News Blackout

Over Christmas I spend a week in Oregon vising family.  As usual when I am on vacation, I did not listen to, watch or read the news in any form.  I was out of touch with the world.  The amazing thing is that the world got along just fine during my absence.  Since then I have been thinking about how much news I really need.

Imagine a world without news

1876 Newspaper replicaThroughout most of human history people had very little information about events outside their immediate vicinity.  Think about the situation only 200 years ago.  They had newspapers, but no Internet, TV or radio broadcasts.  The first radio news program was broadcast August 31, 1920 by station 8MK in Detroit, Michigan.  The transcontinental telegraph line was completed in 1861.  Without any means of electronic communication, messages had to be delivered by a human courier or not at all. The newspapers back then covered mostly local news.  Information from other parts of the world was sparse and out of date.  Before the printing press there were not any newspapers at all.

Try to imagine yourself in such a world.  How did people ever survive without up to the minute updates on world events over the Internet?  How would you?  We are all affected by the nearly universal belief that it is important to be well informed. To an extent I agree, because what happens in distant lands can impact our lives.  What happens in the current Middle East turmoil is affecting the price I pay at the pump.  They didn’t have this problem 200 years ago because they didn’t need oil (the world’s first oil refinery was built in 1856).  But the world is a lot more connected now, so we do need to stay informed.

Are we news junkies?

So the real question is, “How much news do you need?”  Is there a point at which we become news junkies whose habit eats up valuable time that should be spend doing something else?  Currently when I am at my computer I keep one browser tab open to my Google home page News tab.  I have widgets that show three headlines each from a variety of news sources from different perspectives: Google’s feed, CNN, Fox, Reuters and BBC.  I usually look at the news page several times a day to see if there is anything new.  I also look over the newspaper each day while I eat my breakfast, and listen to news radio while I am driving around.  So I get plenty of news.

In fact, it is really an illusion of being well informed.  I don’t know what determines which three news story are listed in each widget.  If there is any bias in the selection process, then I am receiving a distorted picture of what is happening in the world.  If I took more time and browsed the articles the web sites of each of those news organizations then I would be better informed, but still limited to what they choose to publish.  To be truly well informed would require several hours a day of news research.  Who has time for that?

But would I be seriously deprived if I checked the news on line only once or twice a day?  What if I looked for a summary of the situations in Egypt and Libya once a week instead of trying to keep up with events every day?  There are other things that I could be doing with the time I spend on the news.  What if I listened to worship music in my car instead of always turning on the news radio?  Maybe I could quickly scan the newspaper, and then read something more substantial.  The point is that every minute we spend consuming news is a minute that could have been spent doing something else.  Since we can’t possibly consume all the news that is available each day, we need to decide where to draw the line.

What do you think?  How much news do we need?

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