No news is good news

Newspapers B&W (3)

I have not watched, read or listened to the news for an entire year. And, if you’re looking for a novel new year’s resolution, I’d heartily recommend you do the same. Hell, why wait? Start today!

When I told friends I was doing this, they were amazed. Some couldn’t understand how I’d cope: didn’t I want to know what was going on in the world? Others thought it was important – almost a democratic responsibility – to keep up-to-date with current affairs; one even accused me of sticking my head in the sand.

The news doesn’t matter

If I’ve learnt one thing this year, it’s how little the news actually matters. My life has not been turned upside down by some unexpected government policy.  If it was going to be, I’m sure I’d have heard about it through word of mouth

For instance, although it didn’t affect me, I found out about the introduction of the ‘bedroom tax’ through friends and neighbours. Without being influenced by the opinion makers in the news, I formed my own view quite independently. It seemed quite a reasonable thing to me. When there’s a shortage of housing, it seemed both expensive and unfair for the four bedroom council house next door to be occupied by only two people. Perhaps a little more could have been done to iron out some of the discrepancies, but here’s my question: how many of the people who think it’s important to follow the news for things like this, how many of the people in uproar, did anything about what they saw as an injustice? I suspect very few.

And that’s my point. When it comes down to it, very little matters. The news does a lot to anger or scare us. It appears less interested in truth and understanding, and more interested in making headlines. The media has somehow appointed itself the vox populi, self-mandated to hold politicians to account. News stories become Punch and Judy shows with our most revered journalists turning QC for the prosecution, savagely cross-examination the hostile witness.

Have you noticed…

Politicians, like lambs to the slaughter, are helpless. They’re damned if they act and damned if they don’t. Have you noticed how they’re always “forced” to make “embarrassing u-turns”? The media never describes policy changes as “courageous” or “humble”, which is strange given the bravery it must take to alter your opinion in the face of adversity.

Perhaps you think that politicos can’t be trusted or you just have an instinctive, visceral hatred of them. In which case, why make yourself angry and upset by listening to the news, especially if you’re not going to do anything?

Have you also noticed how the media won’t report the results of any initiative, only the aspects they take umbrage with? Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science is an anthology of inaccuracies and scare stories peddled by the media and how they’ve influenced scientific policy making, sometimes for the worse. As Goldacre points out, they don’t even follow-up on the safety studies they so ardently called for; safety studies that proved there was nothing to fear in the first place.

The information fallacy

For reasons I still can’t fathom, some people still think it’s important to keep up date with what’s going on in the world, as if immediate and continuous access to information matters. I call this the information fallacy; Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls it the green lumber fallacy after the trader Joe Siegel who was one of the most successful traders in ‘green lumber’. Siegel thought green lumber was wood that had been painted green rather than freshly felled timber that had not been dried. Maybe he got lucky, but maybe not. Others have done studies showing that immature traders just relying on past market data outperformed experienced professionals who pulled data from various sources. Daniel Kahneman’s book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ describes a number of similar pieces of research that echo this.

Our memories are short. And impressionable.

Very few of us are experts in any particular field but it’s amazing how much we think we can interpret the news. Suddenly we’re all experts. Especially us men. However, we seem predisposed to overreacting to the latest events and it’s no surprise. This is the information that comes most easily to hand and it’s a lot harder to recall all the related pieces of information from a few months, let alone a few years back. Also, we’re more likely to recall the information that most likely re-affirms our position of the world – it’s more easily accessible. We are far from the rational beings we perhaps wish to be, capable of reasoned and impartial decision making.

That being the case, why follow the news at all? It will either reinforce your opinion or anger you.

A note about compassion

Perhaps the toughest things addressed in the news are the ones we are powerless to prevent: natural disasters, war, abject poverty. Maybe we fear we’d never hear about these if it weren’t for the news and then we couldn’t help. My answer is simple: if these things matter to you, join a charity. Get on mailing lists and Twitter feeds to know when your help is needed. However, don’t expect the news to keep you informed. People continue to suffer once the cameras have left and it’s easy for events to be obscured by more pressing or immediate concerns.

Get a hobby

I’ve found that forgetting the news has made me happier and more knowledgeable. There’s no shouting at the radio in the morning when you’re dancing around the kitchen to your iPod. Think of all the time you spend during the morning commute or Sunday afternoon reading opinion, trivia and gossip, that could be spent somewhere else. Get lost in a book or try and understand an issue for yourself. Buy books to read again and again rather than papers you will throw out once you’re done. Get a hobby, get out of the house. Talk to people or even talk with your family.

Life’s too short to get annoyed by, or worry about, the things you’ll do nothing about in the news.

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