Friday, 19 April 2013

Is the news bad for you? And should it matter?

Earlier today, I stumbled across a rather intriguing article entitled 'News is bad for you – and giving up reading it will make you happier'. Honestly, I found it by accident because 'Rolf' was trending on Twitter (due to Rolf Harris' arrest) and the article's written by a guy called Rolf. On Twitter, everyone was singing its praises, so I decided to find out what was so insightful about this piece.

I have to say, I was disappointed. The article (an edited extract from an essay) reads like another hyped-up Daily Mail cancer scare - you know, eating too many eggs causes cancer (see this video for the full list). Apparently, the stress of reading or watching the news triggers "High glucocorticoid levels [which] cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections." Okay, so I should avoid getting stressed. Thanks for that. A lot of the article is in the same vein.

According to the author, Rolf Dobelli, the news is "irrelevant" because it doesn't help you to make better life decisions. But when has this ever been the purpose of the news? It's not self-help, and it doesn't claim to be. I think this consumerist attitude to life is actually quite dangerous; the article suggests that only doing things to benefit yourself is courageous and commendable, but it seems that thinking of others has no place here. Apparently the news also damages our concentration span, because each article or report is cut down into a bite-size snack, when we should be eating a full meal. I agree with that. I also think that this applies to almost everything on the internet. And it's pretty hard to cut the internet out of your life in this day and age.

There are bits of the argument that I agreed with, to some extent. Dobelli states that the news incites passivity, because there's nothing we can do about the majority of situations that are reported. In the long run, we become cynical pessimists. In extreme cases, we get depressed. I get that; in fact, here's an earlier post I wrote about how we have become desensitised to images of suffering. I get that the news paints the world in shades of black. But I also think that most of us know what to expect with the news. It's nearly always going to be bad news, and it's always going to be biased in some way. Occasionally as you switch on Look North somebody will ask, "Why don't they ever show good news?", but in reality, bad news is often more pressing than good news. At best, the news is faintly amusing (e.g. the horsemeat scandal), and at worst it's heart-wrenching. Yes, the media often deliberately manipulates our emotions, but as long we're aware of that, the news is an informative and useful implement in society. 
Ignorance may be bliss, but it's still ignorant. The author of this article reminds me of one of the guys in The Matrix, Cypher. Cypher knew that the Matrix was a lie, that it didn't exist, and that in reality humans were being harvested for their energy. But he still wanted to go back into the Matrix with his memory wiped so that he could enjoy his virtual life in happy unawareness. 

I think that the whole point of the article could be better applied to genuinely irrelevant or harmful media - stories about how much weight this celebrity's put on, or which actor went on holiday. These stories will end up dulling your mind if you set too much store by them. As a general rule, do everything in moderation, take the news with a pinch of salt and remember to be critical - this is far more helpful than mentally bubble-wrapping yourself.

Images: BBC News, The Matrix

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