About 1.5 years ago I stopped reading the news completely. Let me tell you what you can expect to happen when you try the same and why the Coronavirus outbreak is another perfect example of why you should.
The focusing illusion
Who would you rather say is more likely to succeed:
- A trader who watches every slight movement of his stocks, constantly reacting on his emotion and the tips of other traders or
- An investor who thoroughly researches a certain stock until he knows all there is to it before he buys or sells something?
Of course, anybody who knows anything about money would pick the investor. Having your emotions under control and not letting them control you is the foundation of making smart decisions.
But what does that have to do with the news?
You are the product
The news plays with our emotions. It tells us what to feel. Reading the news you step on this rollercoaster ride of ups and downs (mostly downs) through the funfair that is your emotions.
The problem with news is that the people making them have realized that the articles that sell the most are the ones that play with their reader’s emotions the most. Good news is bad news. Fear sells.
There’s one particular problem nowadays: The news is mostly free. And let me give you something on the way that you should always keep in mind, no matter if we’re talking about the news or anything else:
If it‘s free then you are the product.
Google hasn’t become one of the biggest companies in the world because they let you use their services for free. Your data is the payment. Data is our generation’s gold. Google has realized this early on. That’s why it’s so successful.
And the very same goes for news. If the news is free for you, then it’s run by ads. If it’s run by ads the incentive is to make money by getting as many people to read the news as possible, not to report unbiased.
If the news is free, then you are the product.
That’s also the reason why I like Medium so much. You pay for the subscription, the platform and the writers get the money. No ads, no hidden incentive.
And no. I am by no means saying that journalists are the devils and they are bad. They are incredibly smart people that unfortunately have been forced by the economic pressure to bow to the will of mister market just like many other lines of business.
So the news is made to be sold. And what sells best? Fear.
We are being constantly told of imminent threats to our lives, be it through terrorism, through crime or seemingly so fashionable in the past month:
The killer-virus… *insert dramatic “dum-dum-daaaaah” here*
Of course this has been a wonderful topic to pick up as it so easily gets us to buy the ticket to the rollercoaster again. Our attention is being focused on how dangerous 2019-nCoV is and every day we are being told how many people have been infected and how many have died.
We see how China builds two hospitals out of nowhere in a few weeks so the threat must be incredibly real not only there but also in other parts of the world.
It’s a classic example of the focusing illusion. By focusing our attention on a particular thing it seems much more relevant to the bigger picture than it actually is.
The historic handshake
I always love to bring up this example when it comes to why I don’t watch or read the news anymore:
Remember when Trump shook hands with Kim Jong-un? Remember how much of a big deal it was back then. How much time of your life have you spent reading, hearing or watching something about the historic handshake?
Now let me ask you two more questions:
- How has your life changed since then?
- Thinking back now, what impact did that day truly have on your life?
If you’re not a correspondent or somebody doing business with North Korea… Probably none at all, right?
So we’ve wasted so much time of our lives watching two men shake hands when in fact nothing the impact it had on our lives was practically zero. The news sold it to us as this world-changing event, the imminent fear of nukes flying around the world has been taken from us by this historic moment.
But seriously. Nothing has changed. Neither for the better nor for the worse.
We watched it purely for entertainment purposes only. And there truly are better ways to entertain ourselves than watching two men shake hands, don’t you think?
So now, let’s take a look at the Coronavirus.
For a minute, let’s all take a step back, take a deep breath and get our emotions under control again.
Let’s take a look at the data:
- At the time of this writing, there are 17,488 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV,
- 362 confirmed deaths,
- 523 people have recovered from it,
- the fatality rate is highest in the city of Wuhan at 5.5%. Factoring out the province of Hubei the mortality rate on a national level in China drops to 0.3% and
- the WHO has declared the outbreak a Global Public Health Emergency.
Why is looking at the data important? Because now we can put it in perspective:
While the transmission rate of 2019-nCoV is higher than that of SARS we’ve seen that the mortality rate in China on a national level is 0.3%. The case fatality rate for SARS was 10% and for MERS 34%. So SARS was about 33 times as deadly as the new Coronavirus and MERS about a hundred times.
Every year the common flu kills between 291,000 and 646,000 people worldwide. Still, most people don’t even deem it necessary to get vaccinated.
In the meantime, I’ve seen people freak out on Twitter demanding that the plane that evacuated American citizens had to be “shot down” because “sacrifices had to be made”.
Looking at the data and comparing it to the emotional reaction of people, does this now seem in proportion?
And that’s the very problem with the Coronavirus and the news. It’s just a topic that’s been blown way out of proportion.
Because fear sells and it’s incredibly easy to get people to be fearful of something they can’t see, hear or smell and that’s going to kill them and all their family members.
“For now, scientists are studying this virus, doctors are fighting it, and the rest of us don’t have to do anything besides not forwarding dumb WhatsApp messages.” — Indi Samarajiva
Life without news
So how does life change when you stop reading the news?
Well. Not all that much to be honest. But a few small things change that have an incredibly great impact on your well-being:
- You have a lot more time to spend on things that are important to you.
- You’re not constantly bombarded with negative information that has no benefit for your life and doesn’t change anything for the better for you.
- Your opinion carries more weight with your friends because they know that if you have an opinion, they know that it’s based on proper research and that you know the stuff you’re talking about.
- And most of all: Less negativity leaves more room for more positivity.
No, you don’t need to hear about that terrorist attack in the middle east that killed some hundred people again. In what way does this information make your life better? It only sparks fear of being a victim of terrorism, while in fact in the U.S. the threat of you being killed by a regional asteroid strike is 29 times higher.
And no, you don’t need to hear about it because “it’s the right thing to do” to watch the news and feel sad for the victims. Your life doesn’t improve and most of all: the victim’s family could not care less about us feeling sorry for them. Their lives don’t improve either.
We only watch it because we want to convince ourselves that we are good people because we feel sorry for others. But nobody cares if you feel sorry for them when they are mourning a loved one who was blown to bits.
If you want to help, do it the right way. Send money to organizations that actually help people there. Doctors without Borders, Unicef, or any other one you deem fit. But watching the news and feeling sorry for the victims will help no one.
“But you need to be informed”
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that statement.
Whenever I hear it I reply the same:
“There’s only two things I need to do in my life: Pay taxes and die.”
A beloved friend of mine happens to work for a big national news-broadcaster as a journalist. We respect each other’s opinions but we’ve had quite a few discussions on the topic of news.
The argument of “you need to be informed” often came up.
My question was always: “Why?”
I’d rather spend my time learning about things that affect my life and improve it than hear about another plane crash. Yes, it’s tragic those people died, but still, flying is the safest means of travel and some incredibly smart minds that know a lot more about aviation than me are taking care of the problem that caused the plane to crash. So why would I need to know about it?
“But you need to know who the new leader of country XYZ is!”
“Because you need to know what’s going on there and if there’s another flow of refugees!”
“Why? What has changed for *your* life during the last one? Can knowing who the leader is, stop the potential flow of refugees from coming? And do you seriously believe you know what’s going on there if you know who the leader is? Do you have any influence over it?”
I know this all sounds pretty pragmatic and maybe even harsh. But if you think about it, it’s actually true. Knowing about a certain topic doesn’t mean I have any influence over it.
After all, why would I want to feed my brain with negative information that I can’t change anyway?
“Change the changeable, accept the unchangeable, and remove yourself from the unacceptable.” — Denis Waitley
Do it the right way, send help in the form of money to the people that know best how to help people in need. Don’t think that you know best whom to help because you’ve seen a news report on a certain topic.
And by the way, if I truly wanted to know what’s going on in country XYZ, I’d take a book about the history of the country, learn what is out there to learn on the topic and try to understand the reason why the people are fighting there and what that means to the countries around it.
Then I’d have a tiny bit of insight into the current situation there. Knowing who the new leader is doesn’t make me informed. It makes me ignorant because I will think I know what’s going on when in fact, I don’t have the slightest of ideas.
If I spent the time I spent reading or watching the news on actually reading something of deeper value, say a book or a well-researched article I’d have truly earned the ability to talk about it over a beer with my buddies and actually be informed.
“But what if I miss something?”
Trust me, you won’t.
You don’t need to watch the news to hear about the big things going on. Just look at the example in this article.
The Coronavirus. I heard about it even without watching the news. I took some time to research and find out what threat we’re actually talking about here.
And the result is that I’m not calling for civilian planes to be shot down, calling it “a sacrifice that has to be made”.
No watching or reading the news for hours every day. 15–30 minutes of proper research on actual data based on scientific research. That’s all there is to it to not go crazy over a certain topic.
I don’t spend my days in fear of the virus. And I’m still looking forward to my holiday in Southeast Asia soon.
Will I take precautions? Sure I will. Will I keep an eye on the situation and if needed change my holiday plans if the data changes? Hell yeah.
But I don’t need to go crazy or let my emotions make my decisions for me.
So if you haven’t already, I invite you to try it.
Stop reading the news, stop watching the news. Stop feeding the addiction of having to be “informed” on everything going on.
Pull it off like a bandaid and stop tomorrow.
When you hear something you are interested in, take the time to do some research and find out what it’s really about.
And when you get asked what your opinion was on a certain topic, I’ve got the single best answer you can give right here for you. Three words:
“I don’t know.”
You don’t have to have an opinion on everything. When you don’t let the news tell you what to think and have done your research thoroughly you can not only convey your opinion much better, you will also not sound like a hypocrite talking ill-informed about something you don’t understand.
Do you have a different opinion on the topic of news? Are you still scared about missing something? Or have you maybe also gotten rid of the bandaid already? Let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear your opinions.