a news stream looking for items suitable for principled commentary.  These individuals have a delimited purpose. They are investigating rather than drifting with the stream.

CONCLUSION. For me, the state of mind that results from "reading the news" is unpleasant emotionally, destructive cognitively, and damaging physically. That is why I have stopped "reading the news" in any form—print, internet, radio, or TV. I no longer look at my Facebook newsfeed, the quintessential example of a news stream. Instead, for particular reasons at particular times, I do visit individual Friend pages.

So far, refusing to "read the news" has brought a greater sense of peace, greater power of concentration, and greater awareness of my immediate surroundings.

Burgess Laughlin
Author of The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, described at reasonversusmysticism.com/

P.S. — I began my current experiment in shunning news streams after reading Rolf Dobelli, "News is bad for you—and giving up reading it will make you happier," The Guardian, April 12, 2013, linked at the end. The article has flaws. It is an edited translation of a German newspaper column. Accordingly it lacks citations; and more examples would have made some points clearer. His main theme is accurate: purposeful investigation seeking specific information is necessary for success in life, but plunging, without a specific purpose, into a news stream created by someone else can be destructive.