News Essay Story

Avoid News
Towards a Healthy News Diet
by Rolf Dobelli, 2012

Prologue

This article is the antidote of news. It is long, and you probably won’t be able to skim it. Thanks to heavy news consumption, many people have lost the ability to read more than four pages straight. This article will show you how to get out of this trap – if you are not already too deep in the trap.

 

News is to the mind what sugar is to the body

We are so well informed and yet we know so little. Why?

We are in this sad condition because 200 years ago we invented a toxic form of knowledge called news. The time has come to recognize the detrimental effects that news has on individuals and societies, and to take the necessary steps to shield us from its dangers.

At core, we are cavemen in suits and dresses. Our brains are optimized for a hunter-gatherer environment where we lived in small bands of 25 to 100 individuals with limited food and information sources. Our brains (and our bodies) now live in a world that is the opposite of what we are designed to handle. This leads to great risk and to inappropriate, outright dangerous behavior.

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognized the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome) and have started to shift our diets.

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 satation. 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.

Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information overload that we faced 20 years ago with food intake. We are beginning to recognize how toxic news can be and we are learning to take the first steps toward an information diet.

This is my attempt to clarify the dangers of the most toxic form of information – news – and to provide some recommendations about how to deal with it. I have now gone without news for a year, so I can see, feel and report the effects of this freedom first hand: less disruption, more time, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more insights. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

My good friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb was one of the first people to recognize news consumption as a serious problem. I owe most of the following insights to him.

 

 

No 1 – News misleads us systematically

News reports do not represent the real world.

Our brains are wired to pay attention to visible, large, scandalous, sensational, shocking, people-related, story-formatted, fast changing, loud, graphic onslaughts of stimuli. Our brains have limited attention to spend on things that are small, abstract, ambivalent, complex, slow to develop and quiet, much less silent. News organizations systematically exploit this bias.

The news media, by and large, focus on the highly visible. They display whatever information they can convey with gripping stories and lurid pictures, and they systematically ignore the subtle and insidious, even if it is more important. News grabs our attention; that’s how its business model works. Even if the advertising model didn’t exist, we would still soak up news pieces because they are easy to digest and superficially quite tasty.

The highly visible misleads us.

Take the following event. A car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses. What does the news media focus on? On the car. On the person in the car. Where he came from. Where he planned to go. How he experienced the crash (if he survived). What kind of person he is (was). But – that is all completely irrelevant. What’s relevant? The structural stability of the bridge. That’s the underlying risk that has been lingering for a while.

The car doesn’t matter at all. It could have been any car that caused the bridge to collapse. It could have been a strong wind or a dog walking over the bridge. So, why does the media cover the car? Because it’s flashy, it’s dramatic, it’s a person (non-abstract), and it’s news that’s cheap to produce.

As a result of news, we walk around with the completely wrong risk map in our head.

  • Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated.
  • The collapse of Lehman is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated.
  • Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated.
  • Britney Spears is overrated. IPCC Reports are underrated.
  • Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated.

We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. It is a very dangerous thing, because the probabilistic mapping we get from consuming news is entirely different from the actual risks that we are exposed to. If you watch an airplane crash on news television, it’s going to change your attitude toward that risk regardless of its real probability, no matter your intellectual sophistication. If you think you can compensate this bias with the strength of your own inner contemplation, you are wrong. Bankers and economists – who have powerful incentives to compensate for news-borne hazards – have shown that they cannot. The only solution: cut yourself off from news consumption entirely.

 

No 2 – News is irrelevant

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision affecting your life, your career, your business – compared to not having swallowed that piece of news.

The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to the forces that really matter in your life. At its best, it is entertaining, but it is still irrelevant.

Assume that, against all odds, you found one piece of news that substantially increased the quality of your life – compared to how your life would have unfolded if you hadn’t read or seen it. How much trivia did your brain have to digest to get to that one relevant nugget? And that is a hindsight analysis. Looking forward, we can’t even identify the value of a piece of news before we see it. So we are forced to digest everything on the news buffet line. Is that worth it? Probably not.

In 1914, Sarajevo was the news story that dwarfed all other news in terms of its significance that year by a factor of a billion. But, Sarajevo was just one of several thousand stories in circulation on that day. No news organization treated it anything more than just another politically inspired assassination. The first Internet browser debuted in 1995. That hugely relevant piece of software, which bore such important future impact, barely made it into the press.

It’s very difficult for us to recognize what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognize what’s new. We are not equipped with sensory organs for relevance. Relevance doesn’t come naturally. News does. That’s why the media plays on the new. (If our minds were structured the other way round, the media would certainly play on the relevant.) The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the modern man.

News creates a worldview that is not relevant to you. What does relevance mean? It means: what is important to you personally. Relevance is a personal choice. Don’t take the media’s view for it. For the media, anything that sells lots of copies is relevant – Darfour, Paris Hilton, a train crash in China, some idiotic world record (someone who ate 78 cheese burgers in one hour).

That is why the news industry has a swindle at the core of its business (this it shares with the circus performances, Freudian psychotherapy and palm-reading). It sells the relevant, but delivers the new. In short, it’s a camouflage industry.

Media organizations want us to believe that news offers some sort of a competitive advantage. Many people fall for that. We get anxious when we’re cut off from the flow of news. We fear we’ve missed something important. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume the bigger the advantage you have over others.

Afraid you will miss “something important”? Believe me, if something really important happens, you will hear about it, even if you try to live protected from the news in a cocoon. Friends and colleagues will tell you the relevant events far more reliably than any news organization. They will do this with the added benefit of meta-information, since you know how they think. If you don’t have friends, you will learn far more about really important events and societal shifts by reading about them in specialized journals, in-depth magazines or good books.

 

No 3 – News limits understanding

News has no explanatory power. News items are little bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world.

News organizations pride themselves on correctly reporting the facts, but the facts that they prize are just epiphenomena of deeper causes. Both news organizations and news consumers mistake knowing a litany of facts for understanding the world.

It’s not “news facts” that are important, but the threads that connect them. What we really want is  to understand the underlying processes, how things happen. Unfortunately, precariously few news organizations manage to do this. The problem is that the underlying processes that govern significant social, political and environmental movements mostly are invisible. They are complex, non-linear and hard for our (and the journalists’) brains to digest. Why do news organizations go for the light stuff, the anecdotes, scandals, people-stories and pictures? The answer is simple: because they are cheaper to produce.

The important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that develop below the journalists’ radar but have a transforming effect.

Most people believe that more information makes for better decisions. News organizations support this belief. Hell, it’s in their own interest. Will the accumulation of facts help you understanding the world? Sadly, no. The relationship is actually inverted. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand.

There is no evidence that information junkies are better decision makers. They are certainly not more successful than the average Joe. If more information leads to higher economic success we would expect journalists to be on top of the pyramid. That’s not the case. Quite to the contrary. We don’t know what makes people successful, but amassing information is certainly not part of it.

Reading news to understand the world is worse than not reading anything. What’s best: cut yourself off from daily news consumption entirely. Read books and thoughtful journals instead of gulping headlines.

 

No 4 – News is toxic to your body

News constantly triggers the limbic system. They spur the release of cascades of glucocordicoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. The effects of high glucocordicoid levels are impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. News consumers risk impairing their physical health. The other potential effects of news include fear, aggression, tunnel thinking and desensitization.

 

 

No 5 – News is toxic for societies

First, the tendency to personalize and politicize the news has a polarizing impact on democracy. Media users fall into increasingly targeted, narrowcast streams of information and, therefore, become less likely to encounter input that challenges their partisan views.

Second, humankind is susceptible to fads, hypes and hysterias. News leads to collective neurosis. As a matter of fact, every large-scale collective neurosis has been driven by news. There is no other way to generate one.

Third, stories portraying acts of violence have an inordinately negative impact at many levels. Psychological scars – induced by chronic stress, horrifying images and traumatic memories – do not heal easily. News adds to health costs.

 

No 6 – News massively increase cognitive errors

News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. We automatically, systematically filter out evidence that contradicts our preconceptions in favor of confirming evidence. In the words of Warren Buffett: “What the human being is best at doing, is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” That is the confirmation bias. News consumption, especially the ability to customize our news intake, exacerbates this human flaw. The result is that we walk around in a cloud of seemingly confirming data – even when our theories about ourselves and the world may be wrong. We become prone to overconfidence, take stupid risks and misjudge opportunities.

News not only feeds the confirmation bias. There is another cognitive error at play: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. And news organizations are happy to deliver those fake stories. Instead of just reporting that the stock market declined (or increased) by 2%, they say “the market declined by 2% because of X”. X can be a bank profit forecast, fear about the Euro, non-farm payroll statistics, a Fed decision, a terrorist attack in Madrid, a subway strike in New York, a handshake between two presidents, anything, really.

This reminds me of high school. My text book specified seven reasons (not six, not eight) why the French Revolution broke out. Fact is, we don’t know why the French Revolution broke out. And especially not why in 1789. And we don’t know why the stock market moved as it moved. There are just too many factors that go into it. We don’t know why an airplane crashed or why the oil price jumped. We don’t know. Any journalist who writes “the market moved because of X” or “the company went bankrupt because of Y” is an idiot. Of course, X might have had a casual influence, but it’s far from established, and there are most likely influences that are much greater than X. To a large degree, news reports consist of nothing but stories and anecdotes that end up substituting for coherent analyses. I am fed up with this cheap way of “explaining” the world. It’s inappropriate. It’s irrational. It’s forgery. And I don’t let my thinking get contaminated by it.

 

No 7 – News inhibits thinking

Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News items are like free-floating radicals that interfere with clear thinking. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. They are like viruses that steal attention for their own purposes. This is not about stealing time (see reason 9). This is about the inability to think clearly when you open up yourself to the factoid stream.

News makes us into shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory.

»The passageway from working memory to long-term memory forms a bottleneck in our brain. While the long-term memory has an almost unlimited capacity, working memory can hold only a relatively small amount of information at a time (try repeating a 10-digit phone number if you hear it for the first time). That short-term storage is fragile: A break in our attention can sweep its contents from our mind.« Because news disrupts concentration, it actively weakens comprehension.

You don’t visit Paris or speed through the Museum of Modern Art in two minutes. Why not? Because the brain needs spool-up time. Building up concentration takes a minimum of a 10-minute read. At minimum. If it is less, your brain will processes the information superficially and barely store it. News pieces are like wind hitting your cheek. Ask yourself: What are the top twenty news pieces from a month ago (that are no longer in the news today). So, why would you want to consume something that doesn’t stick?

Even worse with online news. In a 2001 study[1] two scholars in Canada showed that the comprehension declines as hyperlinks in a document increase. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which itself is distracting. News consumers are suckers for irrelevancy. Online news consumers are the biggest suckers. News is an interruption system. It seizes our attention only to scramble it. Besides a lack of glucose in your blood stream, news distraction is the biggest limitation on clear thinking.

 

 

No 8 – News changes the structure of your brain

News works like a drug. It feeds compulsive information-seeking behavior (CISB). The uninterrupted supply makes us crave more. As stories develop, we naturally want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary story lines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore.

Why is news addictive? Once you get into the habit of checking the news, you are driven to check it even more often. Your attention is set on fast-breaking events, so you hunger for more data about them. This has to do with a process called long-term potentiation (LTP) and the reward circuits in your brain. Addicts seek more of an addictive substance to get their fix, because they need more stimulation than non-addicts to reach a satisfying reward threshold. If you set your attention on other things – like literature, science, art, history, cooking, pet grooming, whatever – you will become more focused on those things. That’s just how the brain works. It’s a simple cognitive process.

People used to think that our brain, the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls, was largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. The human brain is highly plastic. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. When we adapt to a new cultural phenomenon, including the consumption of news, we end up with a different brain. Adaptation to news occurs at a biological level. News reprograms us. That means our brain works differently even when we’re not consuming news. And that’s dangerous.

The more news we consume, the more we are exercising the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading and thinking deeply. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to read and absorb longish articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their time schedules got denser. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed. In the words of Professor Michael Merzenich (University of California, San Francisco), a pioneer in the field of neuroplasticity: “We are training our brains to pay attention to the crap.”

Hear me: Deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking. When you consume news, your brain structurally changes. And this means that the way you think changes. Regaining the capacity for concentration and contemplation will take nothing but a radical news diet.

 

No 9 – News is costly

News wastes time. It exacts exorbitant costs.

News taxes productivity three ways. First, count the consumption-time that news demands. That’s the time you actually waste reading or watching the news.

Second, tally up the refocusing time – or switching cost. That’s the time you waste trying to get back to what you were doing before the news interrupted you. You have to collect your thoughts. What were you about to do? Every time you disrupt your work to check the news, reorienting yourself could easily waste minutes.

Third, news distracts us even hours after we’ve digested today’s hot items. News stories and images pop into our minds hours, sometimes days later and will constantly interrupt your train of thought. Why would you want to do that to you?

If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, you’re eating up substantial time. Then, add five minutes here and there when you’re at work, plus distraction and refocusing-time. You will lose productive hours totaling at least half a day every week. Half a day – and for what?

On a global level, the loss in potential productivity is huge. Take the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, where terrorists murdered some 200 people in an act of chilling exhibitionism. Imagine that a billion people devoted, on average, one hour of their attention to the Mumbai tragedy: following the news, watching some talking head on TV, thinking about it. The number is a wild guess, but the guess is far from a wild number. There are more than a billion people in India alone. Many there spent whole days following the drama. One billion people times one hour is one billion hours, which is more than 100,000 years. The global average life expectancy is today 66 years. So nearly 2,000 lives were swallowed by news consumption. It’s far more than the number of people murdered, by any standards. In a sense, the newscasters became unwilling bedfellows of the terrorists.

Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. Why give it away so easily? You are not that irresponsible with your money, your reputation or your health. Why then give away your mind?

 

No 10 – News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement

Individual reputation affects how people cooperate in society. In our ancestral past, a person’s reputation was directly linked to his or her achievements. You saw that your fellow tribe member killed a tiger single handedly and you spread word of his bravery.

With the advent of mass-produced news, the strange concept of “fame” entered our society. Fame is misleading because generally people become famous for reasons that have little relevance to our lives. The media grants fame to movie stars and news anchors for scant reason. News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement. The tragedy is that their notoriety crowds out the achievements of those who make more substantive contributions.

 

No 11 – News is produced by journalists

Some journalists take time with their stories and try to think things through. But like any profession, and probably more so than in any other profession, journalism has its incompetent, unfair practitioners who don’t have the time – or the capacity – for deep analysis. Often, they are paid by the piece, the line, or the word. You might not be able to tell the difference between a polished professional and a rushed, glib, paid-by-the-piece writer with an ax to grind. It all looks like news.

Fewer than ten percent of the news stories are original. Fewer than one percent are truly investigative. And only once every fifty years journalists uncover a Watergate. The rest is cobbled together from other news reports, common knowledge and whatever the journalist can find on the internet. Many journalists, in their rushed schedule, blindly copy from each other. The copying and the copying of the copies not only multiplies the flaws in the stories but also the irrelevance.

 

 

No 12 – Reported facts are sometimes wrong, forecasts always

Sometimes, reported facts are simply mistaken. With reduced editorial budgets at major publications, fact checking may be an endangered step in the news process.

The New Yorker Magazine was legendary for their fact checking. When an article mentioned the Empire State Building, the fact checking department would go out and visually verify that, in fact, the building was still standing. I don’t know if the story is true, but it highlights a point. Today, the fact checker has become an endangered species in most news companies.

Many news stories include predictions, but accurately predicting anything in our complex world is impossible. Overwhelming evidence indicates that forecasts by journalists and by experts in finance, social development, global conflicts and technology are almost always completely wrong. So, why consume that junk?

Did the newspapers predict World War I, the Great Depression, the sexual revolution, the fall of the Soviet empire, the rise of the Internet, resistance to antibiotics, the fall of Europe’s birth rate or the explosion in depression cases? Maybe, you’d find one or two correct predictions in a sea of millions of mistaken ones. Incorrect forecast are not only useless, they are harmful.

To increase the accuracy of your predictions, cut out the news and roll the dice or. If you are ready for depth, read books to understand the invisible generators that affect our world.

 

No 13 – News is manipulative

News is the perfect Trojan horse. Few bits of news arrive without a hidden agenda, and many news stories crop up with big obvious agendas.

Our evolutionary past has equipped us with a good bullshit detector for face-to-face interactions. We automatically use many clues to detect manipulation, clues that go beyond the verbal message and include gesture, facial expression, signs of nervousness such as sweaty palms, blushing and body odor. Living in small bands of people, we almost always knew the background of the messenger. Information always came with a rich set of meta data. Today, even conscientious readers find that distinguishing even-handed news stories from ones that have a private agenda is difficult and energy consuming. Why go through that?

Reporting is biased. Stories are selected or slanted to please advertisers (advertising bias) or the owners of the media (corporate bias), and here is a tendency to report what everyone else is reporting, and to avoid stories that will offend anyone (mainstream bias).

The PR industry is as large as the news reporting industry – the best proof that journalists and news organizations can be manipulated. Corporations, interest groups and other organizations would not expend these huge sums if PR didn’t work. If journalists with their natural skepticism towards powerful organizations can be manipulated, what makes you think you can escape it?

Take the Nurse Nayirah story. Nayirah was a fifteen-year-old Kuwaiti girl, who alleged that she had witnessed the murder of infant children by Iraqi soldiers in Kuwait, in verbal testimony to the U.S. Congress, in the run up to the 1991 Gulf War. Virtually every media outlet covered the story. The U.S. public was in rage, which in turn pushed the congress closer to approving the war. Her testimony, which was regarded as credible at the time by all the media outlets, has since come to be regarded as wartime propaganda.

Look back over the 20th century and ask yourself how many atrocities could have been prevented if the majority of people would have followed a simple news diet. It’s a wild thought.

There is more: Journalism shapes a common picture of the world and a common set of narratives for discussing it. It sets the public agenda. Hold on: do we really want the newsmakers to influence the public agenda? I believe that agenda setting by the media is just bad democracy.

 

 

No 14 – News makes us passive

News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. This sets readers up to have a fatalistic outlook on the world.

Compare this with our ancestral past, where you could act upon practically every bit of news. Our evolutionary past prepared us to act on information, but the daily repetition of news about things we can’t act upon makes us passive. It zaps our energy. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitized, sarcastic and fatalistic.

If the human brain encounters a barrage of ambiguous information without being able to act upon that information, it can lead to passivity and a sense of victimhood. The scientific term is learned helplessness. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression. Viewed on a timeline, the spread of depression coincides almost perfectly with the growth and maturity of the mass media. It could turn out to be a coincidence, and I am skeptical about this type of conjecture, but I don’t want to leave it unmentioned.

 

15 – News gives us the illusion of caring

Kathleen Norris (even if I don’t share most of her ideas) said it best: “We may want to believe that we are still concerned, as our eyes drift from a news anchor announcing the latest atrocity to the NBA scores and stock market quotes streaming across the bottom of the screen. But the ceaseless bombardment of image and verbiage makes us impervious to caring.”

News wraps us in a warm global feeling. We are all world citizens. We are all connected. The planet is just one global village. We sing the “We-are-the-World” song and wave the little flame of our lighters in perfect harmony with thousands of others. It’s a glowing and fuzzy feeling that delivers the illusion of care but doesn’t get us anywhere. I haven’t had the time to put my finger on it, but this allure for anything global smells like a gigantic chimera. Like a religion. Fact is, we are not connected because we consume news. We are connected because we trade.

 

 

No 16 – News kills creativity

Things we already know severely impact creativity. This is one reason why mathematicians, novelists, composers or entrepreneurs produce their most creative works at a young age. They are oblivious to much that has been tried before. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that allows them to come up with novel ideas.

I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a whole bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs.

The creativity-killing effect of news might also be owned to something simpler we’ve discussed before: distraction. I just can’t imagine producing novel ideas with the distraction that news is sure to deliver. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t read news.

What to do instead

Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey.

Make news as inaccessible as possible. Delete the news apps from your iPhone. Sell your TV. Cancel your newspaper subscriptions. Do not pick up newspapers and magazines that lie around in airports and train stations. Do not set the browser default to a news site. Pick a site that never changes. The more stale the better. Delete all news sites from your browser’s favorites list. Delete the news widgets from your desktop.

If you want to keep the illusion of “not missing anything important”, I suggest you glance through the summary page of the Economist once a week. Don’t waste more than five minutes on it.

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 there is nothing we can do 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. History is good. Biology. Psychology. That way you’ll learn to understand the underlying mechanisms of the world. Go deep instead of broad. Enjoy material that truly interests you. Have fun reading.

The first week will be the hardest. Deciding not to check the news while you are thinking, writing or reading takes discipline. You are fighting your brain’s built-in tendency. Initially, you will feel out of touch or even socially isolated. Every day you will be tempted to check your favorite news Web site. Don’t do it. Stick to the cold-turkey plan. Go 30 days without news. After 30 days, you will have a more relaxed attitude toward the news. You will find that you have more time, more concentration and a better understanding of the world.

After a while, you will realize that despite your personal news blackout, you have not missed – and you’re not going to miss – any important facts. If some bit of information is truly important to your profession, your company, your family or your community, you will hear it in time – from your friends, your mother in law or whoever you talk to or see. When you are with your friends, ask them if anything important is happening in the world. The question is a great conversation starter. Most of the time, the answer will be: “not really.”

Are you afraid that living a news-free existence will make you an outcast at parties? Well, you might not know that Paris Hilton is in jail (I don’t know, I am making this up), but you will have more intelligent facts to share – about the cultural meaning of the food you are eating or the discovery of exosolar planets. Never be shy about your news diet. People will be fascinated.

 

Good News

Society needs journalism – but in a different way.

Investigative journalism is relevant in any society. We need more hard-core journalists digging into meaningful stories. We need reporting that polices our society and uncovers the truth. The best example is Watergate. But important findings don’t have to arrive in the form of news. Often, reporting is not time sensitive. Longish journal articles and books are fine forums for investigative journalism – and now that you’ve gone cold turkey on the news, you’ll have time to read them. ▪

Video honorable mention by Nick Saffell, 16, Leland Public School.

________

9. Figuring out how, when and where to get your news is key to mental health.

Students wrote about downloading too many apps and getting too many news alerts as they began phase two of their news challenge. But as they began to fiddle with sources and platforms, they figured out what worked for them, whether it was podcasts, videos, briefings and other shorter ways of getting news; apps like Flipboard that aggregate a number of sources; or watching satirical news to relax after reading too much “real” news.

“What I appreciated about turning over this new leaf was how in control I was of my media consumption. No longer was I hearing random stories just because of their momentum; I was reading the stories that I wanted to read — ones I wanted to learn from,” wrote Michelle Yu, 17, of Cresskill High School.

Jaredth Thor, 16, of Merced High School, realized watching CNN 10 was a lot easier than reading The New York Times:

I’ve been noticing myself going to CNN 10 first instead of The New York Times. I really did not understand at first but then I realize that I would rather watch a 10 minute video with Carl Azuz talking about trivial events rather than read a gigantic essay that goes back and forth, using rhetorical devices, counterarguments, analysis, etc. That is the beauty of having a news outlet that promotes videos, the information comes quick and is easily gathered turning a chore of reading into a fast paced interesting session of knowledge.

And Grace C., 14, of River Dell High School, noticed that, as a lesbian, she’d rather read about news affecting the LGBTQ community on social media because she can connect with others:

When I learned about the Pulse Nightclub shooting or Roy Moore’s beliefs from traditional news, I felt vulnerable. When seeing the same stories on social media, I don’t feel alone.

10. Understanding the news can help you relate to family members across generations.

We end on a heartwarming note. Roughly a quarter of students who participated mentioned that it was nice to be able to take an active part in current-events conversations with their parents. Tyler McCarthy, 15, of the Hoggard High School, put it this way: I also created an even better bond with my mom. There is nothing like fighting about who is right and who is wrong to strengthen a relationship.”

Andrew Caslin, 14, of River Dell High School, wrote about going to an all-day family gathering and having a new experience.

I sat with my Uncle John, the whole time. Usually I talk to him for a minute about politics and I’m bored out of my mind, but this time I felt something different. This conversation that, at one time, would put me to sleep, was appealing to me now. I knew this was a product of the news diet.

I talked with Uncle John about things I didn’t know about. One of which as was his career as a NYPD Police Officer. I connected with his stories now after listening to countless stories about his experiences. One such story caught my attention. It was 1974 and my uncle was working with the 7th Precinct. He was on a burglary call and he found the suspect going out the fire escape. He chased him across the roof, and while running it gave way and he fell off the building. He told me how he was feeling as he felt the roof give out from under his feet and how he felt while falling to the ground. It gave me a more in depth look at how an officer thinks and a different perspective to all the news stories concerning police officers, and a chance to see how they feel in a situation that the media makes them out to be the bad guys.

Now, we invite you to read the essays of our seven top winners.

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Essay Winners

Katie Golden, 14, River Dell Regional High School:

Shocking stories change us. Almost six years ago, my grandpa first introduced me to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II. Drafted at the age of 17, a warrior in the famous Battle of the Bulge where he suffered frost bite in his toes to this day from interminable days without shoes, he was one of the last American soldiers to be stationed in Germany when war concluded. Why did he tell me these gruesome stories I knew hewished to forget?

So that I wouldn’t forget. So that it would never happen again.

I’m sure my grandfather wanted me to be informed about the world … and I thought I was. I knew all about the teen world: Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber’s on-and-off romance, what fashion was especially trending in November, and what color dress matches my personality (thank you, People magazine!) I even read the sports section of the Daily News, and usually directed the basketball conversations in my friend group.

The deficiencies in my media diet became clear when I was at a Global Connections Club meeting. We were discussing ways to help the Rohingya Refugees, a group of people being targeted for “ethnic cleansing.” The presenter said they were the “least wanted group in the world.” She shared news stories about villages being burned and women being raped. I was shocked when the presenter compared the events in Myanmar to the Holocaust. Their situation sure sounded like the people my grandfather once told me about. Hadn’t we all sworn it would never happen again? At this moment, I experienced a new revelation about myself: my eyes were on all the wrong stories. Terror was continuing to dominate our world, even in today’s world.

As part of the New York Times Media Challenge, I needed to alter my media intake, and as a result of my club meeting, I decided to look for news about the forgotten people of the world: poor people affected by new tax laws, immigrants facing deportation, women silenced by sexual harassment, and Beijing workers forced out of their homes. Like my grandpa, these reporters were exposing atrocities. They were telling stories of human suffering that they would probably like to forget too.

News is the microphone for the forgotten, powerless voices of the world. The media is the shield in the current war our world wages on Human Rights. It speaks for victims of persecution, harassment, deportation, and ethnic cleansing. We can’t limit ourselves to the fun news, but consider the heavy and sometimes gruesome stories the news may cover. The news exists simplistically to help and investigate when anyone is suffering. If we don’t acknowledge the media, these barbarities will happen, again, and again, and again.

Helen, 14, River Dell Regional High School:

The day had just started and I was sitting in a classroom with two uneven pigtails, one untied lace, half of my best friend necklace, and zero English skills. Already, I felt lost. Having just moved from Germany, I was attempting to participate in a geography game. As my classmates kept putting up correct answers, I didn’t have even one. Unless I could master the new language, I would have no power.

I had a flashback to those times six years ago when my teacher asked me to participate in the New York Time Media Challenge. My writing class was talking about the news, and a wave of opinions drowned me. Like my former self, I was lost again. It wasn’t that I wasn’t paying attention to the news, but none of it was about the government. I read about Leonardo da Vinci’s $400 million dollar painting and Europe’s first underwater restaurant, but I didn’t know how the tax bill was going to affect my family or how the Russian investigation tainted our election. I realized I had no idea what was going on in politics.

It appeared I had a new language to master. Because I am a busy high school student, I didn’t have much extra time, so I decided I would watch ABC Nightly News and hope for some better results. I began following the Congressional tax bill, Michael Flynn’s guilty plea, and even the Alabama senate race. I began to form so many different opinions. Politics is a topic no family wants to talk about over Thanksgiving dinner, but after this experiment, I had couldn’t wait to share my thoughts. (Surprisingly, I still have relatives talking to me.)

There are many people who don’t understand what’s happening in politics and rather than reading the news they decide to tune it out. Not paying attention to the news isn’t going to make you understand it. The more you immerse yourself in the news, like a language, the more you will understand it. For those out there who believe that following the tax bill is too complicated, they are becoming submissive. They are willing to sit back and accept whatever the government is handing them. If you engage yourself in the media and follow that tax bill, you can write letters, fight for what you believe, and possibly change the direction of laws. Rather than believing the government will do the right thing, you will know, and can hold them accountable.

Knowledge is power.

Isabella Jimenez, 17, Canterbury School:

It’s overwhelming, really. My phone chimes at least 100 times a day, my push notifications filled with news headlines. Facts, opinions, controversies, and current events are constantly hurled at me a million miles an hour, and in the of age of technology, it’s impossible to hide. It all becomes white noise, and it is hard to differentiate what is fact from fiction. Although I routinely read the news and stay up-to-date on what’s going on in the world, I sometimes feel trapped. The news, despite its ability to empower, inspire, and educate many, has also acted as the carrier of anger, burden, and tragedy.

My father had just picked up my sister and I from school. The second he turned on the car, he immediately shut off the radio, afraid of what my sister and I might overhear. I wasn’t naïve: my whole school had been in lockdown for the last five hours. I asked my dad what was wrong and he answered with silence, leaving me with an empty feeling in my stomach. On our way home, we stopped by Dunkin’ Donuts/Dunkin’ Donuts, because even at 13 years old, I already was a coffee dependent life-form. I remember walking in, hand and hand with my younger sister, and seeing “Breaking News: Mass Shooting in Newtown Connecticut at local elementary school. ” flashing in big red letters on the screen and people on the floor helplessly crying. That whole afternoon, my eyes were glued to the TV as the number began to rise, finally stopping at 26. For the next couple of weeks, I wouldn’t be able to go to school, turn on the TV, or even leave my house to go have breakfast at the local diner as information hungry news reporters infiltrated my town. I was trapped. Everywhere I went, the news followed.

Living in Connecticut, the news is my means to escape to the world beyond my small high school and rural hometown. It has brought me face to face with President Trump, climate change, the refugee crisis, and with the victims of other mass shootings. Before experimenting with my news diet, I regularly pressured myself to read the news, reminding myself the importance of a globalized perspective and having this information as “social currency.” I never took into consideration the toll it would all have on me and never realized the power I had to chose the news I wanted to consume. Participating in the news audit and reading almost every article that popped up into my notification feed and watching the TV, left me tired and frustrated. It made me feel as I did in the following weeks after the Sandy Hook tragedy: trapped. I realized through this project the importance of having a balanced news diet: an ideal combination of all perspectives from all news realms. Butmost of all, I recognized that sometimes, you need to take a step back in order to process, reflect, and breathe.

Matthew Kaufman, 15,River Dell Regional High School:

While a teen sits and plays Call of Duty, a North Korean missile sails toward our country. The teen is oblivious as he strives to reach level 3 on the game. This seems like a scene out of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In thatnovel, citizens watch their full wall TVs, unaware of the warplanes flying above them.

Participating in the New York Times Media Challenge, I found that I might be the teen described above and could star in a modern-day version of this book.

Step one of this experiment required completing a review of my news diet. After monitoring my main sources of news, I discovered a blatant flaw in my news intake: I only read the headlines. Not only was it just the headlines, but I would only look at the five recommended articles that were displayed as widgets on my phone.

If I found an article that was interesting, I might read some of it, or tell someone else about it. But if they asked me a question about a specific detail, I would answer, “I don’t know; I only read the headline.”

Embarrassed by my lack of depth, I challenged myself to dive into entire articles, as opposed to the five ones displayed in a preview. What I got from this experience was a deeper understanding of the content. I took away more information than I would have from just reading the headlines, and I felt more content with myself after this experience. One article that stood out to me was from BuzzFeed. The headline stated that immigration officers continued to arrest illegal immigrants in Florida during Irma, even though they promised not to. The headline made the officers seem like villains, but when I read the whole article I saw both sides of the accusation. Headlines can show one-sided arguments, while reading the article in detail gives you all the information needed to comprehend a topic.

Ray Bradbury warned us back in 1953 about what our society was becoming. Captain Beatty is one of the men in charge of keeping books out of peoples’ hands. He describes why the world came to be the way that it is, and we are quickly becoming that society. Beatty says that all people want are, “snap endings.” I think this describes our world today perfectly. People don’t read the whole book; they skip to the last page. They don’t want to take the time to digest what they’ve been given. I realized this after my experiment. I am becoming what Bradbury feared. We all are. It’s time for our society to get out of the express lane.

Wynn Maloney, 18, Canterbury School:

Unconsciously, as it must be for many other eighteen year olds, my news diet was bland, lazy, and lacking effort. The only time I would ever discover news would be when I was tapping through my snap stories on Snapchat until I reached the discover section of the screen, or scrolling through my Instagram feed when I would come across a Barstool sports post. Occasionally, I would click on an alert from the news app on my iPhone when I was trying to clear my notifications, but I would find myself lost in the article I had just entered.

I was absent and blind to what was going on around me in the world, I admit it.

Once I realized the isolation I had put myself through that had prevented me from not only becoming an educated citizen of society, but also becoming aware of my surroundings, I decided it was time to change up my news diet. My first step was to turn on my brain and open my eyes in order to become more aware whenever I would come across a piece of news so I didn’t just scroll or tap away to something more interesting to my tastes. Slowly, I noticed myself wanting to read the whole article or post whenever I would come across news, no matter the topic. Then, my second step was to turn on all my notifications in my news app in order to spark more news action in my day to day life. Once the news started to come to me, I would click on every notification and read up on the article. If I found myself lost, I would simply search the background of the topic through other news sources. The chase through my news app to catch the next update on particular stories I was following had become like gambling at a casino, every time I won, or found an amazing or interesting news piece, I was left hungry for more.

Ever since I have implemented these two simple steps into my life I have found that I feel like I can contribute to society through participating in intriguing conversations pertaining to up-to-date news. I also feel as if I am able to make personal connections to many day to day issues through the feelings that arise within me once I read many articles that address national and even international issues. I was once an 18-year-old girl who unhealthily and lazily consumed my news, but now I am still that eighteen year old girl who now looks forward to educating myself and consuming every ounce of knowledge I can obtain through news, and for that I am grateful for my news diet project.

Olivia McCormack, 14, The Franklin School Of Innovation:

This project was an eye-opener, revealing several things including the substantial amount of news I got daily. The latter part of the project inspired me to learn what I could about our current world. I started with a 24 hour period where I recorded all the news taken in. I found the news I got was mainly background noise with no focused time, and with news taken in all at once, so for my news diet mix up, I chose to change this. My planwas to do two things: listen to NPR news podcasts and read CNN articles on my phone. The first week I quickly found that the mornings were not the time for focused news, so I changed my intake time to in the car or ondeck before swim practice.

During this experience, I found myself inspired and powerless with many issues. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing about all the sexual harassment allegations and denials. People denying these brave women who are speaking out while knowing they will be pushed around. For a month I listen to coverage of people giving brave testimonies, while men in power were denying and bashing on these women. I was left heartbroken and questioning; what kind of world is this where there is no equality? I don’t mean just in this matter, I see it everywhere, people not making something as simple as a cake for the lone reason the clients were gay, it’s just so unconstitutional. I found that another time I had to stop listening to the news was during coverage of the terrorist attack in Egypt. I just couldn’t bear to hear any more about the horrific things people do to each other.

Still, there were times the news I heard excited me, these were times where things like advancements in Muller’s investigation where people were finally paying for their crimes, or when the transgender woman was elected in Virginia an example of how we are coming closer to true equality.

This project left me knowing that the news is a very valuable part of life in this country. I also realized that without the news, I would be as innocent as a kindergartner, so I the news is needed in order to be a valuable member of society. Throughout my experience in the new diet mix up, I know that if I ever want to be a valuable member of society I will need to be as informed as I can be. I hope to do so by finding the right news diet and to be able to find places where I can speak up and stand out. One needs a healthy amount of news in life to a point that you are informed but not overwhelmed. Overall, I learned that there are multiple issues that we as a society need to fix and that our news intake should be enough that we are informed, but not to the point that we‘re overwhelmed.

Jocelyn Savard, 16, Hoggard High School:

Each day, I attend a swim practice for about three hours. As soon as it ends, us, being teenagers go straight to our phones. My friends phones are filled with text messages, Snapchats, and missed calls. Of course, mine has all those things too but thrown in are news article headlines. If I have time, I will immediately read the articles.

If I don’t have time then, I make sure I get to them relatively soon. Many people in my community are not receiving any sources of news. Physical deliver-to-your-doorstep newspapers are rare in households now because of the internet. But how many of the people not receiving newspapers read them online daily? If the generation above us is not informed, how can we be expected to be? Most teenagers’s only source of news are the gossip articles at the grocery store checkout lines. What sort of condition will our country be in twenty years when it’s run by a generation who only knows about their individual lives performed until that point?

Possibly more concerning than the lack of knowledge is the lack of consistency. I read everything from the über conservative Washington Times to the extremely liberal New York Times. Each article the story changes; in one I’m reading about the bill President Trump passed that will save the country’s economy by saving x amount of money each year. Then, I go to the next article on my list and I’m reading about the bill President Trump passed that is dooming the country’s economy by losing x amount of money each year. As I’m more left leaning, I tend to believe the more liberal sources which would be great except I have right leaning friends who believe the conservative sources. We are truly a divided country. If I weren’t reading a wide range of news sources would I realize the biases? And despite reading several news sources, some such as USA Today (notoriously neutral), often times I don’t know what the full truth is. Again, how can we be expected to lead a country where we only know a biased history of it, if any? During my audit, possibly the only new thing I realized was how negative all the news intake I was receiving constantly was. I read about poisonous cities, Trump’s mistakes, and falling stocks. I didn’t have articles on people beating cancer, communities coming together or good political choices. It seems that news has always been this way but it can still be linked to the lack of consumption of news from everyone of all ages in our country.

Someday, I hope to leave swim practice with articles written by opposite political affiliations having consistent facts and possibly one story that would make anyone smile. I have hope that we can change the way we perceive the news, possibly by changing the news first, so that my generation will be able to grow to our full potential and lead well in coming years.

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Runners-Up

Shreya Aggarwal, 14, River Dell Regional High School

Alexis, 14, River Dell Regional High School

Christopher Burmaster, 15, River Dell Regional High School

Melissa Canales, 17, TERRA Environmental Research Institute

Olivia Chislett, 16, the American School in England

Ellyn Fritz, 17, Canterbury School

Mlawson19, 17, Exeter High School

Olivia, 14, River Dell Regional High School

Olivia, 18, Cresskill High School

Spencer Schultz, 17, Jamesville-DeWitt High School

Max Wilson, 16, Cresskill High School

Honorable Mentions

Julia Bialek, 17, Horace Greeley High School

Andrew Caslin, 14, River Dell High School

Leah Fishman, 14, River Dell High School

Gabriel, 13, Franklin School of Innovation

Quinn Hagerman, 16, Merced High School

jhamburger, 16

Isabella Kahn, 14, River Dell Regional High School

Alex Main, 17, Landstown High School

Mary, 16, Merced High School

Olivia, 18, Cresskill High School

Samantha, 17, Merced High School

Clara Tomann, 17, Canterbury School

Megan Tracy, 17, Canterbury School

Josh Wiesenfeld, 14, River Dell Regional High School

Michelle Yu, 17, Cresskill High School

Joanne Yang, 14, Seoul International School

Sherry Zhu, 14, River Dell Regional High School

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Thank you to our judges, who included not only Learning Network staff, but also Michelle Ciulla Lipkin, the executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

Interested in more student challenges? We run new ones all year long. Here is our 2017-18 calendar.

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