Stop Watching the News

Dear reader, I have a New Year’s challenge for you:  

Don’t watch the news.  

That may seem like surprising advice coming from an erstwhile journalist like myself. But I have come to believe that it’s time for this movement. If the next four paragraphs are at all convincing, then I invite you to take a one-week challenge: for one week, don’t watch any news programs.  

I don’t mean that you shouldn’t be informed. As Thomas Jefferson himself wrote: "A properly functioning democracy depends on an informed electorate.” I only mean that you shouldn’t be informed by telecasts.  

Here’s why: images are powerful. They create memorable and emotive scenes in our minds. In broadcast news, images often tell a story that overpowers the story told in the script, and those two stories are not always the same. People remember images from news reports long after they remember sentences from those same reports. Last month, TIME magazine did a cover story about the most influential news photos in history. They have never done a cover on the most influential story leads. So images create stories without the stories themselves. At best, images can be used to illustrate or humanize a story script. But just as likely, images create a parallel story — an unspoken correlation that leads to false assumptions and fake news.  

I remember an example from journalism school. A news TV organization was doing a story on the rise of sexually transmitted diseases. While the voice-over gave information about causes, the video showed b-roll footage of crowded sidewalks and faceless throngs. But an unfortunate accident happened in the editing bay. Just as the voice-over said something like “one in 10 Americans has an STD” a woman from the crowd turned and looked directly at the camera. It gave the impression that she was being identified as having an STD. She sued and won. The problem with that case was that the images told an unintended story. The script alone was perfectly factual and accurate. The story was helpful and unbiased. For everything save the images, that news organization was doing its job well.  

Print news is receding at precisely the moment we need it most. Our current cultural moment is a particularly touchy one. Our electorate is being propagandize as often as it is being informed, and everyone’s radar is up for agenda-pushing of every kind. In such an offense-taking climate, TV news serves more often to muddle than to make sense, foment rather than inform.  

So here’s an experiment: for one week, read all your news. Don’t watch or listen to any broadcast news or commentary. Resolve to only receive news in written form.  

If you start this little experiment, let the world know. Post it on social media or comment on this blog. Keep us posted about your progress. How does read-only news affect you? With what will you replace broadcast news? Does the experiment make you more informed or less? 

I’m not naive enough to think that this will solve the problem of fake news. You’ll likely find plenty of misunderstanding and misreporting in written form. But you might also fret less and understand more. You might forego the seen-and-heard dualism of television for a simpler, one-story approach. You might discover that much of the inflammation and side-taking in your social media feed is an artifact of emotional images or defensive minds. And you might even be better informed about who has, and does not have, an STD.