‘Mental sugar’: news addiction can be bad news

A new book about happiness and the art of thinking is causing a stir. Our addiction to the ceaseless flood of 24 hour news is as bad for us as sugar. We should give it up.

Last week was a busy week for news. There was the funeral of Margaret Thatcher; the bombings at the Boston marathon, and the dramatic manhunt which followed; a devastating explosion at a fertiliser plant in Texas; more murderous violence in Iraq; the revelation that children’s entertainer Rolf Harris had been arrested for suspected sex offences.

This series of huge news stories broke one after another, crowding the pages of newspapers and competing for space on websites, radio and TV. Media companies did what they always do: chased every little snippet of new information in streams of live coverage. Every passing tweet, announcement, snapshot and distant gunshot was instantly reported somewhere.

But, according to the writer Rolf Dobelli, they should not have bothered. If Dobelli had his way, no one would read or watch any news at all.

Why? Dobelli thinks that following breaking news is bad for you. Partly this is because of the way news is consumed. People following a news story will read many articles about it, constantly checking for the latest update. It can work a bit like an addictive drug. News junkies are always restlessly hunting for novelty, skimming articles quickly rather than reading deeply, attention always wandering in search of the next ‘fix’.

This sort of ‘fast reading’, Dobelli thinks, is the mental equivalent of eating fast food. It is tasty and it fills you up but it has no nutritional value. He wants to see a return to slow reading: focused, concentrated attention that produces long-term understanding. This is much easier to do with books and more thoughtful analysis than with pure breaking news articles, which fill your head up with the short-term clutter of the day to day.

News, says Dobelli, doesn’t even tell you anything useful about the real world. The one-off events that make the news are eye-catching but unimportant. The really important things happening in the world are happening slowly, under the radar. A bombing in Boston claims four lives and dominates headlines for days. A gradual reduction in the amount of sugar in fast food, to take a random example, might save thousands of lives – but it is not such a good story.

No news is good news

Dobelli has put forward a bold thesis. He thinks breaking news should be replaced by thoughtful analysis, investigative journalism and background books. The stories we construct from day to day events in the world are often misleading and useless.

This, journalists say, is going too far. Reporters have always believed their role is the write ‘the first rough draft of history’. Yes it is flawed and messy. But at least it is some kind of public record of the facts about the world we live in.

The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions by Rolf Dobelli is published by Sceptre, March 2013

You Decide

  1. Does the media assume that most people know more than they really do?
  2. Journalists often try to arrange news events into neat stories, or narrative structures. Is a carefully crafted news ‘story’ more or less valuable than a simple account of the facts?

Activities

  1. Write a brief news story about your journey to school today. You can’t change the facts, but you have to try to make the story exciting in the way you tell it – write in the style of a journalist keen to sell papers.
  2. Write a five point manifesto for good journalism. What makes for good reporting of the news?

Some People Say...

“What matters is more newsworthy than what’s new.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I never read the news, so I’m fine right?
No. Dobelli is saying that it is a mistake to be a news junkie. He is actually arguing that real journalism should spend more time explaining what is happening beneath the surface and less time simply telling us what happened in the past hour.
How would that affect me?
He points out that if you spend 15 minutes checking the news in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening and 15 minutes during the day, then you are spending half a day a week doing something that is arguably misleading, irrelevant, confusing, stressful, addictive, time-wasting and uncreative. Any other activity that bad for us would be strongly discouraged.
What should I do instead?
ReadThe Day for a start. Looking beneath the news for a deeper issue, thinking it through, debating it and, if possible, following your own lines of further research - these are exactly the sort of activities that more people should be doing.

Word Watch

Fertiliser
Most commercial fertilisers contain a compound called ammonium nitrate. This gets essential nitrogen into the soil, but it is also very volatile and can be used to make crude explosives. When the fertiliser factory in the town of West, Texas, caught fire, it essentially turned into an enormous bomb.
Rolf Harris
Rolf Harris is a much-loved TV entertainer, musician and painter. He was questioned and then arrested last month by police working on Operation Yewtree, an investigation into sex offences committed by the late children’s TV presenter Jimmy Saville.
Eye-catching but unimportant
News stories concentrate on rare and dramatic events, rather than everyday ones. This has, among other things, had a strange effect on the way we assess risk in the world around us. Because of news headlines, we are very worried about things like terrorism, plane crashes or paedophiles. The danger of all these is significantly smaller than the danger of, say, driving in a car or smoking cigarettes.

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