April 18, 2013

Is consuming news bad for you?

I would characterize my news consumption habits as extensive. My Newsfire RSS client, which I use extensively for my news and updates retrieval, at this writing, has 108 feeds in it, of which perhaps a third are active at any given time. (I admit, I'm scanning some of the headlines as I'm writing this.) Among the biggest feeds I use are the RSS feeds for ZNet (radical news and perspective on domestic and world affairs), the Benton Foundation (news on media policy and media issues), Think Progress (progressive blog of news and analysis), the newswire of Free Press (more news on media policy and media issues), Democracy Now! (daily independent news), Hacker News (computer-and tech news and things of note), and The New York Times (my main source of corporate news).

And yet, the argument has been made and made again: reading news is bad for you. A recent article in the Guardian makes a pretty compelling case. Reading news wastes time, makes us passive, kills creativity, is irrelevant, has no explanatory power, is toxic, inhibits thinking, and works like a drug. It is a bold statement to make in any context, but even more so that it was elevated by one of Britain's best known newspapers. Not everyone would promote a statement that's contrary to their industry and business model, especially one in such precarious straits as news. It would be as if the steakhouse Smith and Wollensky were urging folks to become vegan.

The parallels with food are uncanny; you are what you eat, and if you eat lousy corporate food, particularly "fast food", your health is bound to suffer. The "fast food" equivalent of information -- news, particularly of the corporate variety -- is arguably of little value, and I wonder if the parallel can be made with information. It's not necessarily "news" that's the problem but what kind of news that's consumed. (This is a curious parallel for me to make, considering that 2013 will mark
my twentieth year of being vegan.)

At one point, I stand guilty of adding to the pile of news to consume: I help run the Chicago Independent Media Center, and help produce its TV and radio programs (I even research and write the headlines for the radio program). But I like to think that such news has some utility; it isn't irrelevant (or tries not to be); it reports on people doing something, making a stand, and thus hopefully inspires folks to be active; it strives to provide some explanation for larger societal trends, where possible;
it encourages critical thinking by turning the received corporate propaganda model on its head.

What's more, I tried quitting reading my news feeds a couple of weeks ago, in the hopes that it would help provide me some additional time for some other projects I'm hoping to work on. Didn't work; I stopped reading my news for a couple of days, but I lapsed back to my old habits. This is going to be harder than I thought.

But I have to admit: in light of this article, I'm thinking of weaning myself off my news feed, or reducing my news consumption somewhat. I think that it's currently stands, having a bead on what's "news" is useful to me, both for my current "career" in "news" (e.g., writing those radio headlines), but also for my other intellectual endeavors (read: trivia), and even as grist for this blog. Plus, "knowledge" is power, right?

Of course, knowledge isn't always power. The most knowledgeable people in the world aren't the most "productive" or most "successful". Plus, one would presume that there would be diminishing returns for the amount of information that's learned or read. Spending less time reading, spending more time doing, helping people and the planet in the ways I can.

There is one more parallel about food that's might be a point of inspiration. I didn't become vegan overnight; indeed, it was a steady evolution in my thinking over the course of 14 months, between when I was first seriously offered the suggetion to become vegetarian to when I took the dive to become vegan for life. If I can "give up" or reduce my news consumption, hopefully that would free up time for other things. Like that parecon-ish database I've been talking about for the last week and haven't gotten around to finishing up.

You know, maybe I don't need all 108 of those RSS feeds...