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Why I rarely read news

“Just as modern man consumes both too many calories and calories of no nutritional value, information workers eat data both in excess and from the wrong sources.” -Tim Ferris

Blog 45 starts on how people consume information and is part of the Information Gathering part of the anatomy of a decision.

The anatomy of a decision - Information gathering

News is entertainment

I believe there is a myth out there that scrolling the social media links, going to a newspaper website or reading a newspaper is educational and informative. The problem with the myth, is that when people have read the news, they feel well informed. It is my opinion that 'news' is entertainment. Here are my arguments:

1) Your attention is their product

When you sign up to a social media site like Facebook, you are the product. Facebook is not making any money out of you posting pictures of your lunch. Facebook make money by holding your attention enough so that they can understand more about you, and sell that information to get advertisers products in front of you. That bit is uncontroversial. Most news websites are free to access and have adverts, again here, their profit motive is to keep you at the website so your eyeballs will look at their adverts. Finally, newspapers make more than 50% of their revenue from advertising (i.e. more than the cost of the newspaper). In these media, you are meant to be engaged by their content.

2) What is news?

My learned friend Clive Booth explained to me that there are 5 features of a good news story (the more the better): Conflict, Hardship/danger, Celebrity, Scandal and Oddity.

These 5 are the features of an engaging story. Engaging stories can be about sex, violence, squabbles, celebrity or sport. Even the business pages are jazzed up to make engaging headlines. These stories are eye catching and attention-grabbing and make sure that consumers of news stay on the page long enough to get sold to.

We also tend to gravitate towards negative stories due to negativity bias i.e. there is evidence that humans pay attention to and better remember negative news. Newspapers give us what we give them attention for. The quote below from a reputable source progresses the argument neatly.

'In studies where humans were able to stimulate various sites in their own brain, the data showed that more than sites that elicit giddiness, sexual arousal, calm or drunkenness, people opted to stimulate an area that evokes mild frustration & anger. Amazing & explains a lot.' - Dr Andrew Huberman (of the Huberman Podcast)

3) What news leaves out

A profitable news story is one that is quick to write but engaging to read. We know what makes it engaging (conflict, hardship, celebrity, scandal, oddity). So what gets left out?

History - it's very easy to report on what is happening but much more time-consuming to research the history of the conflict. Particularly with foreign affairs it is impossible to understand what is happening without any history.

Context - Example '30 stabbings in London this year'. This number is obviously a number we wish were 0, but that number is tough to understand without some understanding of how many stabbings were in previous years, or similarly sized cities elsewhere. It might have been a success story that stabbings had decreased by 50% or a huge fail because stabbings had gone up. Without context these numbers are dangerous.

Accuracy - To get the news out quickly in a 24hour news world, much of it is inaccurate. Many medical stories are quoted as proven in humans, when the experiments were on animals. Lots of stories are inaccurate (finance, science) when the writer makes incorrect causal relationships e.g. 'Federal Reserve cuts interest rates due to last year's recession'. There have even been some examples of intentionally incorrect or infuriating information being put up there to drive traffic to comment on the page to put them right.

The question 'does this matter?' - Much of the news is sensationalised but unimportant. We can spend a lot of time on stuff that feels like it provokes a visceral reaction but after the fact feels like poor use of your time.

4) Political bias

For established media sources, it is very easy to understand their political stance. You can see which news stories they run and the slant they put on it. A consistent political bias has proven to be a successful business strategy for media outlets.

Readers tend to feel less challenged and more comfortable and entertained with news stories that match their political slant. Bias is better for writers too. A political bias means writers can engage better with readers that have self-selected to their paper. They also get much better access to the politicians whose bias they share. Opinion pieces are an invitation to express political bias.

Why I rarely read news

We get the news we deserve - sensational yet trivial information. As a result on a day-to-day basis I rarely read the news. I often look at the headlines where I think it is relevant to my work but otherwise I intentionally stay away. My experience with much of the news, is that my attention is drawn to engaging but ultimately unimportant and incomplete reporting. Worse still, sometimes it is misinforming - the lack of context making me think the world is a more dangerous, corrupt or immoral place than it really is. That is not a good starting point to make good decisions.

Now that news is in my entertainment category it competes for my attention with walking, listening to music, reading books and watching series/films. I encourage you to join me on a low information diet and save yourself from the information overload.

So What?

How is this all relevant to decision-making? Here are three take-aways I want to leave you with before we pick it up next week:

1) Your attention is the product in the news industry. Keeping you engaged helps justify advertising. Engaging news contains Conflict, Hardship/danger, Celebrity, Scandal and Oddity. This is entertainment rather than education.

2) When people give attention to engaging articles, they might be missing history, context and accuracy and be fed opinions with strong political bias. This dangerously gives people the idea that they are informed whereas they have been given a distorted picture.

3) Personally, I skim the headlines but otherwise ignore the news. For me it has poor return on time spent and therefore adopt a low information diet. I encourage you to look into it.

Thank you for joining. Next week - 'Good sources of information'. Don't forget to sign up to the subscription list.

Other blogs in the 'Anatomy of a decision series'


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