No news is good news

no news is good news

In this blog, I have written about news and our distorted perception of the world around us. I've written about journalism, constructive journalism, the EU, Factfulness and progress.

But I have tried – and failed – to be constructive myself. I tried to offer solutions and ideas instead of just criticising other people, but I fell short.

The reason I failed is that I fell into a simple trap that many others, journalists included, fall into. I believed that the answer to the crisis that we face today regarding our perception of the world around us was to change the way information is presented to us – i.e. to change journalism.

In short, I thought that the answer to the news problem was more news.

I was wrong.

In summer 2018 I stopped reading the news. I deleted Twitter and Facebook from my phone. I signed off from the Guardian website and cancelled my monthly payment to them.

I stopped listening to and watching the news on the radio and online.

Then something really wonderful happened.

I started reading more (yes, Harari and Pinker, but also Dennis Lehane, Philippe Sands, Philipp Blom, Secret Barrister, Seth Godin, Susanne Jalka, Conor O'Clery, Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson and the marvellous 'Titanic' by Linda Maria Koldau).

I also started following some very niche pilot channels on YouTube, but that's just me.

And I started playing computer games again.

Slowly, I came to the following conclusion:

With my almost insatiable appetite for "news", I was telling myself that I was "informed", that I was intelligent, that I understood the world around me.

But what I thought was "informed" turned out very much to be "entertained". I was just as much in a bubble of my own prejudices and middle-class privilege as everyone else.

Of course, I missed the news a bit, and every now and then I caught a snippet of news here and there. But I didn't miss out on anything. If anything really serious happened, someone would tell me. Trump is still a prick, Brexit is still a disaster and climate change is still a massively under-appreciated threat.

A turning point came when I accidentally heard a headline on German radio saying that deaths from terrorism worldwide had dropped 44% in the last three years. I wanted to see how the news media that I had trusted so implicitly reported this surprising and encouraging news.

The short answer: they didn't. Neither the Guardian or the Standard in Austria even mentioned it. To be fair, the BBC did report it, but check out the balance in their reporting on this page (reading their list, would you think that terrorism had gone down?).

News is not "the truth", it's a biased selection of the truth.

News is a commodity, it's not a church, as some journalists seem to see it. It's a product to be bought and sold. We, the readers and viewers, are customers. The sellers will form their product to keep us buying it.

News was never, ever, a business model. Advertising was. As Alan Rusbridger says in his excellent book Breaking News, and Ian Hislop admitted in this interview, there is always a balance to be found between advertising revenue and editorial independence.

After all this deliberation I have found the simple solution to the crisis in journalism today:  

No news is good news!

Switch off. 

Log off. 

Walk away. 

Open your eyes. 

Look for information, don't consume it. 

Discuss with your friends, colleagues and family. Don't just react to headlines. 

Search for context and background.

I have found it invigorating and enlightening.

Join me.

And now some counter-arguments:

Some journalists will say, ah yes, but someone has to tell the truth. This misunderstands the effect of bias on their output. A journalist who denies that she is biased is a bad journalist.

Some will say, ah yes, that’s true for the others, but not for us.

Good journalists are part of the problem. By selecting a tiny proportion of the available information in the world and presenting it to us in a combative, dramatic way, they are skewing our perception.

You might say “But I read the news and I don’t have a problem with it”. That’s cool. But are you as informed as you think you are? Do me a favour. Take this test and then let me know.

Yes, I know I’m just a biased as everyone else. I know I’m a privileged, white, middle-class, middle-aged man in a rich country. That’s exactly why I want to change what I read.

You might say, but how will I know what’s going on? Trust me, you will.

Try it for 30 days. It’s easier than you think.

When you’re in the tram, on the bus, on a train: make sure you have something else to do. Listen to music or an audiobook, read a book, learn a language, write a poem, look out the window.

In the evening, replace the evening news on the TV with something else. Listen to a (non-news) podcast every day.

Do nothing! Think about the day. Talk to your partner. Call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Call your mum. Have you really been that busy?

Write to a hero. I’ve done this a few times and every time it has been a rewarding experience, from Branford Marsalis to Philippe Sands.

Let me know how you get on.