Farid Alsabeh: Why I don't read the news

Sunday, October 4, 2015 - 1:28pm

Junior year of high school, I took up a simple but effective habit. Accompanied by my morning coffee, I would open a collection of five tabs labeled “news” on my Internet browser. After about an hour of browsing Reuters, BBC and other media outlets, I had a nice introduction to the day’s major stories.

For a while, my newfound practice was sustained by the many advantages it offered. I loved finishing my friends’ sentences when they enthusiastically began, “Did you hear about …?” Breaking news headlines rarely surprised me; I had already read about them hours before. Most of all, I learned an incredible amount. Each article led to a frenzy of Wikipedia pages as I tried to decipher the complicated backstories needed to understand them.

But these perks soon reached a point of diminishing returns. I grew exhausted of my morning routine, despite an abundance of exciting current events. Did it simply lose its novelty over time? No, there was something more meaningful at play.

I had learned a valuable lesson: The news is overrated.

Let’s overlook, for a moment, the irony of this criticism appearing in a newspaper. I’m actually in very good company. Nearly 150 years before the 24-hour news cycle, Henry David Thoreau insisted: “I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked … we need never read of another.” What was true in an age of typewriters is doubly true in an age of smartphones, where technology has ushered in an explosion of information.

This abundance is not as useful as it may seem. We are not unbiased readers, rationally swayed by current events. We consume the news through the lens of our social and political beliefs. Because of this, we tend to read what we want to read. If something conflicts with our worldview, we are more than happy to blame journalistic bias or misreporting. As a result, the news is more a source of validation than it is knowledge.

Moreover, the news tends to be tragic by its very nature. You’ll read a story about a new anti-cancer therapy one day, but never hear about it again. On the contrary, tragedies bring with them dozens of corroborating stories: “Who’s to blame? Update: casualty count rises. Could this happen to us? Casualty count rises again.” This is, no doubt, partly because major networks like to fulfill our morbid curiosities. But this curiosity comes at a heavy emotional price. Scrolling through such heartbreaking stories is mentally taxing, and can be a huge source of anxiety for college students who have enough stress to begin with.

Finally, it’s important to understand the news in its greater context. I again refer to Thoreau, finishing his previous quote: “…If you are acquainted with the principle, what do you care for a myriad instances and applications?” He makes a valuable point here. Stories that we hear from around the world are merely symptoms of larger principles, whether they be social, geopolitical, etc. They reside on the surface; someone who is familiar with the deeper issues involved would, in theory, learn nothing new from them. Of course, the exception is game-changing events, which threaten to alter or even turn our principles on their heads. But the proportion of news stories that fall under this category is miniscule. Once you understand the principles, a staggering majority of current events become irrelevant.

What, then, is the alternative? My morning routine has since changed. I tend to read articles from analytical publications like the Brookings Institute and reputable think tanks. I find myself learning history in an attempt to explain the present. Like-minded friends and I come together to discuss the news — rarely the stories themselves, but their global contexts. You might find your own alternatives. Whatever they are, they will be healthier — and more effective — than keeping up with the news religiously. Open your smartphone and you will find a sea of headlines. Take care not to drown.

Farid Alsabeh can be reached at falsabeh@umich.edu.