Dec 7, 2020
Why Do We Consume News?
It’s been a long time since I graduated from journalism school and longer since I took civics class, so my recollection of why we consume news is a little fuzzy. Is it because democracy is impossible without it? Because it helps us make informed decisions? Because it allows us to have intelligent conversations about current affairs?
Democracy is Impossible Without It
I confess to being a political junkie in recovery. During the 2016 election cycle, I got up to 18 hours of political podcasts a week! I followed all the twists and turns in the polls, including the final prediction from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight (the most successful poll aggregators from the 2012 election).
Despite all that “news” I had consumed, nothing I heard during any of my 18 hours had any impact on my vote, and the prediction wasn’t useful, so what had I gained from those hours?
Political scientist Eitan Hersh offered a theory from his book Politics is For Power on the Hidden Brain podcast.
“What news do political junkies demand? Outrage and gossip. Why? Because it’s alluring. What news do we avoid? Local news. Why? It’s boring. What do we think of our partisan opponents? We hate them. Do we really hate them? No, but politics is more fun if we root for a team and spew anger at the other side. It’s easier to hate and dismiss the other side than to empathize and connect to them. When do we vote? When there’s a spectacle. When do we click? When politics can be a frivolous distraction. When do we donate? When there’s a cocktail party or a viral video. What are we doing? We’re taking actions not to empower our political values but to satisfy our passion for the sport of politics.”
This year, I chose to make democracy possible by substituting information for news.
I was able to successfully vote my values in the 2020 election on the day I received my mail-in ballot. I had downloaded a sample ballot and made my selections based on state and county voters’ pamphlets and personalized voting information from the League of Women Voters’ website: vote411.org.
Only one vote on the ballot pertained to a national race. Zero votes pertained to races in other states, or even cities or counties.
The League’s website linked to videos of candidate debates and pro and con positions on statewide and local candidates and ballot measures.
I watched two non-partisan debates and marked my ballot in less than five hours: much less time than I had devoted each week tracking inaccurate polling from other states.
Because it Helps Us Make More Informed Decisions
During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the news featured people debating the efficacy of wearing masks, rumors that the virus could hang in the air for up to four hours, that six feet of social distancing wasn’t nearly enough, that it was necessary to wash all clothing and groceries, that injecting bleach might work, and that the death rate was 5%.
I found that I was taking my temperature after exposure to each alarming story.
To make more informed decisions about how to keep myself and others safe, I turned to the Oregon Health Authority Coronavirus News update.
It reports daily positive test results by county, death rates (closer to 1.3 percent than 5 percent), and best practices for individuals and businesses to help stop the spread of the virus.
It Allows Us to Have Intelligent Conversations About Current Events
I called my brother the other day to see how he was doing. We both receive our news online, but based on our Google searches, YouTube views, and political preferences, he sees and hears much different stories than I do.
He mentioned a quote by a famous political figure that sounded to me like a piece of manufactured news. When I looked it up, I discovered that his reporting of what was actually said was accurate. The interpretation of what was said varied from "Proof that the Election Was Stolen" in some media outlets to "Caution that Election Results Might Not be Known on Election Night" in others.
We changed the subject to what TV shows he's been enjoying lately.
What's News to Me?
The good news is that the news is not now, nor has it ever been, a representative sample of things that happened in the world today. All good journalists search for sources relevant to their beat. By directing my attention to information relevant to my beat, I can improve my quality of life and the lives of around me.
1. Choose News that Helps You Fulfill Your Potential.
What do I love?
Who: Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larson
What: Filmspotting podcast.
When: Podcast posts on Fridays, but I can listen whenever.
Where: My podcatcher of choice (iTunes).
Why: I'm a film buff and enjoy conversations about movies.
What am I good at?
Who: Mark Manson
What: The Breakthrough (newsletter)
When: Mondays, but I can read whenever.
Where: My email in-box.
Why: Manson and I both share concise ideas "that could change your life." His article: "Why You Should Quit the News" spurred me to write this post. Like Kempenaar and Larson, Manson takes his work seriously without taking himself too seriously.
What does the world need?
Who: The People at the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley.
What: The Greater Good Science Center newsletter.
When: Several times weekly. I usually skim them once a week.
Where: My email in-box.
Why: The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society.
What I can get paid for?
What: Your thoughts on life challenges you're facing and areas where you'd like to thrive.
When: Whenever you log on or at times when we get together one-on-one or in groups.
Why: Because a lifetime of joy, contentment, cheerfulness, satisfaction, well-being, resilience, and inner peace is too valuable to leave to chance.
What media adds value to your life?
What media would you consider replacing?