Have you ever cut out daily news completely? Our author Julia Tappeiner did, for a whole month – and she’s a journalist. For E&M, she shares what she’s learned and why we all should reconsider our news consumption. 

The newest diet trend does not concern food, but news. Today, many behavioural psychologists and life coaches pledge to avoid daily news.

We are more informed than ever in history, and yet we know as little as ever. Why? Because we consume too many shallow news-reports, which decreases our concentration span, overwhelms our brain, and leaves us with little relevant knowledge or useful insights for our lives. Most importantly, daily news consumption distorts our view of the world. Because news outlets seek to increase their views, they tend to report on sensational and mostly negative events, and leave out the long-term processes and positive developments, which are less spectacular. As a result, we overestimate risks such as terrorism or plane crashes and underestimate others such as bacterial resistance to antibiotics. We also think of the world as a darker place than

One proponent of “a healthy-news-diet” is the Swiss author and entrepreneur Rolf Dobelli. He suggests shutting out (daily) news completely and instead focusing on longer in-depth analyses such as articles in specialised (monthly) magazines, scientific papers, and books. A new type of journalism has even emerged in the last few years: slow journalism, positive journalism, or constructive journalism are names of this new trend that focuses on profound, scientific-based and solution-oriented reporting. Examples are the British monthly magazine Delayed Gratification, the Dutch media project The Correspondent, or the German online news Perspective Daily.

Accepting this theory would rob the sense from what I do for a living (I’m a journalist) and what constitutes an important aspect of my identity. But then I realized: acknowledging the flaws of my industry would not mean giving up on my dream job and my ego, but it would constitute a great chance to help make journalism better. So, I decided to set up an experiment with me as the subject: to shut out daily news completely from my life for one month. Here are my most important conclusions.

1. The constant fear of missing out is an addiction

The first week was the hardest. Trying to live without news is like being asked not to think about an elephant. It’s basically unavoidable. It started in the morning, when I was listening to music on my favourite radio station while preparing breakfast – suddenly the music stops, and the speaker announces the news of the day. Before I even manage to shut off the radio, I already hear about a fight political parties are having about Covid-19 measures in Italy, the newest criticism of Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, and which topics will be discussed during the next EU-summit.

Still, my inner craving hasn’t stopped, the constant feeling of guilt haunts me and I keep thinking about all the information I might miss.

The fact that I have been bombarded with 3 different (and in fact quite complex) matters in less than a minute, illustrates why daily news are increasingly criticized as counter-productive to an informed society and a responsible electorate. The pace of news is simply overwhelming, and to be honest, even if I had listened to the whole 5 minutes morning news, I probably would have forgotten most of it by the next day.

Still, my inner craving hasn’t stopped, the constant feeling of guilt haunts me and I keep thinking about all the information I might miss.

The fear of missing out, the need to be constantly up to date is the addiction of the 21st century: uninterrupted access to news makes resisting the constant look on our phones challenging. The German neuroscientist Maren Urner describes how addictions are formed through the so-called habit-loop and applies it to our news-addiction: it starts with a stimulus (the ping of the phone), which we then learn to connect with a certain routine (checking the news); third, we receive a reward from this routine (the kick of learning new information, the feeling of being informed and knowledgeable, or simply distraction from a boring task). As a result, we develop a craving for this routine and the reward behind it, which can become a true addiction.

This is why, not reading news anymore feels like going cold turkey. In my case, temptations are not the cookies stored in an unreachably high kitchen drawer. My temptations are far sneakier: it’s the pop-up news that appear on my smartphone screen. With a message-tone ring, they disguise themselves as innocent WhatsApp messages, and when I go to check – bam! – my eyes are already on the headline. Note for week 2: I need to turn those little bastards off!

2. Taking back control of my attention feels liberating and empowering

After another two weeks of news-diet, I start feeling an inner peace and the neurological clean-up has made room for new insights.

First, I noticed that I often want to reach for news when I am bored, for example, while waiting for someone, or when faced with an unpleasant task. In fact, many people consume news as a way of procrastination or distraction, often unconsciously, which is why so much information is forgotten shortly afterwards. Understanding your own news behaviour is important, because it helps to make conscious (alternative) choices: why not go for a short walk to pass the time, or work on the negative emotions behind the need to procrastinate? These measures can eliminate some of the drivers behind unconscious, harmful news-consumption, and are the first step towards an active choice of what we put into our brain and what we use our time for.

Second, I realized that because of my fast-food-style consumption of short articles, I unlearned focusing on longer analyses or even reading a whole book. My attention is like a little monkey, jumping from one page of the book to WhatsApp, and then to my grumbling stomach. One more reason for a healthy news diet: getting our brains used to concentrating on one thing constantly again improves our brain’s capacity to take in and process more in-depth information and helps overcome cognitive restlessness.

What I was missing most, was not the international headlines but information about events in my own community. I realized that while global news serve my political entertainment, local news, although less prestigious, have much more impact on my everyday life.

The last insight surprised me: What I was missing most, was not the international headlines, but information about events in my own community. I realized that while global news serve my political entertainment, local news, although less prestigious, have much more impact on my everyday life. They equip me with the information I need to make decisions according to my values. For example, if I read about an increase of poverty in my city after Covid-19 hit society, and that food banks are having problems catching up with the increased demand for free meals, I can make the decision to engage in the charity organization around the corner to help distribute food to people in need. Local news empower you to move from what Eitan Hersh in his book describes as “political hobbyism” ­­– consuming political news, discussing about politics without taking any political action – to concrete political engagement.

3. Journalists need more time to read books

While I got used to being “less informed” on a daily basis by week three, the journalist in me still felt guilty. I feared that I might lose track of public discourse, and therefore lack in topics to write about. But the contrary happened.

I used the time I gained from my news-abstinence to read non-fiction books or scientific studies, to listen to in-depth podcasts, or to attend webinars. And they offered me a whole new range of topics that are important to write about. I realized: if I exclusively focus on daily news portals, I will simply reproduce the topics that every other media is writing about, too.

Social experiment completed

Today, I can consume (and produce) news more selectively. I treat attention and time as precious goods and use them much more consciously. Not only do I feel like I know more and like I’m more inspired, I also feel my mind is at ease, and that I can read a book without being distracted every few minutes. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what media we choose to consume on a regular basis. What matters is that we consciously choose the magazines, books, and audios we are spending our time with.

 

Cover Photo: by Patrik Houštecký on Pixabay

  • retro

    Julia Tappeiner grew up in a German speaking minority in Italy and thus, carries the European spirit within her. This brought her to study first European Studies in Germany, and later International Relations with focus on Russia and Eurasia in Estonia. As a freelance journalist she works for the Italian regional outlets Salto.bz and Barfuss.it, as well as for the German news perspective daily. Her topics are varied – European minority issues, Russia or local climate developments – but always constructive.

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