Deprogramming the news addiction – confessions of a news hoarder

An underexplored issue- News addiction

So, let’s talk about the news. I am news-obsessed. Before this experiment, I would read the New York Times for headlines when I got up. I might watch a news segment from one of the MSNBC shows, a political piece from one of the nightly comedy shows, or news commentary from a blogger while getting ready for work. Once in the car, my 30 minute commute was peppered with Rachel Maddow’s commentary on the presidential machinations in Russia or Ukraine, often linking current and historical events. While doing repetitive tasks or taking a break at work, I might listen to Lawrence O’Donnell’s analysis and guest interviews on the same subjects, and catch Pod Save America to get some wit thrown in when learning more about the news of the day.

Breaking News logo

Extra, extra!

Throughout the day, it was the norm to check my phones’ news apps, watching for breaking news. Breaking news is important! And exciting! Breaking news is an addiction. 

This is the part I hadn’t thought about though. News that affects me does not happen that quickly. Three things have conspired to make it feel fraught and irresponsible to turn off the news, even for a second:

  1. A profit-driven, corporate news media industry that is rewarded for views and clicks
  2. An internet and portable devices that allow the average viewer access to breaking news 24/7
  3. A presidential administration that is led by someone who spent years in reality television, who thrives on chaos, and is incredibly media-savvy
Real housewives

Thoughtful consumption

A fortuitous event happened right before I began my internet fast. The Dude and I went away for the weekend. I grabbed a local arts paper when we were checking into our motel and found out that there was to be a documentary and discussion with its co-producer the next evening. Proceeds were going to local community radio. Therefore, on Saturday, we went to see Corporate Coup d’Etat. The film was interesting and depressing.

After the film, co-producer Jeff Cohen described some of the issues he sees in today’s news media. He mentioned MSNBC specifically and noted how many hours of their programming has been devoted to the minutiae of the Mueller report at the expense of other egregious (and impeachable) offenses this administration has done. He suggested some truly progressive news sources and suggested local radio as well.

My faves are problematic?

While I think MSNBC has done some very important reporting on current and political events, his critique was hitting me at just the right time. If I am to drastically reduce news consumption, I cannot rely on Rachel Maddow to cover all important events of the day since her coverage tends to laser-focus on the federal political realm. And I was getting a little numb from hearing the same names every day, over and over at twenty minute unwinding clips. So I decided that a Maddow break would be in order.

I got up Tuesday morning (I think I just abstained from news completely on Veteran’s Day), and went into the bathroom to get ready. There are quite a few morning news round up podcasts available, but in that moment, I decided that I didn’t want first thing in the morning to be filled with headlines. I would wait at least until I was in the car. I listened to some music instead.

Violinists playing in an orchestra
Photo by Manuel Nägeli on Unsplash

In the car on the way to work that morning, I listened to Democracy Now! I haven’t paid much attention to the show in years, and I don’t know that I have ever tuned into a whole program. After listening to an episode, I know I will not be going back! Amy Goodman’s ideological slant was too strong for me. I prefer to have some idea of the facts of a story before a commentator inserts their perspectives. With Democracy Now, it was heavy on commentary and assumption of knowledge of the day’s events.

Starting the day without news seems to be helpful to my wellbeing.

I listened to some of Pod Save America yesterday. They have a nice balance of describing the news and discussing their perspectives on it, drawing from their experience in the Obama administration. I also like Pod Save the World, for a perspective on global issues.

There are a few things I don’t like about the Pod Save realm though. They often talk in a way that leaves me feeling like an outsider because I don’t know all the players to which they refer. I think they are a bit unaware of their insiderness because they are all white American men who worked in the White House. They have diversity in their organization, but they are relegated to their own shows, or get a little air time on the main show.

Another thing that is bothering me is a relationship transparency question. One of the hosts is in a long term relationship with the journalist Ronan Farrow, who is often spoke of with high praise on the show. I think this praise is well-deserved. But I never knew that he lives with (and is now engaged to) one of the hosts of the show. I believe in transparency, and I think that is an opportune “full disclosure”. The hosts often talk about partners and friends by name, so it has really stood out to me when I realized this relationship. It left me feeling a bit icky.

Radio-real DJs

DJ in a recording booth
Photo by Yohann LIBOT on Unsplash

In an effort to engage with something more positive in the mornings, I listened to a couple of episodes of The Happiness Lab podcast on my way to work this morning. In the first episode I listened to, Dr. Santos spoke with David Byrne. He had written an article for the MIT Technology Review in which he cautioned us that automation is taking away our humanity. When I got to work, I printed a copy and read it (loophole on the no digital news). 

Something that stood out to me was his mention of the algorithm-curated playlists we now use. I pieced that together with the Corporate Coup d’Etat discussion in which listening to independent local radio was important. And I realized that I want DJs who talk to their audience. That share bits of their lives and also talk about the music and artists they are playing. We listen to local, listener supported classical and jazz at home. I downloaded the KEXP app for some alternative music options at work.

Collection of vintage radios stacked in piles
Photo by matthew Feeney on Unsplash

Although we have local alternative stations, I wanted public radio if possible. It is increasingly difficult to find non-corporate music stations, and I want to support those that are left. We used to live in the Seattle radio market, and they are right up the freeway from us, so I don’t feel too weird about going for non-local radio. Although I have been streaming our local classical station at work as well, so I am covering my bases in some ways.

How radio feels

It is a small thing, but it is so odd to not be able to pause or skip songs at work with this system! I usually wear headphones when I am listening to music at work. If I am getting up to get water or something, I pause the music and come back. With live radio, I can’t! So simple, so recently universal. Now so odd.

Women lying in white room with her foot on a vintage radio/cassette player.
Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

I certainly don’t want to live a life devoid of news.

But I no longer want to jump every time there might be breaking news. Because of the “always on” nature of our culture, and because Americans can travel and connect with people all around the world, I think that we have the opportunity to feel news on a more personal level when it is not happening to us directly. In general, this is a good thing because empathy is important and we need to care about things more.

drawing of a person being lifted by a heart
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

But I think it is also contributing to our heightened sense of anxiety because when the world feels smaller and there are tragic things happening in different corners of it, we start to feel personally affected by great amounts of tragedy. Instead of feeling empathy for those who are going through it but keeping our perspective as outsiders, we start to feel like the world is a horrible place and it is all coming down on our personal heads. And everything seems scarier, and we get anxiety. 

And news media thrives on this.

The more anxiety we feel, the more time we spend checking and checking and checking the news. It starts to feel like we are the diners unable to leave the fortune teller. Media thrives on our news addiction. 

Twilight Zone episode clip-a diner booth fortune teller machine

At this point, I am taking a fast for the month. I will listen to the podcasts I listed and will occasionally go to the library to read the paper or a magazine. 

Man sitting on dining table by large windows reading a newspaper entitled Good Life
Photo by Sam Wheeler on Unsplash

After the month is over, I will reevaluate.

Some ideas I have:

Spend 5 minutes a day curating articles from The New York Times into bookmarks or pocket. Give myself a couple of hours to read through them on the week. I love Reader View and I think it will help me greatly. The text becomes clear, ads are removed, and there are no links present. One article at a time. 

Woman reading newspaper
Photo by Abhijith S Nair on Unsplash

Purchase subscriptions to news magazines. Although they come less frequently, their analysis has so much more depth than daily news. 

Keep refining my news podcast list. I want to find the balance that doesn’t take up too much of my day and is informative.

Stop sharing news articles.

We have to start trusting each other to find the news for ourselves. For me, it becomes a race to share news so that I can look smart and in the know. It is also because I think friends will be interested in it of course. I want to feed their news addiction too!

But really, it is about getting the news out there. What this does is feed into the algorithms and gives us news and that is more and more in a bubble. 

A creepy thing has started to happen this week.

Starting Sunday night, I signed off Facebook and youtube. I listened to youtube music some on Monday and Tuesday and then I think I stopped.

Tuesday night, about 48 hours after sign off, i got a string of 3 emails from facebook over the course of an hour. First 2 were about certain friends that I interact with often sharing updates. Then it was a heart-string pulling post from a friend. I could read the first two or three lines in the email inbox. But when I clicked on the email, no words. Just a big blue button to click and see the rest of the post. They aren’t being super pushy as they have only sent me one more since then. It is like a creepy ex who is sending things just often enough so you know he still isn’t over you, but not enough to report him to anyone.

Profile of a man standing in front of lights
Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

And then today, I received a notice from youtube music that they have picked new music for me! These are two sites that never send me these kind of emails, but now they are getting nervous since I seem to have disappeared. They need my news addiction. I am their product. 

Breaking away from digital news media and an “always on” mentality has not been easy, but it is getting easier as time goes on. The fast has freed up time and cleared away some anxiety. If you are feeling anxious about the news, you may want to try a similar experiment in your life.