The Danger of Keeping Up With the News

I've been in many debates about the virtues of "knowing what's going on in the world." It's a common belief that keeping up with the news is important.

If you have that belief, I invite you to really examine its merit. I think you'll find it comes up short. The belief itself is probably another fear-tactic used by the news media. It is in their interest, of course, to make us all believe something bad will happen to us if we don't know what's going on in the world.

But I haven't read a newspaper or watched television news or listened to it on the radio for about eighteen years now, except for very few times, and nothing bad has happened to me. And something good has happened: I have saved myself from being steeped in a worldview that makes the world a scarier, more dangerous place than it really is. (Read more about that here.)

Keeping abreast of current events gives workmates something to talk about besides the weather, but that's not much of a benefit, considering the cost of living your life in a frightening world, which seems to be the end-product of years of "keeping up on the news." People who regularly watch the news have a world view that would never have formed if the only thing they dealt with was the real world they live in.

A survey by the Harvard School of Public Health found that although a person's risk of getting seriously injured in a car accident is only about five percent, most people believed it was more like fifty percent. Men thought they had a one in three chance of getting prostrate cancer, but it is actually more like one in ten. Women thought they had a forty percent chance of getting breast cancer when actually it's more like ten percent. And for diabetes, HIV and strokes, most people thought they had twice the chance as they actually do.

Where do you think we get these worries? Do we make them up because we're all worryworts? Not likely. Newscasters have a choice: Scare the bejeezus out of us, or go out of business. (Read more about the media's negative bias here.)

the safe route

In a brilliant article called The Rout of Doubt, Jacob Weisberg criticized the pessimists in the media and pointed out that there is a "built-in media bias toward pessimism." Defeatism gets better ratings than confidence. The cards are stacked in favor of pessimism. As Weisberg points out, if a pessimistic commentator later turns to be right, he looks great. If things turn out better than the commentator predicted, he only looks cautious. Looking cautious is not a bad thing for a commentator.

On the other hand, if he speaks positively and confidently and turns out to be wrong, he looks naive, foolish, and unsophisticated. And it is much better for a commentator to look careful than to look naive. The result is an automatic pessimistic stance on everything. It's the safest thing to do.

The problem is, of course, that this pessimistic point of view is being broadcast far and wide, influencing people, infecting minds with pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism, undermining the viewers' determination, weakening their ability to achieve their goals, ruining the viewers' moods, impairing their health. Have I overstated my case? Look at the facts in Pessimism and Health before you pass judgment. I may actually be understating my case.

Norman Schwarzkopf, the general in charge of operations in the first Gulf War, deliberately underestimated the damage they were doing to Iraq's military during the war. I remember being surprised when the war suddenly ended and surprised at how thoroughly Iraq's army had been destroyed. "We're trying to be deliberately conservative," said Schwarzkopf at the time. "We don't want to mislead anybody. We don't want to tell you we've done something we haven't done…When we announce something to you that something's happened, you can take it to the bank."

All good intentions. And you can see how these good intentions can lead to a continuous representation of the world as worse than it really is. It is easy to see why so many people seem to be so pessimistic and cynical.

The good news is that once you know how it operates, you become somewhat immune to its influence, rather like being familiar with a sales technique makes you immune to its influence. And also, now that you know this, you will probably become more selective about how you take in your news, which you can read more about here: Become More Optimistic.

Author: Adam Khan