I read the news. Most of the time, I get it from aggregates like Google News or Reddit. But I remain very skeptical, and I question everything I read. I have two main qualms about the news, one public and one personal.
First, the public case:
In 1919, Upton Sinclair published a scathing expose of American journalism titled The Brass Check. In 2012, Ryan Holiday published one called Trust Me, I’m Lying. There are some striking similarities between the two and some very good reasons to be skeptical of the news.
First, Holiday compares the iterative style of today’s blogs to that of yellow journalism of the past. Since both thrive on one time readers (each time you click on a blog post, the site’s advertising worth goes up), both of them relied on sensationalist headlines. Furthermore, blogs today are easy to manipulate by PR specialists because of their almost desperate need for content (some requiring writers to post up to 7 times a day). Marketers are easily able to pitch their story to a smaller blog with less of a following and less journalistic standards (but a larger hunger for content). Once their story is posted on a smaller outlet, they trade up the chain using anonymous tips or even official pitches and press releases to garner media attention in bigger blogs. It doesn’t matter if the story is false, because the blog can simply link to the smaller story and quote them on it, effectively hijacking page views from the “work” the smaller blog did, but without the responsibility of the first-hand reporter.
As Holiday says in the book, “The medium believes it is giving the people what they want when it simplifies, sensationalizes, and panders. This creates countless opportunities for manipulation and influence. I know what the cumulative effect of this manipulation is: Its effect is unreality. Surrounded by illusions, we lash out at our fellow man for his very humanness, congratulate ourselves as a cover for apathy, and confuse advertising with art. Reality. Our lives. Knowing what is important. Information. These have been the casualties.”
All of this information is available in Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me I’m Lying.
On another note, I believe that today’s journalism favors sensationalism because of the virality potential of social media. Holiday explains “high-valence emotions,” emotions that are strong enough to urge people to share the story with their friends. He says, “anger, fear, excitement, or laughter–these drive us to spread.” Therefore, nothing is sacred, and stories are deliberately delivered to stir up debate, controversy, surprise, and anger. Sean Parker experienced this first hand a few months ago when he was the victim of a deluge of internet hate caused by inaccurate journalism. After getting details on his wedding wrong, thus ensuing and onslaught of hate, he wrote this piece as his response. About the incident, he said, “never mind that none of the accusations were actually true. Truth has a funny way of getting in the way of a great story.”
And of course, I have my personal reasons for abstaining from a-high information diet:
Most of it is simply irrelevant.
Like I said previously, I keep up with the news via aggregates and Reddit. This means that, while ignoring the vast amount of crap produces by CNN, Gawker, or Business Insider, I still know what is going on in the world.
But I get to ignore Miley Cyrus. Because keeping tabs on her life will not do anything to my life except steal my most valuable resource: my time.
Tim Ferriss details a section in his book about the benefits of a low-information diet on one’s life. His quote: “Information is useless if it is not applied to something important or if you will forget it before you have a chance to apply it.” He also has 39 posts with the tag “low-information diet” on his blog.
Ryan Holiday’s wise words once again apply here: “When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information? Most readers have abandoned even pretending to consider this.”
HuffingtonPost’s most popular headlines today (9/9/2013)? “Kellie Pickler WOWS In Teeny Bikini”, “Miley Cyrus Gets Naked And Breaks Down Crying,” and “This Incredible Obituary May Be The Best Thing You Read All Week,” among others.
My point? Not all news is unimportant news. A lot of it is very pertinent. But most readers today cannot distinguish the different. Disregarding the sensationalist and false headlines above, for personal reasons, I’d rather read a book or go hiking than read things that have no bearing on my life and that I will forget about by the weekend.