Why The News Isn’t Helpful, And What To Do Instead.
The news is the definition of a high noise, low signal media source. Here’s what you can do instead.
Here’s a potentially unpopular opinion. Reading the news is one of the worst ways to spend your time.
Broadly, we spend our time on two types of activities, being productive, or being entertained. The news has limited application for either.
Regarding productivity, the news gives shallow insights with articles or opinions that, are either irrelevant or will be in a short amount of time. The news is high noise and low signal, a mental model we’ll explore in this article.
As far as entertainment goes, the news is designed to pull us with headlines or imagery that invoke reactive emotional states, leaving us feeling anxious, angry, or depressed.
Perhaps one of the only reasons people read the news is so they can feel ‘informed’ so they don’t look like a fool at dinner parties.
I haven’t read the news for about 5 years, but can still hold a conversation about most topics with my friends, in this article I’ll share my approach, and how it could work for you.
Signal v Noise and the News
To understand why the news is so unhelpful in helping us gain a holistic understanding of problems, we first need to quickly explore the phenomenon of signal v noise.
Signal v noise — or more correctly the signal to noise ratio is the measure of the desired signal compared to the background noise. The easiest way to explain this is through the idea of an audio recording. The diagram below shows the waveform of someone talking, you can see that as the person stops talking there is still a level of background noise. This noise is always here, it’s just that it’s usually masked by the signal.
The calculation for signal v noise is a very simple one — the signal:noise ratio is just the desired output (the signal) over the undesired output (the noise).
Signal v Noise and Time
Let’s bring one more element into this, signal and noise in relation to time. Imagine you own a casino, and are looking to gain an insight into your profitability. If you looked at the graph it would probably look something like this.
There would be peaks and troughs but generally, your incomes would be going up, you would easily be able to make out the signal, which is the trend in profitability. But what if you looked at it on at a daily level?
It would be much more difficult to make out any discernible trend. What about over the period of an hour?
Probably completely impossible.
Looking at the news on an hourly or daily level makes it impossible to make out the signal (what’s happening) from the noise (what’s irrelevant).
Why Reading The News is All Noise
When you read the news, you are consuming something that is, by its definition ‘new’ you are reading the events, as they are reported, and because of this, there is going to be a lot of irrelevant information within the important stuff.
This isn’t helped by the fact that no matter how much news there has been in a day, a newspaper must still be the same length. A website must publish a similar amount of articles. If there was a particularly uneventful day, the same amount of articles are still going to get published to fill the space, so the media companies can continue to make money. Also by focusing on the tiny developments as they happen, we can lose sight of the big picture, which is vital if we ever want to take any meaningful action to change things.
Now arguments in favor of reading the news will usually go something like this:
‘We need the news to keep people informed on what’s going on in the world, so people can make sense of the world around them.’
This is indeed true. But does the news give any deep, holistic understanding of complex issues? Does it help people make sense of the world around them?
I’d argue not, let’s discuss a better way, a strategy for making sense of complex current affairs that I’ve utilised over the last 5 years or so to help me get to grips with life’s biggest problems.
What To Do Instead
Step 1 — Identify The Main Questions You’d Like To Answer
The first thing I do when a new story or movement grabs my attention is to try and understand what are the underlying themes of this story. What are the concepts, questions, principles, and theories that would help me better make sense of this particular idea?
Let’s work through an example, taking a current affair we are all too familiar with — Coronavirus.
When understanding Coronavirus I wanted to answer three questions:
- How dangerous is Coronavirus?
- What actions can I expect the Government to take to protect me?
- What can I personally do to endure this pandemic?
Obviously, your questions might look different, but the idea here is we are being intentional about what we want to understand, so we can seek out sources that will help us answer these questions, rather than wasting our time obsessively checking the daily death updates.
Step 2 — Find high signal sources that will help you answer these questions.
You are now going to want to answer these questions, and the best way to do this is via a high signal source. How do you find a high signal source? The answer is quite simple. As a general rule of thumb the longer a piece of media has been in popular circulation, the higher the probability of it being a high signal, it is a piece of media that has stood the test of time. You will notice that news articles, by their nature, are transient. Most likely you are going to find that high signal sources are books, that have been around for at least a few years.
Here are the sources that I picked to answer these questions
How dangerous is Coronavirus?
I chose to read up on the concepts of exponential growth, and check out the book naked statistics. Exponential growth really isn’t that hard a concept to understand. You are just saying that over a set amount of time a measure increases by a set amount (for example doubling every 3 days). Once you’ve got your head around this you can see how over a very short time a measure can increase by an insane amount.
What actions can I expect the Government to take to protect me?
To answer this question I chose to read Nassim Taleb’s ‘Black Swan’. A book that was recommended to me that describes how humans think about risk. In ‘Black Swan’, Taleb states that the human brain thinks about the worst-case scenario as the worst thing that has ever happened. Which is true until something comes along that has never happened before! By understanding this concept I was able to recognise that the government would not be prepared for a pandemic, so I should mentally prepare myself that things were going to be pretty bad…
What can I personally do to endure this pandemic?
For me answering this question was just reading an old favourite. Marcus Aurelius’ meditations, is packed full of stoic advice, shedding perspective on recognising what is inside our zone of control, and what isn’t.
Step 3 — Start formulating your own ideas
Once you’ve answered the basic questions you formulated in step 1, you should now be ready to start synthesising your own ideas. I think probably the best way to do this is to write them out. You don’t need to share them anywhere, the simple act of writing is enough. You may also want to raise your opinions with your friends, bouncing back and forth with each other. Expect your ideas to change, and evolve, this is the learning process.
Going through these steps may seem a lot more work than simply watching the news and just taking on the last convincing argument you heard on a topic as your own, but I can assure you it’s so much more valuable. By focusing on high signal sources such as long-form literature, rather than hurriedly typed out news articles, you will be able to remove yourself from the anxiety and distraction of the news, and move through life with clarity.