Overcoming News Addiction

A little over 30 days ago, I decided to go on a news fast, using my trusty 30-day trial method. I had already dropped TV news and newspapers, but I still had the habit of checking Yahoo News or CNN every day or two, so for 30 days I decided to drop all news sources and go totally news-free. In this article I’ll share what I learned from this experiment. It went well enough that I intend to remain free of the habit of daily news checking.

Motivation to begin a news fast

I know well enough how negatively biased popular news sources are, but despite this drawback, I figured some news was still better than no news at all. Checking the news was the lesser of two evils. Isn’t it important to keep up on current events? If I dropped all news sources, wouldn’t I be living in darkness, cut off from the rest of humanity?

On the other hand, I always tell people, “You never know what’s on the other side of a belief until you test it for yourself.” I figured it was worth a 30-day trial to find out what news-free living was like. It seemed unlikely I’d miss anything earth-shattering, and I could always catch up afterwards.

Uncovering news addiction

I was surprised at how difficult this trial was from the very beginning. Throughout the first day, I was just itching to check the news. I wanted to find out what was going on in the world. What were the latest updates on the various news threads I’d been following? I was able to stick to my news fast without cheating, but it felt very uncomfortable. I had to delete my news bookmarks to prevent myself from subconsciously checking the news out of habit.

After several more days, I was still itching to check the news. It felt like a craving. I soon realized I wasn’t just dealing with a habit — I was actually tackling an addiction.

Addictions are a deeper form of habit because they fill a need. The need is often important and shouldn’t remain unfilled, but what makes an addiction negative is its destructive side effects. The need my news addiction filled was that it gave me a sense of groundedness by connecting me with what was going on in the world. But the negative side effect was that it was conditioning me to become more negative and fear-based in my thinking.

Control and substitution

The basic solution for overcoming an addiction is control and substitution. First, get temporary control of the addiction, such as by initiating a 30-day period of total abstinence. Secondly, identify the need being filled by the addiction, and find an alternate, non-destructive way to fill that need to at least the same degree.

When I began my 30-day news fast, I didn’t realize I’d be dealing with an addiction. I just thought it was an ingrained habit, so I didn’t make any plans for substitution. However, the substitute behavior naturally fell into place near the end of the 30 days. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’ll share some of the realizations I had during the fasting period itself.

Reassessing news reading

After a couple weeks without news, I got past the hump and wasn’t craving it so much anymore. At this point I began reflecting on the habit from a distance, and I made the following observations:

  1. News is predominantly negative. Which headline gets your attention: “Another blissful day” or “Murderous rampage on the subway”? In order to keep you plugged in, news has to shock you out of your complacency. In practice that means it usually has to scare or worry you. News’ primary marketing method is fear.
  2. News is addictive. If you’re a daily news junkie, try giving it up for 30 days, and you’ll see what I mean. Even when I just planned to quickly scan the headlines, I’d often get sucked into reading sensationalized articles that provided no real value.
  3. News is myopic. News provides the illusion of completeness, but in truth its coverage is ridiculously narrow. There are many fascinating happenings in the world that never make the news. After getting your daily update on current events, you think you know what’s going on in the world. But with billions of people on this planet, you’re sorely mistaken. You don’t have a clue.
  4. News is marketing. Think this; don’t think that. Fear this; worry about that. Yes, yes, we’re all gonna die. Make me feel afraid, so then I’ll buy the sponsors’ products to feel better. Global warming won’t seem so bad when I’m driving my new car and popping my anti-depressants. Pump me full of fear; then sell me the cure.
  5. News is shallow. Complex topics are reduced to sound bites and simplistic platitudes. Even the “in-depth” stories are unbelievably shallow. Skip the news and read books instead.
  6. News is untrustworthy. Start looking for the political and corporate agendas behind the stories, and you’ll see them oozing out of every nook and cranny.
  7. News is thought conditioning. Here’s how to think, so you’ll fit in like a good little human.
  8. News is trivia. What passes for important is actually far from it. How much of today’s news will you remember next year? Can you even remember last month’s news? Your brain discards the news because it’s trivial; what you internalize is the fear-based conditioning.
  9. News is redundant. Most news stories are repetitive, redundant, and say the same things twice. Very few stories are actually fresh and new. News should really be called “olds.”
  10. News is irrelevant. How many news stories are relevant to you personally? Virtually none.
  11. News isn’t actionable. How many news stories are actionable for you right now? Less than none.
  12. News is problem-obsessed. The news loves to report problems. It will tell you all the things that are wrong in gory detail. How many of those problems have you actually solved? Which ones are you hard at work solving right now? The news conditions you to worry about problems but not to actually solve them. That’s because you’re encouraged to worry about unsolvable problems and then buy the sponsors’ products to assuage your fears. Drop the news for a while, and you’ll find you naturally spend more time solving problems than worrying about them.
  13. News is a waste of time. Try to quantify your real gain from news consumption compared to other activities, and you’ll see just how worthless it really is. 10 minutes of news checking per day = 61 hours per year. Over a 50-year period, that’s huge. If you consume 30 minutes of daily news, it’s 183 hours per year — about 23 eight-hour days. That’s a full working month out of every year. Yikes! Was your last year of news consumption worth that much to you? How about a month long vacation instead?

When I stepped back and looked at the big picture, I realized that news was worse than worthless to me. It provides the compelling illusion of valuable, factual information, but when you bite into it, you get nothing but poisoned air. I’m making generalizations here of course, but in my experience they’ve been true much more often than false.

How will I ever live without it?

Maybe news is a predominantly negative influence in its current forms, but what’s the alternative? Don’t we need to keep up on current events? What about “practical” news like technology and science? Even stuff that’s made to seem important really isn’t. Consider some of the stories you might assume are important….

A new breakthrough cancer treatment? I don’t have cancer, nor does anyone in my family. If I did have cancer and was being treated for it, I’d hear about treatments from more intelligent sources than the general news outlets. The news coverage of such treatments is too shallow and pharmaceutical advertiser biased anyway.

A new planet discovered? I’m not an astronaut or an astronomer, so even though this seems like important knowledge, from my perspective it’s still non-actionable trivia. Surely it’s important to NASA, but what’s important for NASA isn’t necessarily relevant to my life purpose. When I’m genuinely interested in improving my astronomy knowledge, I read books written by astrophysicists. Regular news offers astronomy for preschoolers.

A new electronic gadget? New gadgets are nice, but I’ll see friends using them soon enough, or I’ll notice them in local stores. There’s no need to wade through tons of forgettable fluff to learn about one gadget I might someday want. When I feel the need for a new gadget, I can research it proactively and avoid the fluff.

A war update? The combatants involved in various conflicts are neither my enemies nor my allies. Knowing which people killed which other people in which particular manner is useless knowledge to me. War is a complex issue, and the shallow news coverage doesn’t do justice to the true intentions behind the fighting. The information that comes through the news pipe is too biased to be useful.

A major disaster? A normal day on this planet will see 150,000 people die — over a million in a normal week. So how does an earthquake that kills 1000 people compare? That’s not even 1% of one day’s total. A disaster that requires my personal attention will be discovered without the news. During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, the violent shaking of my apartment was a good indication that something was amiss. The news was just as surprised as I was.

There are very few news items that would qualify as a genuine must-read. Sure there are some interesting articles now and then, but I’ve no need for the daily habit of news scanning. The genuinely critical items are nearly nonexistent. If something truly earth-shattering happens, I’m certain to hear about it from someone else anyway.

Substitute behavior

I mentioned earlier that I naturally fell into a substitute behavior that filled the same need as my news addiction. For me that turned out to be spending time in nature. This discovery happened largely by accident — or perhaps by synchronicity.

During my 30-day trial, Erin and I took a vacation trip to Sedona, Arizona. Sedona is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. I did some hiking, went on a tour with a Native American guide, and meditated at four of the so-called Sedona energy vortexes (they call them vortexes instead of vortices). It was a wonderful trip, and when it was over, I didn’t want to leave.

On this trip it became obvious that spending more time in nature was a great way to feel grounded. I’d been using the news as a means of grounding myself, but spending time in nature was much more effective. It provided a deeper, more intuitive level of connection than the news’ what-you-don’t-know-might-kill-you approach.

Sedona is 300 miles from Las Vegas, but fortunately Red Rock Canyon is only a 20-minute drive from my house. The week we returned from Sedona, I went hiking in RRC. It’s not as pretty as Sedona, and there are no special energy vortexes, but it’s an effective substitute.

The last time I went hiking (far off trail), I stumbled upon a desert rock that was naturally shaped like a heart. It looked like the surrounding rocks, but it was so obviously heart-shaped that I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t human-chiseled. I decided to take it as a sign, so I put it in my office as a reminder of my connection to the world through nature.

The news cravings are gone now. Instead of feeling connected to the world through current events, I feel connected to the world through the timelessness of nature. This sense of groundedness has much deeper roots, roots that aren’t easily disturbed or manipulated. Standing alone in a natural setting with no man-made structures in sight is a feast for the soul.

News-free living

Perhaps the biggest risk of news-free living is that someday I’ll be lost in my daily routine, completely oblivious to the fact that everyone is evacuating the planet without me. Because I didn’t jack in for months on end, I’ll be totally left behind… just me and my heart-shaped rock. 🙁

So in the event of a sudden global evacuation, I ask that you send me a quick courtesy email to let me know. Once that risk is covered, I can comfortably enjoy the rest of my days on this planet sans news media.