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Monday, July 16, 2012

Why I Try To Avoid News - Part II

A few days ago, I outlined what made me trying to avoid news. Today, let me tell you why I stuck to that approach.

First, I think it is important to realize what makes journalists, news agencies and TV stations provide news at all. While there are of course some with the best intentions, I'm quite convinced that the majority of news is broadcasted for mainly one reason: entertainment. Consequently, you cannot expect to be purely informed about certain issues, when TV stations generate their profit out of your entertainment.

Second, have a close look at the composition of news. I'm not aware of any scientific studies on that topic, but I claim that most news are of the type: "X said Y about Z", where the source information is only the actual event Z. Technically speaking, the signal to noise ratio is quite high. Why would I care what any self-proclaimed expert thinks about a certain topic? Even more, when her today's opinion is rejected by another self-proclaimed expert the other day.

Third, I strongly sense that following mass-media draws your attention to certain events, for example, robberies in your neighborhood, suicides or plan crashes. People who follow media regularly tend to over-estimate the likelihood of such eventsNassim Nicholas Taleb refers to this perception as "ludic fallacy". The only way to escape this deception is simply avoiding news altogether.

Forth, as much as I try to filter all information I'm exposed to and to take it with a "grain of salt", and as much I would trust all journalists to do a faithful job (which I don't), there is still no way to protect me from shaping my mind in a certain direction.
Imagine reading a newspaper which reports about the great successes of a political party every day. I bet that if you keep reading that newspaper for a year, you will be more inclined to believe that this actually is a successful party, even though that is contrary to your initial beliefs.
And now think about reading a newspaper which focuses on the negative aspects of that party only. Again, I bet your perception will be totally different.
The only protective measure I can think about is avoiding this kind of news altogether.

Fifth, I wonder, what would I actually gain by following news? Does it make any difference in my daily life whether this year's rice harvest in China was a successful one? Will the supermarket around the corner stop selling beer, because the Higgs Boson was found (or, in accordance with #2 from above, because somebody said that the Higgs Boson was found).
Things that are likely to have an impact on me I will hear about sooner or later anyways, so no need to seek for them actively.

I understand that this position sounds pretty rough and ignorant. After all, you are still a human being and should care what surrounds you, right? I totally agree; but that doesn't stop me from deciding how I want to spend my time (which, according to some, is the most precious resource you have). I think you can care for others and be genuinely interested in the people around you - and still try to avoid news.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Why I Try To Avoid News - Part I

Until February 2011, I used to follow news frequently. Reading teletext, watching news on TV in the evening, constantly hitting F5 on my favorite online news pages, waiting for updates in Google Reader ... I think I was close to being news-addicted. But then something happened that instantly gave me a tremendous amount of additional free time, plus a new perspective to perceive certain things. While the world passionately followed the events surrounding the Arab Spring, I kept my TV black and stopped following news for good.

Some people are quite surprised when I tell them about this decision and cannot imagine a single day without news. But how do you know about the latest elections? Don't you care about the poor child that was killed the other day? How will you know that the oil price is about to rise, we will be on the border to a collapse of the financial system, and the USA will attack Iran?

Well, there are a couple of reasons, so let me elaborate.

First of all, let me tell you why I initially started that experiment with myself. In the upcoming days, I will outline why I stayed with it ever since then.

It was in 2009 when I first got in touch with the idea of not following news, when I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's generally inspiring, mind-provoking The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Even though his works deeply shaped my way of thinking about probability, randomness and other aspects until today, the idea of not following any news any more seemed quite rigid to me back then. However, the seed had been planted.

When in January and February 2011 the Egyptian masses started assembling on the Tahrir Square daily, I was totally bought by the happenings. Just nine months before, I had had a great time there myself, and now I followed the events from far away. Al-Jazeera live stream, Facebook, Blogs ... I was totally into this stuff, several hours a day. Eventually, the peaceful demonstrations where interrupted violently.
It is not too surprising that there were contrary reports about the reason for the both-sided violence. One side claimed that the protesters had started throwing stones; the other side claimed there were shots from the army, and the protesters had to defend themselves.
How can I verify one claim or the other, from a 2.000 km distance? What if both of the reporters are right, not only because politics demand the according report, but because they report what they really saw and experienced from their point of view?

Frustrated and depressed, I turned off Al-Jazeera, and didn't open it or any other news page ever since then again.

In the upcoming days, I will explain why I stayed with this approach, and what I think I gained from it.

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