“News is bad for you?”

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I just read this article from The Guardian, which claims that “News is Bad for You.” With such an inflammatory title, I had to read on.

The author, Rolf Dobelli, claims consuming news literally hurts your mental and physical health: creating fear and aggression, hindering your creativity, and hurting your ability to think deeply. “News is to the mind what sugar is to the body,” he says.

While many of his arguments are compelling, others seem a little ridiculous. I want to dissect some of Dobelli’s points; not to prove he is wrong but to explore his ideas further.

‘News is misleading’

This is definitely true. Due to human interest and the all-important narrative, news stories are often, if not usually, focused on the wrong things. If a car drives over a bridge, and the bridge collapses, news focuses on the car and the person in it, when the more important issue is the failure of the bridge, as Dobelli’s example goes.

In my own reporting, I get frustrated when I feel obligated to ask a random citizen their opinion on an issue for sake of . Highlighting a random opinion suggests that this person’s views embody the views of a greater whole, when they could just as easily be the only person who thinks that way.

No story type is more misleading than the “trend story,” where a reporter see’s what looks like a trend but isn’t necessarily a cause-and-effect  relationship. If there is an unusually high occurrence of ax murders in Colorado Springs, that doesn’t mean there is a root cause to those murders (unless the local Tea Party is handing out free axes to to “concerned citizens” for their “freedom and safety”). That doesn’t mean a rise in ax murders isn’t news, but there is serious danger in suggesting there is a cause when the reality is basic variability.

‘News is Irrelevant’

This one I have a problem with. Dobelli says news doesn’t matter in your life because it has no use in allowing you to “make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.” Why does that make it useless? Listening to music doesn’t help me with these things but I still get a lot out of it.

News enlightens people about what’s happening around them, near and far. I might not be a happier person for knowing there are genocides and wars going on in the world, but I’m glad I know. An informed public is essential for democracy. A society where people aren’t aware of problems and suffering is never going to do anything about it.

Where Dobelli is correct is the point that news doesn’t always prioritize relevance over newness. The most important news takes the backseat to what’s breaking at that moment. Moreover, a lot of news is worthless, but people want gossip, they want entertainment. Our crime reporter at the Camera had to cover the hundreds of teenage girls waiting for boy-band One Direction to walk out of their Boulder Hotel, much to his dread, but someone had to do it. People want to know, and sadly that story will probably get more reads than our coverage of the Broomfield murder trial.

‘News Works Like a Drug’

While I’d sure like to know where he got these facts this one fascinated me.

“The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It’s not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It’s because the physical structure of their brains has changed.”

I think Dobelli might be exaggerating the severity of this phenomenon, but there is definitely some truth to it. Until my ACL surgery last month, I hadn’t found the time to read a book in a long time, and it was surprisingly difficult to get into it at first. If I could re-spin his point, people should read books because they access deeper, more critical thinking that reading the news doesn’t give you. However, what should make the two mutually exclusive?

‘News Kills Creativity’

Dobelli claims “I don’t know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie – not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter.” Many of the last century’s  greatest writers  were also journalists: Earnest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Mark Twain, Truman Capote, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, E.B White.

Furthermore, the ideas we gain from being informed fuel any worthwhile art. The photos of Ed Burtynsky, which have journalistic value themselves, couldn’t have been realized if he weren’t aware of the destruction humans are causing the planet. Banksy’s graffiti art would have no impact at all if he weren’t dealing with socially conscious themes – he might not even be regarded as a artist.

‘My Conclusion’

While I respect many of the points Dobelli makes, his statement that we’re better off without  consuming news at all, as he does, is borderline absurd. He notes that investigative journalism will always be important for uncovering truths and busting corruption but should come in long-form journals and in-depth books. While this would be idealistic, it’s pretty darn impractical to expect people to commit that kind of time to every single issue that he deems “important.”

News is not an exact art and it’s far from perfect. This is a difficult time for news, especially quality journalism. Nonetheless it is a remarkably important entity and I’m proud to be a part of it.



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