From alcohol to junk food, too much of lots of things can be unhealthy. What about news?
A Minnesota-based health club chain recently announced that it would no longer allow cable news on their TV screens. Natalie Bushaw, the PR spokesperson for Life Time, explained the policy. She said it was in keeping with the club’s healthy way of life philosophy and commitment to provide an environment free of consistently negative or politically-charged content.
CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC are now banned. On the big screens, gym regulars can now watch A&E, Discovery, HGTV and ESPN. Does Life Time have a point that excessive news intake is incompatible with a healthy lifestyle?
As a news junkie myself, I wonder. What has changed over time is the volume and pace of news. Critics point out many downsides when the consumption gets consuming.
1. Angsty and antsy: In a column for U.K.’s The Telegraph, Chris Ross wrote about his own heavy news diet. At the end of a typical day, he said “it all gets mushed up in my memory”. Ross concluded that, too often, the news “makes us angsty and antsy…rarely explains anything…almost always simplifies and sanitizes…reinforces prejudices…makes us passive…and rewires the neurons so that they find long-form information hard to digest.”
2. Biochemical effects: Ross wrote that certain news regimens can set off the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotions, and trigger the release of glucocorticoid, leading to “poor digestion, nervousness and becoming prone to infections.”
3. Never satisfied: The news can be like a bottomless bowl of…well, name your weakness. Ross quotes a psychology professor who says that when you have a goal to know what’s happening, you never really achieve it because something new is always happening. Moreover, getting news in small snippets feeds a sense of not completing your goal, of not feeling fully satisfied.
4. Not seeing the big picture: An article in Medium on breaking news addiction cautioned against recency bias. It happens in investing, when people give too much weight to recent market swings and make financial decisions accordingly. There’s a failure to step back. For news consumers, recency bias occurs too. It’s all about what’s happening now, pushing aside (in the media or our minds) what happened before. It’s harder to focus on what really matters.
Sounds alarming. Yet as an article in Slate about Life Time’s decision pointed out, worries about information overload are nothing new.
“As early as the 1840s,” the article said, “Victorians feared for the fate of ‘brain workers’ – the academics, financiers, and clergymen inundated with information at rates that had previously been impossible. As the advent of commercial telegraphs and the mass production and distribution of pamphlets and periodicals radically altered the speed and frequency of communication, doctors advised those facing mental and emotional overload to ‘take rest’, literally checking out for months at a time.”
Nutritious news diets
Maybe Life Time is right that it’s helpful to take a news pause every now and then and ensure some balance in our lives. For sure, I probably spend too much sitting like a lump in front of CNN or thumbing through Twitter. Not always healthy, and often stressful.
Still, going on a news diet doesn’t have to mean cutting it back. It can also mean varying your selections.
There’s a huge range in what we call “the news”. Mix it up.
More than in the past, I try to look deep and wide for coverage of issues that are important to me. One of the flip sides of information overload is the greater opportunity to seek diverse opinions. To find context.
Following the news can of course enlighten us and allow us to act on what we learn in a constructive way. And to exercise our critical thinking muscles. That’s being an informed and engaged citizen.
Those are healthy choices too.
Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.
January 17, 2018