In this ridiculously long blog post, I describe how I (mostly) stopped reading the news... and why you should do the same.
“Headlines, in a way, are what mislead you because bad news is a headline, and gradual improvement is not.” — Bill Gates
“The killer is still on the run…”
“The crisis is worsening…”
“The number of casualties is rising…”
These are words I used to hear on a fairly regular basis.
Not because I had to.
But because I chose to.
Like many others, I used to consume a lot of news every day. (Cue: “Hi, I’m Bere and I’m a news addict.”)
Reading the news somehow made me feel good. I felt like I knew what was going on in the world and that I was up-to-date on important developments.
But then I realized that this was coming at a cost.
After all, most of the news is rather bleak. Over time, I became aware of how it impacted me emotionally when I read about a terrorist attack or a tragic accident.
I started asking myself why I constantly read negative news, even when they didn’t necessarily provide new information.
And, more importantly, I wanted to know what this habit did to me.
So I went on a multiple-year exploration of how to best relate to the news. In this article, I will share my insights into this topic —which I have gathered for half a decade — with you.
Before we jump in, I want to offer a disclaimer: This article is an exploration of the effects of negative news. It is most decidedly not a criticism of journalism in general.
The media fulfill a crucial role in democracy and great journalism deserves both our attention and our financial support. I fully believe that the world would be a worse place without good investigative journalism.
Phase #1: Why am I doing this to myself?
When I first started my experiment, I began to learn more about the effects of bad news without changing my behavior.
It turns out that we all pay a high price for reading negative news:
For instance, a 1997 study compared participants who watched a negative news bulletin with those who had been shown a positive or neutral one.
Members of the first group were significantly more anxious and sad. They were also more likely to catastrophize (= imagining the worst possible outcome) a personal worry.
Even though reading the news is bad for us, people like to do it.
For instance, a 2007 study by the Pew Research Center examined two decades of American news preferences.
That’s a lot of data.
It found that stories about war and terrorism (with a link to the U.S.) have consistently ranked at the top of the list.
Similarly, a more recent study revealed a preference for negative news.
What is interesting about this study is that its participants actually reported that they prefer positive news.
However, researchers used eye-tracking measures, which revealed that participants were more likely to select negative stories, regardless of their stated preferences.
While I didn’t change my behavior in this phase of my exploration, I began to realize how my news consumption was affecting my mood. I think this awareness helped me try a different approach next.
Phase #2: What if I read less negative news and more positive ones?
“Bad news travels fast. Good news takes the scenic route.” — Doug Larson
In 2015, these insights prompted me to undergo a multiple-week experiment that I called the “Conscious Media Diet.” The rules were simple:
Rule 1: start my day by reading positive news (for instance, on Good News Network).
Rule 2: avoid reading negative stories, as much as possible.
Here’s what happened when I tried this:
1. My mood improved — significantly
Despite my research, seeing this in action surprised me. Most people read the news, so how could they have such an impact on me?
However, I noticed that I was feeling happier during my media diet.
Did I change anything else in my life?
And since everything else remained the same, I can only assume that my better mood had to do with me reading more positive news, and less negative ones.
What I learned from this is that — unless you have to do so for work-related reasons — focusing on the latest atrocities and catastrophes is not the best way to start one’s day.
In contrast, consuming positive news can really improve one’s mood. For instance, I discovered that if I do so just after getting up, I am more likely to start my day in a state of gratitude.
I also discovered that I might find an uplifting story I want to share with others, which is another way in which this habit can contribute to my happiness and the happiness of others.
2. I perceived reality more accurately
I noticed that I miss out on many positive development if I only read regular news sources.
Thus, the Conscious Media Diet helped me to perceive the world more accurately. Since regular news is skewed towards the negative, my experiment balanced this out.
There are a number of scientific breakthroughs or altruistic acts that I had never heard about. What I noticed is that even when the media reports on them, they often disappear in the midst of all the other news.
3. I discovered that good news websites are not the answer to everything
I also realized that most websites dedicated to good news typically feature stories that focus on individual benevolent deeds.
During my Conscious Media Diet Experiment, I read many stories featuring a kind person doing something really nice for someone in need.
Of course, these stories are great to read. They make me feel good. But, they can also be the equivalent of a sweet dessert — they taste good but don’t really provide sustenance.
After all, many issues in the world cannot be solved through individual deeds alone. A lot of challenges are systemic. And a systemic problem, such as widespread illiteracy in some places, cannot be solved through a single act of kindness.
While news about individual acts of kindness are heartwarming, they can also sugarcoat real-life problems and leave people misinformed.
Plus, websites dedicated to good news can also mask differences in opinion.
Everyone, regardless of affiliation and personal convictions, can get behind cute animal pictures. Systemic positive developments such as the diminishing support for the death penalty in the US are generally much more political.
So, I learned that simply stopping to consume regular news and only frequent positive news websites isn’t the answer.
Phase #3: Should I keep this up?
After the Conscious Media Diet, I went back to my regular news consumption (which was mostly negative news).
However, maybe as a result of my previous experiment, I think I was more aware of the impact that reading negative news had on me than before.
I also continued to keep my eye open for positive news and shared them on Social Media. People responded very positively to this. Many people expressed their gratitude and said that they needed this.
When reading about tragic events, I tried to balance that out by also looking at positive stories. What I found is that it’s often possible to find some good even in the midst of a horrible tragedy.
An example of that is people rushing to help by donating blood after the Manchester attack in 2017.
Phase #4: What does culture have to do with it? And how do I not end up in an echo chamber?
After moving to the US, that changed and I mostly consumed American sources.
What I realized is that American news is more unsettling than German ones.
According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds (64%) of Germans say they trust the news media. Also, both people on the left and the right in Germany turn to the same media source (ARD) most for news.
In contrast, even back in 2014, the Pew Research Center reported that liberals and conservatives in the US tend to place their trust in different news sources.
I wonder if this political polarization is why I find American news more unsettling than German ones.
Either way, I continued to do something I had been doing pretty much since I was old enough to care about news, which is to not restrict my media diet to outlets from only one country.
At that point, I also began experimenting more with my media diet.
To increase my news diversity, I explored websites such as AllSides. AllSides intends to provide people with multiple perspectives by showing news from across the political spectrum.
Basically, they argue that unbiased news doesn’t exist which is why it’s crucial to identify, reveal and balance bias. To do that, AllSides systemically analyzes the sources and indicates the calculated media bias under each headline they share.
While I was aware that news outlets can have hugely divergent takes, it was fascinating for me to see headlines about the same events from all across the political spectrum right next to each other on AllSides.
I also became really interested in the work FiveThirtyEight was doing, in particular when it comes to politics. It was refreshing to me to read analyses that were reliably grounded in statistics rather than speculation. As someone with an academic background, I appreciated the care they brought to their research.
Phase #5: What if I just stopped? (Or: stepping away from the 24-hour news cycle, cold-turkey style)
Sometime in 2018, I completely lost the appetite for news or, more precisely, immersing myself in the 24-hour news cycle.
He raised the question of the half-life of news (how much of what I read or watch today will still be relevant in a few years?) and urged people to take a look at the bigger picture:
“All this noise. All this news. We are afraid of the silence. We are afraid of looking stupid. We’re willing to drive ourselves insane — miserable — to avoid that. And what would happen if we stopped?"
After thinking about this some more, from one day to the next I quit the 24-hour news cycle, cold-turkey.
I realized that being up-to-date on the news doesn’t necessarily make me informed about the world. After all, sometimes it takes weeks, months, years or decades until we can discern the full impact of an event.
For instance, take the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914. Today, we think of this event as the gunshot that changed the world forever and started WW1.
But how did contemporary newspapers report about it?
According to Europeana Newspaper, a project which makes historic newspapers searchable,
“the announcement of this assassination in the newspapers of the time throughout Europe does not reflect or foresee the gravity of the situation.”
Europeana Newspaper also distinguishes two main themes in contemporary news reports about the assassination: “murder story full of twists” and “family tragedy.” Which just goes to show that it can take time until we’re truly able to put an event into perspective.
The practice of recognizing an event’s full significance and putting it into a historical perspective is at odds with the 24-hour news cycle which is all about “breaking news” and contributes to a certain amount of shortsightedness in our culture.
Or, as Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt put it:
“News reports don’t change the world. Only facts change it, and those have already happened when we get the news.”
Here’s what I discovered this time:
1. I felt an unprecedented sense of peace and contentment
After a few weeks, I noticed that I felt a deep sense of peace and contentment. Now, prior to this I already had a regular meditation practice and a lot of other habits that have a positive impact on one’s happiness and relaxation.
That said, changing my media habits took my general mood to the next level. On a fundamental level, I found myself just being very much at peace.
When I compared my state of mind to a friend whose life situation is comparable to mine but who is deeply immersed in consuming the news, this mood shift was even more obvious.
Despite having a lot of things going for him, my friend seemed quite unhappy with life.
2. I became much more curious and (presumably) more informed
I also noticed an increased curiosity about a number of different things. Maybe because I was less immersed in the 24-hour news cycle, I had more time and energy for things I wanted to learn more about.
For instance, I started brushing up my knowledge about the history of Ancient Rome. Reading more about events of historical significance helped me put the present into perspective.
As part of my deeper dive into history, I also discovered that celebrity gossip can actually be classy…
…when the celebrity in question is a long-deceased Roman dictator (which back then meant something very different than it does today) or emperor.
For instance, was Brutus the illegitimate son of Gaius Julius Caesar? And what happened to the lover of Hadrian who mysteriously disappeared?
3. Even without reading the news, I was still kept up to date
It was wonderful to discover that I still learned about what was going on. If there were important news, someone would inevitably let me know, often right away.
For instance, people I know would mention it verbally or in an email, share an article with me over Social Media or email, or or or…
I would also check the front page of news outlets and scan the headlines of the articles. This helped me ensure that I wasn’t missing any important developments without getting caught back in the 24-hour news cycle.
My verdict about this
In the last few years, I’ve experimented with a number of different approaches to the news in different combinations:
- consuming regular news (which are mostly negative),
- limiting negative news,
- consciously consuming positive news,
- consuming regular news while looking for the positive,
- consuming news from media in different countries,
- consuming news from a multitude of political viewpoints.
What I’ve learned is that all of these approaches have the potential to help inform me better. I’ve experienced the biggest personal benefits when I limited my consumption of negative news and stepped away from the 24-hour news cycle.
And, based on what I learned, I would recommend that others also reduce their exposure.
My experience with helping others consume less negative news
In my experience, people find it harder to change their news habits than most other habits.
In the 5 years in which I experimented with my own news consumption, I’ve seen people around me develop and stick with all sorts of healthy habits, from meditation to exercise. As a coach, I’ve also helped others to successfully create a wide range of new, positive habits.
Given all this, it’s fair to say that my environment is willing to change and that I have experience with guiding people through habit changes.
So far, only a few of my coaching clients have specifically mentioned that they’d like to consume less news. The same is true outside of my coaching practice.
This is not for lack of trying as I talk to the people around me about my positive experiences with less news from time to time. Most people have been completely on board with me reading positive news.
Some even stopped consuming the news for a brief period of time. Despite reporting positive benefits, they often revert back to old patterns.
It would be surprising if I didn’t know first-hand just how addictive the news can feel and how scary it can seem to miss out on them.
You will notice that I’ve experimented with different approaches to the news for years before finally arriving at a place where I’m fundamentally at peace with how I’m handling this.
Given all this, I think that reading less news is an especially challenging habit change and one that rarely gets talked about.
However, I think that making the effort has been entirely worth it.
Addressing your concerns about consuming less news
Even though you might want to consume less news, you probably also have some concerns about it.
Below, I’m addressing the ones that people have mentioned to me before giving it a try.
“But…media are important!”
True. I totally agree!
Media play an incredibly important role in society. And, I’m not suggesting people should stop supporting them or become uninformed.
Just because you don’t let the news dominate your life doesn’t mean that you can’t support media outlets through a donation or a subscription.
It also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t turn to the news when something important is going on. If there’s an important development that I want to learn more about, of course, I’ll read news articles about it.
Reducing your consumption of negative news simply means that you are more in control of what you read, why you read it and when you read it.
“But…how do I stay informed?”
You won’t know the answer to that question until you try it. What you need to do to stay informed depends a lot on your environment.
For instance, I have people in my environment who are hyper-aware of what happens.
Even without asking for it, they keep me up-to-date on important things that happened. Then, if I want to find out more about the event in question, I look for some well-researched articles on the topic.
What I can tell you is that, unless you live in a cave by yourself, you won’t miss out on important news.
Humans are social creatures and if something important happens, they let others know about it.
If you don’t believe me, let me share an example with you: immediately after 9/11 just happened, a friend of mine was driving around in a German city. He wasn’t listening to the radio so he hadn’t yet heard about the attack.
However, while my friend stopped at an intersection, one of his university professors recognized him. And this professor pretty much ran into the midst of the traffic intersection (don’t do this at home!) just so he could tell my friend about an event that took place on another continent.
That’s how much people want to share important news with others.
Also, keep in mind that knowing about breaking news isn’t necessarily the same as being informed (see what I wrote above regarding the assassination of Franz Ferdinand).
“But… isn’t there something else I could do instead?”
Of course! You can always experiment with what works for you.
For instance, if you don’t want to stop consuming the daily news, how about questioning the idea that print is dead and reading news in print rather than digital?
After all, many studies indicate that people tend to retain information better if they read them in print-format.
And, as print-fan Jack Shafer has pointed out, the newspaper has tweaked its user surface for a really long time (over two centuries). Naturally, this level of sophistication helps with the reader’s focus.
Many of us probably know someone who believes that “everything is getting worse.”
The problem with that belief? It’s likely not true. Or, at the very least, there’s quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.
And while there may well be other reasons for this belief (including bad personal life experiences and even intergenerational trauma), consuming negative news surely doesn’t help.
It just makes you more likely to catastrophize.
In contrast, consuming less negative news can help increase your mood — for free.
And, doesn’t that qualify as good news?