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Are we reading too much news?

How much news should we really be reading? The news frenzy that ignited during the 2016 election hasn’t abated since Donald Trump took office. How could it? Every single day there’s a new crisis, a new horror, a new insult. But is it really good for us to be constantly inundated with traumatizing news? How much news should we be consuming in order to remain informed citizens, without damaging our own mental health and emotional wellbeing? These questions are going tragically unasked, and as consumers of news, we are paying the price.

Why do we really read news? If you ask people, most of them will say something along the lines of — “It’s our civic duty/It makes us more informed voters/It’s the right thing to do/We have a responsibility to keep up.” But when we look at what news most people actually watch or read, they’re spending the vast majority of their time on more entertaining news like celebrity gossip, sports, and health. Recent research suggests that news exists primarily for entertainment purposes.

We may believe that we’re reading the news in order to learn, but most people prefer to consume news they already agree with. Whatever news you watch will probably just cement your previously held beliefs even further — if it doesn’t, you’ll change the channel to one that does. It’s simply how the human brain works. We don’t really seek out challenging information because it’s too exhausting and unpleasant.

Fox News may be training people’s brains to be angrier. The documentary The Brainwashing of My Dad chronicles the story of a mild-mannered apolitical man — the documentarian Jen Senko’s father — who, after a steady diet of right-wing talk radio and Fox News, became an intensely angry arch-conservative. Senko argues that her father’s brain essentially became addicted to the anger constantly exhibited and encouraged by the Fox News hosts. Anger addiction is real — anger causes a rush of adrenaline. Neurotransmitter chemicals called catecholamines are released and spur a burst of energy. The brain can also release dopamine and epinephrine, which result in a feeling of energy and strength. People sometimes seek out things that make them angry because they’re addicted to the chemical rush it causes in their brain.

I would argue that left-wing news might be causing anger addiction, too. As someone on the left, I of course see Fox News as very different from, say, the Rachel Maddow Show. Where Fox News is, I believe, drumming up issues that don’t exist in order to keep their viewers in a constant state of rage, left-wing news is reporting on news that is genuinely rage-inducing. The horrific acts of the Trump administration are infuriating — and it’s possible that we are becoming addicted to anger because of the large amounts of anger-inducing news we consume.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that left-wing and non-partisan news are not causing anger addiction. Maybe you’re reading the news despite the anger-inducing aspects, or maybe you don’t react with anger, but with sadness. The news may still be hurting your brain. Chronic stress — like the kind that can result from a daily onslaught of horrifying news — raises catecholamine and suppressor T cell levels, thus suppressing the immune system. Stress raises the risk for diabetes, asthma attacks, atherosclerosis, ulcers, and depression. There may even be a link between stress and cancer. Staying appraised of every awful story in the news cycle could be killing us. If keeping up with the news is causing us stress, we need to decide how much risk is worth the reward.

I would argue that our brains were not meant to keep up with a global news cycle centered around traumatic events. We can only handle so many horrors. People believe we’re living in a scary, crime-ridden time because the news reports on it constantly. Americans believe that crime is on the rise, when actually it’s been declining for decades and in many areas is at historic lows.

I believe if you picked any random day in history — June 13th, 1585, or November 1st, 162 AD, or August 17th, 2084 BC, and had a global news network that could report on all the horrible things happening all over the world, you’d find that every single day throughout human history has been replete with horrific things happening, every moment, everywhere. We simply aren’t wired to handle knowing about all of it. We aren’t meant to. We don’t need to. Awful things happen, all the time, everywhere, and knowing about all of them is overwhelming and depressing.

What are the benefits of reading news? I don’t agree with the anti-news proponents who argue that reading news is all about entertainment and has no real value. Democracy is an incredible form of government that requires effort from citizens to work. The more control a centralized government has, the less input is required or allowed from citizens. The more power citizens have, the more work is involved. Staying informed is part of being good citizens and good voters. It’s our duty as voters to understand the issues of the day well enough that we can choose representatives we trust to make the right choices. The more we know about people different from ourselves, the more we care about them. The greater our empathy for those different from us, the more equitable world we can create. The more people watch news, the more likely they are to vote.

There is some argument that the entertainment value of news encourages people to consume the news, in which there is some coverage of policy, so somewhat by osmosis, people end up learning about policy and becoming more informed voters, even if that’s not why they consumed the news in the first place. I don’t know how much stock I hold in this idea. In October of 2016, broadcast networks’ nightly news programs had covered only 32 minutes of policy-related news — combined — over the course of the entire year. That means that in 2016, if you watched every single nightly news program on the major broadcast networks, you got 3.5 minutes of policy-related news per month. That’s an extraordinarily inefficient way to use your time if learning about policy is your goal — and it’s an upsetting way to use your time if the rest of the “entertaining,” horse-race-based news was causing you stress.

Much of the daily news cycle is centered around invented scandals. For example, the Benghazi “scandal” was a hugely popular news story because it was salacious and dramatic — it was entertainment, not news. The allegations at the heart of the Benghazi scandal were ultimately found to be baseless. The story generated a lot of clicks and views while providing no benefit to news consumers or the nation and world at large. The daily news cycle is full of useless information and fake outrage that does nothing for us as voters or as human beings — and the useless information far outweighs the valuable information.

The news primarily contains entertainment because people click on and watch entertaining content more than informative content. It’s a cycle. It’s difficult to find policy-based news because people don’t click on policy-based news. The most popular “news” personalities are mostly commentators — entertainers, not journalists. Sean Hannity is not a journalist, he’s an entertainer — a talk show host. So is Alex Jones. Keith Olbermann started as a sportscaster. TV news has blurred the lines between news and opinion and many consumers of news cannot tell the difference.

I’m going to make a shocking and probably offensive characterization of the liberal/left obsession with Trump-related news. It’s a sick form of entertainment and in some ways a type of self-flagellation. We know reading the news will make us miserable, and won’t do much else for us, but we read it anyway because we are curious, because we want to know what everyone else knows, because we don’t want to seem like we don’t care, because in some way we can’t allow ourselves to be happy when the world is so messed up.

Unfortunately, there’s very little research to answer the question of how much news one needs to consume in order to obtain one of our amorphous goals of “being informed” or “being a better voter.” Perhaps only you can decide what that number is for yourself. My recommendation for how to be an informed and not completely miserable consumer of news in the Trump era is to be honest with yourself about why you’re reading or watching the news, and how much of it you are reading or watching. Be honest about how it makes you feel and how it affects you. Look at where you’re getting your news and how much time you’re spending on it. Look at what you’re actually doing with the information you’re getting. If certain kinds of news upset you but don’t have any immediate impact on your actions, stop reading those stories.

I recommend watching less TV news, as it’s an inefficient way to use your news-gathering time. Figure out how much time you need to spend reading news every week to stay informed or make you a better citizen or voter, and then stick to that. Don’t get caught up in every upsetting twist of the news cycle. If it’s making you unhappy, break your addiction. Consume news as a choice, not as a reflex. A good solution might be to subscribe to a weekly news magazine that you trust (but sometimes challenges you!) and spend an hour reading it every Sunday. You don’t have a moral obligation to make yourself depressed. Especially for marginalized people who face trauma just by living in a prejudiced world or for people prone to mental illness, it’s important to take time to consider how your news consumption habits are affecting your mental health and wellbeing. Activism and participation in democracy are life-long endeavors. Pace yourself.

Photo: Magnus Karlsson/Creative Commons