An archive of ideas and dissonant thoughts.


Does the News Really Matter?

June 08

"Supposedly, news is meant to help you to be more informed, knowledgeable and open, to have something to discuss and care about, to be a part of the world around you." We examine the validity of this assertion in the age of information overload.

Often it feels like going out or meeting up with people leads to variations of the same discussions, over and over – topics or ideas that seem to come up repeatedly and fuel very different points of view. One such issue that has cropped up frequently for a couple of years now is about news and ‘staying up to date’ with what is happening around the world.

At one level, it seems fairly obvious – considering how newspapers, news channels and websites have been a fundamental part of our lives for so long, the prevailing narrative seems to be that it is important to care about and engage with what is going on around the world. Supposedly, news is meant to help you to be more informed, knowledgeable and open, to have something to discuss and care about, to be a part of the world around you. Growing up, at least in my household, this was taken as a given. The morning newspaper was part of our breakfast routine, the Sunday crossword was a bonding activity for my parents, when we visit my grandparents the news is on in the background most of the time. Even after getting older, one of the things me and my father often connect over is sharing the Economist or FT subscriptions he has, arguing about my harsh criticisms of the Times of India or reminiscing about Singapore’s Straits Times being packed full of trivial news that wouldn’t make the cut in most larger countries (man bites dog, woman fined for speeding and so on).

But, of course, particularly in this day and age, the promise of news leading to awareness and informed discussion feels fairly hollow. For one, there is the oft-repeated problem of bias and the fact that most news sources are politically skewed if not entirely inaccurate. Whether it is the phenomenon of Fox News, the open secret of most Indian newspapers being controlled by vested interests or the rise of fake news playing a large role in global politics, very little of what we see today is trustworthy or accurate. Moreover, it is largely designed to reflect biases and sensationalise every issue than to offer a diversity of opinions or look for solutions.This problem seems to be accelerated by the internet – since clicks and ad rates are such a pivotal part of the online journalism model, we have seen the rapid rise of clickbait headlines, unverified claims and paid articles, among other issues. Similarly, the evolution of Twitter, Facebook and other social media websites into primary news sources for large groups of people has become another massive source of misinformation. Fundamentally, shocking and ridiculous headlines or information are more likely to grab attention than measured points of view.

Even apart from these problems with internet news, there is the growing sense of being beset by compassion fatigue. Even just fifteen or twenty years ago, our sources for news were limited to a few newspapers or channels on TV, most of which covered similar things. Today, however, the globalism of our lives means that there is far more information out there, true or false, than we are able to consume or process, leading to a sense of no longer caring about the news. There are too many issues to be outraged about, too many problems we cannot address, too many tragedies for which it feels as though empathy is the right response, but where empathy does not lead to any concrete action, and might even be manipulated to other ends. As Elisa Gabbert writes in an excellent piece for The Guardian, “when war and famine are constant, they become boring – we’ve seen it all before. The only way to break through your audience’s boredom is to make each disaster feel worse than the last.”

Thanks to the ways in which news has evolved in the age of the internet and constant information, the old point of view feels increasingly outdated, even unfathomably wrong. Swiss writer and businessman Rolf Dobelli takes this position when he addresses the issue. In his eyes, news is misleading, usually irrelevant, toxic to our bodies and minds, designed to be addictive and by and large, a waste of time. As someone who has written a bestseller on thinking clearly, his point of view cannot be lightly dismissed. While many of the claims he makes seem to counter the intuitive sense that news is a key source of information or engagement, I found myself agreeing more and more with his assertions. Sensitive or depressive people seem most affected by the news, which usually actively hurts their mental health rather than leading to any kind of action or engagement.

Looking back to college, a time when I didn’t subscribe to any papers and rarely engaged with news (apart from through comedians like Jon Stewart or John Oliver), I realise that long-form journals, magazines or books were usually a much better way to delve into subjects with any actual depth. At best, daily news could provide an introduction or a talking point rather than genuine understanding. What’s more, there is the increasing sense that it does not matter at all – I read about the Syria or Iraq wars, a lynching in Gurgaon or environmental disaster in Madagascar in the last couple of days, knowing fully well that none of these events could be influenced by me or were at all likely to impact my life directly. Sure, there is a roundabout claim to be made that, in principle, caring about them could lead to a donation or convincing someone else to ‘make a difference’, but I’m quite skeptical of that being the case.

While I am as guilty as the next person of arguing about foreign policy or abortion or elections or whatever the hot topic of the week is, rarely have these discussions truly benefitted me. The best case scenario is that I convince someone to think again about my point of view. Most frequently, however, that point of view is based on little more than a few articles or second-hand opinions that I have absorbed, or a personal anecdote which is unlikely to be universal. Quite often the actual mechanisms of power are able to use news and outrage as a diversion while deals are made or laws are changed, and in our times this is only becoming increasingly explicit.

So is the solution to disengage completely, to be apathetic, misinformed or only read about things that directly affect us? Not necessarily – if you do enjoy the news and feel that it adds something productive to your life, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. I have altered my consumption so that I am able to read more about topics that are unlikely to polarise opinion or evoke extreme reactions – things like book reviews, sports analysis or long-form reports rather than everyday headlines. But increasingly, I’m wary of the ‘news purists’ who insist that reading it is essential to being a good citizen or being empathetic or some other such hyperbole. In our era, it’s just another form of entertainment that feels unlikely to make the world any better,  even if it does give you something to discuss with the family.

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