The Proper Media Diet

Timothy Pate Social Media News

Two articles this week give perspectives on consuming news—how and if it should be done. In The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo recounts his two-month, print-only cleanse:

Basically, I was trying to slow-jam the news — I still wanted to be informed, but was looking to formats that prized depth and accuracy over speed.

It has been life changing. Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.

Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed (though there are some blind spots). And I’m embarrassed about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.

Meanwhile, Shane Parrish argues in Medium‘s Personal Growth publication that reading the news is itself a waste of time. His experience cutting out news completely:

At first, it was really difficult. When my friends would start talking about something topical and emotionally charged and ask me what I thought, I’d have to say I don’t know. This was followed by a “What!?” and “You have to read this” as they took out their phones to text me a link to an article I would never read. One hilarious aspect of this situation is that they often expected me to stop the conversation with them and read the article so I could share in their outrage. No thanks.

Being well informed isn’t regurgitating the opinion of some twenty-two-year-old with no life experience telling me what to think or how outraged to be. Your first thought on something is usually not yours but someone else’s. When all you do is consume, you are not only letting someone else hijack and direct your attention; you are also letting them think for you.

The argument that consuming news provides no intrinsic value doesn’t register with me. I can get on board with not wanting news that’s been spiked with partisan opinions, but we have to make decisions all the time that are based on current events and the world around us.

But what do Manjoo and Parrish have in common? They both recommend cutting off social media as a source of information. Manjoo:

After reading newspapers for a few weeks, I began to see it wasn’t newspapers that were so great, but social media that was so bad.

Just about every problem we battle in understanding the news today — and every one we will battle tomorrow — is exacerbated by plugging into the social-media herd. The built-in incentives on Twitter and Facebook reward speed over depth, hot takes over facts and seasoned propagandists over well-meaning analyzers of news.

And Parrish:

The hotels, transportation, and ticketing systems in Disney World are all designed to keep you within the theme park rather than sightseeing elsewhere in Orlando. Similarly, once you’re on Facebook, it does everything possible, short of taking over your computer, to prevent you from leaving.

We’re afraid of silence, afraid to be alone with our thoughts. That’s why we pull out our phones when we’re waiting in line at a coffee shop or the grocery store. We’re afraid to ask ourselves deep and meaningful questions. We’re afraid to be bored. We’re so afraid that to avoid it, we’ll literally drive ourselves crazy consuming pointless information.

He’s right. It was something I noticed in myself, reflexively opening Twitter whenever there was the slightest lull in my day. And I wasn’t gaining anything from my mindless scrolling—it was simply a way to fill the void.

So I decided to quit cold turkey.

I’ve deleted Twitter from my phone completely, and I’ve hidden Facebook away in an obscure folder on a secondary screen. But unlike Parrish, I’ve decided to use the news as a sort of nicotine patch as I cure that social media addiction. Now, whenever I catch myself looking to open Twitter, I choose instead to open a news app and read an article from beginning to end (if I have time).

The way we consume media is broken. As we discover more and more about the severity of our situation, each of us will have to find our own way of adjusting our habits. That, or live out our lives hopelessly indentured to those little screens.


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