Good News: How the news can make us better, not worse

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Does following the news make us better? Or worse?

We might read articles or watch TV with the best of intentions. We want to stay informed, be a better citizen, understand world affairs, so on. But then we look up and find ourselves in an echo-chamber of our own creation—only following stories that are sensational and familiar, obsessed with political “wins” and “losses”, cheering on our own viewpoints and denigrating others’.

We’re not learning, we’re not being challenged, and we’re not better people for it.

Finding myself caught in this trap, I began to question what my relationship with the news should be. At the core was the realization that learning should be the objective, not entertainment.

I will describe what ended up working for me to get more out of the news. I offer it as a case study, not a prescription. But I hope it can motivate you to reflect on the role of news within your own life and question what you’re really getting out of “staying informed.”

Are you not entertained?

Being “plugged in” feels great. 24-hour news channels give us a constant feed of stimuli. Knowing that we’re caught up makes us feel in control, informed, responsible. News breaks and we’re on it.

But by choosing to plug into 24-hour news websites and TV we are plugging into a business model built around emotional manipulation. News agencies know they aren’t competing with other news agencies; they compete with the likes of Netflix and sports. Nothing is more interesting than drama. And drama is conflict. The result: news that gets clicks or eyeballs by evoking righteous or indignant anger.

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Here’s what we yelled about yesterday:

Huffington Post: Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Calls Donald Trump ‘An Embarrassment’

Fox News: White House mocks CNN star Chris Cuomo for botching Raj Shah's name

CNN: Warren calls Trump a racist and a bully

Breitbart: Morning Joke: Scarborough Triggered by Trump ‘Racism’

We don’t need it.

We don’t need this soap opera masquerading as “news” in our lives, especially if we value learning. Because we’re not being informed anymore—we’re being radicalized.

Get some distance

What we need is...

Space.

To.

Breathe.

Identify the places that news invades your life and hold the line. Once you become aware of it, you'll realize how difficult it is to escape from news.

I ended up blocking nearly all news agencies from my Facebook News Feed. I’ve installed the StayFocusd plugin to my browser to prevent me from wasting time on news sites. I don’t have cable, but I still catch myself watching when it's turned on in public.

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Consider it a purge. Be ruthless and indiscriminate. Once you have removed the influence of news from your life, you can selectively add it back in.

Curate your news experience

Taking ownership over your news sources is a big responsibility. If you’re not careful, you will have eliminated all the diversity of opinion and replaced it with one or two sources which reinforce your own worldview.

I feel uncomfortable making blanket statements about which news sources are biased and which aren’t. Reporting and ideology are inseparable from each other. It’s not a matter of avoiding bias but being aware of and managing it.

As you curate your news sources, research and be aware of what others perceive their bias to be. I like this chart from All Generalizations are False. It attempts to chart all major news sources on the liberal-conservative spectrum and whether they deal in bare-bones reporting or deeper analysis. You might argue with the placement of some of these sources, but it provides a great mental model for news quality in general.

Whatever you choose, don’t choose just one. Pick sources with some diversity of opinion. But that doesn't mean to let two radical viewpoints compete with each other. The more overtly opinionated news sources are more likely to rely on emotional manipulation and outrage pieces. Trust me, you won’t have any difficulty finding radical voices in your day-to-day life. Let cooler heads prevail with your own choices.

My news experience

My two news sources are The Economist and Reuters. I was intrigued by how highly they ranked on trustworthiness surveys, such as this one by the University of Missouri. I also like them because, being London-based, they have less skin in the game about US issues than a domestic news source.

That emotional distance results in more measured reporting, such as fewer emotion-laden words. In fact, Reuters came under fire by refusing to use the term “terrorist” in its reporting. I won’t say that these sources are free from bias—The Economist takes an unabashed globalist, pro-free trade, classical liberal viewpoint. But it is transparent when it takes a side, and does credit to competing viewpoints.

What’s great about The Economist is that it’s a weekly magazine. I ignore the website and wait for each Friday when a new issue comes out and I can sit down with my iPad over the weekend and get caught up.

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Here's why I love the weekly schedule: you’re not just reading breaking news. The articles have a high level of polish and craftsmanship which comes from a more relaxed production schedule. The subject of an article is not just “the thing that happened”, but how things that happened reflect a changing reality or emerging trend. It gives news a context and perspective that you miss out on when in the weeds.

Each issue contains a The World This Week article, which gives you a high-level overview of the week’s events. It’s a very useful way to keep abreast of things without reading every article. Most stories summarized have references to the full articles found elsewhere in the magazine, so it serves as a great jumping-off point.

They also have great special reports, which explore a subject in much more detail than you'd find in a normal newspaper. Recently they have had special reports on estate taxes, technology in Africa, e-commerce, and technology in learning.

But what I appreciate the most about The Economist is how it relates to my ultimate goal—to become informed. Our domestic news tends not to mention other countries except during times of disaster or major changes. But each issue of The Economist contains sections devoted to different regions of the world. This is a great resource to expand our viewpoint.

Expand your cast of characters

We love familiar characters. We flock to movies with our favorite actors, demand more seasons of our favorite TV shows, and get excited about sequels to our favorite films. We’d much rather hear more from the characters we know and love rather than meet someone new. That’s the impulse that we should fight when reading the news.

Our favorite characters are the names, political parties, countries, and issues with which we’re the most familiar. Love him or hate him, we will be forever fascinated by Donald Trump, even after he stops surprising us. When scanning a newspaper or website, we instinctively pay attention to headlines where our favorite characters play a role. And articles without those characters get buried.

When will we take the time to meet some new characters? To expand our interests and get a wider perspective? Usually the answer is when they interact with our old favorites. Many of us Americans hadn’t heard about Rodrigo Duterte until Donald Trump began complimenting his drug policy.

I certainly fall into this trap—despite what I think, I had never bothered to learn about the leaders, issues, or even basic details of news which doesn’t affect my daily life. That bad habit meant I was ignorant about entire regions of the globe until something about them rises above the noise of our domestic news—usually negative.

That’s why this year I’ve made a point to expand my cast of characters and learn more about what’s happening in the rest of the world. Here’s how I do it using The Economist.

1. Learn to notice what you ignore

While scanning the The World This Week section, I’ll try to take notice of one country or event that I don’t know much about. I do this by catching myself skimming without stopping to read. Chances are, it's because there doesn't seem to be any familiar characters. If I can stop myself and reflect, it becomes a prime opportunity to learn something new.

2. Thoughtfully read about a subject you don’t know

Then I will read the full article. As I mentioned before, The Economist takes the time to explore the larger picture, offering a nice introduction to the context surrounding the newsworthy event. I’m usually surprised to find it far more interesting than I expected. It was newsworthy for a reason, after all, and Economist articles are always well-written.

3. Take note of the main characters

While reading, I’ll write down who the main characters are in the story. I ask myself: what proper nouns are necessary to summarize this story? In general, this includes the country’s leader, the major political parties involved, and any key politicians, public figures, or historical figures who are invoked.

4. Research more

The article will give you some basic information about the characters, but I like to jump online to research some more. It’s easy to describe the character as they relate to the news story, but I try to also summarize the person, political party, or situation with enough detail that my explanation can stand on its own.

Without this step, I would have a tendency to satisfy myself with an explanation of Angela Merkel as “the leader of Germany” rather than the more robust “the chancellor of Germany, who is the chairperson of the center-right Christian Democratic Union of Germany which has a plurality in the Bundestag.” Without that context, my understanding is flimsy. I end up having no idea why Merkel is the leader, what that depends upon, and what her long tenure says about the political climate of Germany.

5. Add to a spaced repetition system

I’ve written before about the power of spaced repetition for infinite memory. Even if do all the steps above, three months later all the work will be for nothing. It's necessary for me to review these characters regularly if I want a chance to remember them. Especially when we’re talking about a part of the world that I don’t encounter or talk about on a daily basis. If flash cards don't remind me, nothing will.

Getting my head around Austria

Let me give a concrete example.

I recently saw a report on the new chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz. This caught my eye because he is only 31 years old—the youngest leader in Europe. Like I said, these stories end up becoming fascinating when you give them the time of day.

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I decided to look more into Austrian politics. The main characters in the article included Kurz, his party (the conservative Austrian People's Party), the party he joined in coalition with (the far-right nationalist Freedom Party of Austria), and its chairman Heinz-Christian Strache. The article was about how far to the right it would pull Kurz’s ruling ideology by allying himself with the far-right party of Strache. How would the experienced Strache influence the young Sebastian Kurz?

This article offered a wonderful overview of a key issue affecting Austria. But without further research, I would not remember any of the details. I went on to research Kurz, Strache, the two parties, and their ideologies further. Along the way, I also needed to understand more about how Austrian government worked. Why is it necessary for the parties to form a coalition? What other parties could Kurz’s party have united with? Why did they decide not to? How does someone become Chancellor of Austria?

As soon as I could answer these questions in a satisfying way, I added them as flashcards. For example, one card looks like this:

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No matter how much I was patting myself on the back for “understanding Austria”, guess what happened two days later? I saw the front of this card and I had no idea what the back said. I had to guess and I wasn’t even close! But I reminded myself, kept studying every day, and after two weeks I can easily remember that party name, along with many more details about Austria's inner workings.

Make America Curious Again

Being shut up in your room to research minor Austrian political figures might not sound like your idea of a good time. But something interesting happened once I did. Now, when I see articles about Austrian politics, I perk up. The names of Kurz and Strache, along with Austrian politics in general, have been added to my cast of characters. I get a joy reading those articles when previously I felt nothing but disinterest.

News is fun again. Now I look forward to every Friday to shine light on a part of the world I was ignorant about before. I enjoy seeing how different countries address the same sort of issues we deal with at home. And I now appreciate what a gift it is that we can benefit from “eyes on the ground” for every corner of the world.

By exploiting our differences, the news has become a tool to divide us. But it has, and always will have, the potential to bring us closer together through the power of story. The character names might be hard to pronounce, the stage might be in a country you’ve never been to, but the simple act of reading an article can be a powerful window into another world. A world which will become more real and relatable once you take the effort to look inside. 

My interest lays in lifelong learning, not politics. The 24-hour news cycle can be a lot of fun, especially if "your side" is winning. But I argue that it doesn't desire your education, just your attention. If you value learning, instead seek to surround yourself with content that challenges you to look deeper, wider, and further than domestic drama.

If nothing else, you might find out that it's far less stressful when you can get above the clouds.