News is literally making people sick. The media mostly reports negative events because that’s what gets ratings. But constant negativity will lead to nothing but fear, hatred, anxiety, and depression in those who consume it.
It’s no surprise people are so addicted to news (and it can be an addiction), especially negative news, precisely because it is negative. There’s an evolutionary reason for this. Humans are wired to pay attention to negative events and potential threats more closely than positive news (in which case there’s nothing to worry about). For instance, if a tribe of hunter-gatherers ate a certain type of berry that turned out to be poisonous, the “news” to avoid those berries would spread, and the people who paid attention to that news and avoided eating the berries lived while those who ignored the negative news and ate the berries anyway died. Over the course of evolution, the “pay attention to bad news” gene got passed on while the “ignore bad news” gene went extinct.
So it makes sense to follow the news and be aware of potential threats in our environment. The problem is, today, there is too much news. The media has figured out that people pay more attention to bad news (like crime, terrorism, murder, war, scandals) rather than boring old good news. So they take advantage of people’s genetic predisposition to pay attention to bad news by almost exclusively reporting bad news, often exaggerating the negativity to attract more attention. Fear is perhaps the most powerful of human emotions, so most news stories try to incite fear in the viewer. You know the old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
The media doesn’t necessarily do this on purpose. Those who report the news are human, after all, so they’re just as attracted to fear and negativity. The public seems to have a suspicion that the news isn’t good for them—the media always has a low approval rating—yet people won’t stop watching the news. They can’t. We’re all addicted to the news. But there’s a limit to how much negative news someone can take before it drives them insane, and today, most people are exceeding that threshold. 24/7 TV news channels, 24/7 talk radio, 24/7 websites, and of course, 24/7 social media. And that’s without even mentioning “fake news.”
Fake news is not the real problem. The real problem is people’s poor critical thinking skills and cognitive biases that prevent them from recognizing when they’re reading/watching/listening to fake news, simply because they want the fake news to be real.
Hint: If a news story or social media post riles up your emotions to hate another group of people (i.e. Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, immigrants, an entire race or religion, etc.), it’s most likely to be at the very least a sensationalist exaggeration, if not completely fake news.
Hint: If somebody is shouting, it’s probably fake news. They’re letting their emotions get the best of them instead of thinking reasonably and rationally.
Also keep in mind, just because you don’t like certain news doesn’t mean it’s “fake news.” In fact, if you find a news source you always agree with, it’s probably fake news—or at least heavily biased news.
Whether real or fake, we cannot handle the constant 24/7 influx of news, period. It’s not healthy to always be seeing, hearing, and reading about every negative event that happens in the world. Do you really need to know about murders and scandals taking place 1,000 miles away from you?
Since news is mostly negative, it gives people a distorted view that the world is much worse than it actually is. For a good explanation of this, read Steven Pinker’s books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now. Despite what the news would have you believe, poverty, starvation, crime, violence, and war are all at the lowest levels in human history. Meanwhile, literacy, education, human rights, and life expectancy are all at the highest levels in history. Most people don’t realize this because those things don’t make headlines. The news doesn’t report when someone doesn’t get murdered.
Most “news” today isn’t actually news, anyway. It’s opinion. People from one side of the political spectrum attacking the other side, blaming them for everything. They turn every issue into “us versus them” and convince the public to do the same. It’s tribalism, and it’s toxic.
Political news is the worst form of news because it’s the most tribal. Since negative news garners the highest ratings, conservative news sources spend most of their time attacking Democrats, while liberal news sources spend most of their time attacking Republicans. Politicians also tactically use negative news to incite fear in voters and drum up support.
Hint: If your news source isn’t criticizing both Democrats and Republicans, then it’s clearly biased. Both parties are worthy of criticism—though not nearly as much as the media on the other side purports.
It used to be that we all watched the same news, which was less biased, because when there were only three television channels, they couldn’t afford to not appeal to everyone (liberals and conservatives alike). But now, with cable TV, satellite radio, and the internet, anyone can create news, and they can direct that news to hyper-focused niches. So liberals watch news created by liberals for liberals. And conservatives watch news created by conservatives for conservatives. Each side’s worldviews get warped, becoming more extreme in their opinions, because they only see one side of the story. They fail to understand the other perspective and see reality objectively and clearly. If you think either liberals or conservatives are always right or always wrong, you are biased and stuck in a bubble.
Political news is tearing the country apart. Both left-wing and right-wing media outlets know the best way to spike ratings is to incite anger, fear, disgust, and hatred toward the other side. And the public on both sides can’t help but be swept up in the mania because all humans are inherently tribal. We love to love our team and hate the other.
For just about every news story, one political tribe overreacts while the other underreacts. Who does which depends on the story. Each side is quick to call out the other for overreacting, yet they always fail to realize when they’re overreacting themselves. People can see bias in the other side’s news sources, but they fail to see the bias in their own news sources.
Biased news media always ascribes the worst of intentions to those on the other side. They paint them as caricatures, highlighting the small percentage of extremists and making it seem as though they represent the whole. The result of tribalism is dehumanizing the “other.” Viewing them as less than human. If you watch too much one-sided tribalistic news, you will start to think this way too. Despising other humans just because they have different political beliefs.
This is not good. Avoid tribalism and the sensationalist media outlets that try to provoke outrage and antagonism toward the other side.
As Thomas Jefferson once said, “The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.”
Well, today, Jefferson would add cable TV, talk radio, and Facebook to “newspapers.” People are under the misconception that following the daily news cycle keeps them educated, but, to the contrary, more news consumption can often make you less knowledgeable. You’re not getting more information, you’re getting more misinformation. Most daily news media is not interested in educating people. Their only interest is keeping you watching/listening so as to please their advertisers. And the easiest way to do that is with clickbait headlines, negativity, fear-mongering, out-group blaming, conspiracy theories, and shouting matches. The worst offenders for this tend to be television news shows because they are the most dependent on ratings and advertisers. They have to air a juicy news story every night whether there’s a story worth airing or not.
The negative/biased news problem is not a left/right problem or a mainstream/alternative media problem. The negativity and bias are everywhere, just applied to different issues depending on the source. Really, the negative news problem applies to all news, even your friend posting on social media.
Don’t misconstrue this as an attack on journalism. The free press is essential for a healthy democracy, and there are plenty of serious journalists who avoid sensationalism and do critically important investigative reporting that the public needs to be aware of. They should be supported and applauded. There are some negative stories that absolutely deserve the public’s attention. The real problem is the political opinion shows disguised as news.
The most popular tv/radio hosts tend to be the most biased and most negative, constantly attacking the other side of the political spectrum. They are either purposely trying to provoke their audience with negative news, or they themselves are provoked by the negative news and can’t help but drag their audience down with them. Remember, all humans are genetically wired to crave negative news and be tribalistic. The media may not be trying to deliberately manipulate the public with “fake news” (though some are). Nor are they only interested in clicks and ratings (though some are). Most media personalities are simply blinded by their own cognitive biases and think they are being objective when they’re not.
This rampant “opinion reporting” in the media infects the public. It’s astonishing how many people (news reporters and news consumers) have such ardent opinions about such complicated topics they know so little about. It’s okay to not have an opinion on a topic and admit you don’t know enough about it—which, if all your knowledge comes from the news, you probably don’t. The world is extraordinarily complex. Truly understanding any given issue likely requires years of experience in that field and/or reading multiple books on the topic, not watching a two-minute clip on TV.
This relates to another cognitive bias: the Dunning–Kruger effect. The less someone knows about something, the more they think they know about it because they don’t realize how much they don’t know. As Socrates said, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”
The good news (no pun intended) is you can learn about complicated issues…if you put in the effort. While the unlimited access to news that the internet provides has made life worse, the internet has also given us unlimited access to education—which can make life better. Everyone has access to every book ever written, and Wikipedia is like a real-life Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Plus, there’s so much fantastic educational content being made in audio and video form through YouTube and podcasts. Instead of relying on a news commentator, you can learn directly from the top experts in any given field. Learn history, science, and psychology directly from historians, scientists, and psychologists. Learn about things such as cognitive bias from Nobel laureates who have spent their lives studying cognitive science.
The other ironic thing about news is, when a major event like a terrorist attack or mass shooting happens, people flock to their televisions to watch more news than normal (which was already too much.) However, this is the worst time to watch the news. Immediately after an event like that, there are so many rumors swirling and wild speculation being thrown about, when no one really knows the full story yet. Unless your personal safety is at risk, you’re better off waiting a day or two for the verified details to come out. Again, the irony is that the best reporting about major events like that comes out through books written years later—when the general public has long since stopped caring about it and moved onto something else. So most people never learn the true story.
People pay too much attention to the “news” and not enough to the “olds.” You will learn a lot more about the world by studying history than following the current political drama.
Of course, we will always need to consume some news. When you do, be sure to avoid the most sensationalist and one-sided sources. Though, ultimately, every news source is biased in some way because all news is reported by humans and all humans are biased. If your news source isn’t aware of cognitive bias, they are almost certainly blinded by it. The best thing you can do is become more cognizant of cognitive biases, particularly your own, because your own biases are the most difficult to recognize.
If you’re reading this and thinking, “Yeah, those other news sources are biased, but not mine,” then you are probably doubly blinded by your own biases. If a news source is only saying things you agree with—things that confirm your personal opinions—then you will take it at face value and fail to recognize the bias. That’s an example of confirmation bias: only accepting news that confirms your own opinions and ignoring any news that doesn’t. We must think critically about all news, especially the news we most agree with. Stop and question: is this empirically true, or do I just want it to be true? And: is this fake, or do I just want it to be fake?
So what’s the best, most unbiased news source? I don’t know. That’s not the point. (Though fact-checking websites can help. And eliminating political opinion shows from your media diet would be a good start, as they’re often the worst culprits.) The point is training yourself to be able to recognize biased news when you see it. Then, you can read/watch/listen to any news (whether you agree with it or not) and realize, “Oh, they’re just exaggerating this story for ratings.” Or, “They’re just overreacting because of their own biases.” Again, this is easy to recognize with news you don’t agree with. The difficult part is recognizing the bias in news that confirms your own biases.
The first step in overcoming cognitive bias is learning about cognitive bias and its myriad types. There are literally dozens: cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, the Dunning–Kruger effect, the empathy gap, the framing effect, hostile attribution bias, the illusion of validity, impact bias, negativity bias, optimism bias, the ostrich effect, selective perception, social comparison bias, status quo bias, stereotyping, the third-person effect, authority bias, the halo effect, ingroup bias, outgroup bias…the list goes on and on. And there are almost certainly more cognitive biases that are yet to be discovered. But perhaps the master of all cognitive biases is the “bias blind spot,” or the belief that others are biased but not me. You are. Every human being is biased. Wisdom is being conscious of your own biases. Only then can you begin to overcome them and start to see reality more clearly.
As with everything in life, mindfulness is key. Being mindful helps you recognize bias (in yourself and others) more easily. It also helps you to stop from instantly reacting to negative news without thinking. Which is what most news is designed to do—provoke outrage by triggering your emotions: fear, anger, disgust, and hatred. Don’t be triggered; be mindful. Realize most news is sensationalized and doesn’t actually affect your life. Negative news can only affect your emotional state if you let it.
The world would be a happier place if everyone consumed less news. What’s the right dosage? I don’t know—that will likely vary from person to person. But it’s certainly not being glued to a news feed 24/7, getting into the minutiae of things that, frankly, don’t matter to you personally.
Consume less news (especially political news). Consume more art, science, history, and philosophy. You will be happier, healthier, and wiser for it.
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