Why follow the news?
January 4, 2007 5:28 PM   Subscribe

What are the benefits of following the news?

I've been wondering recently how following the news on a regular basis enriches my life. I'm not sure it does, and am thinking of cutting back on how closely I follow it, especially given the other things I could do with my time.

I am not speaking about insulating myself from the world: I am instead wondering whether I -- as someone who reads about daily developments in, say, the Middle East -- am really more knowledgeable or better informed than someone who reads an analysis of the major issues once a year. Although every day's stories are superficially new, I could take a cynical point of view and say that they are repetitions of the same old stories, as Thoreau said in Walden. Does knowing the day-to-day details of a conflict -- names, numbers, locations, etc. -- enrich me today? Ten years from now, will it have mattered if I read the news every day? If my goal is to learn how the world works, I'm sure I could find many superior sources of information, such as books and essays.

But even if the news is not educationally beneficial, I'm wondering if there are hidden benefits on the emotional/behavioral level: maybe someone who reads the news will feel more connected to the world, and will see his or her role as more meaningful. Any thoughts on this topic?
posted by lunchbox to Grab Bag (45 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
Well, following the news allows you to have exciting, enriching conversations with your friends and colleagues. It improves your ability to chat, if you will.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:31 PM on January 4, 2007

The more you read the better world-view perspective you might get, assuming you don't stick to news from a single source (i.e., Fox News).

The problem with most of the world (not just the U.S.) is people are getting their news from biased sources but do not accept (or realize) those sources are biased.

Another problem is a lot of people are never taught how to do any kind of critical thinking and fall into the trap of always expecting to be told what to think.

The more perpectives you read and absorb the better chance you have of understanding all of the facts and opinions involved not just the ones that are put forth by a biased source.
posted by camworld at 5:33 PM on January 4, 2007

it allows you to make conversations with like minded people. I share some of your ambivalence towards the news - i much prefer to read the arts and entertainment section to the front page, but i feel guilty doing so, as I've been told by so many respected people that keeping up with the daily news is essential to being a well-rounded person. I believe that if you consistently discuss and debate the day's news with others, it gives you skills that can be valuable on a day-to-day basis. The information in the papers is frequently incomplete, inaccurate, quotidian and rather tedious, but from it grows the grand tapestry of history. Similarly, information about our own lives, workplaces and loved ones comes to us in a annoying and fragmented fashion, but being able to deal with it and weave it into a whole can be a very valuable skill.
posted by sid at 5:38 PM on January 4, 2007

If I'm not mistaken, the OP is asking about the value of following the daily news not about news in general.

What is the value of daily following casualties in iraq and forest fires and local murders vs. reading a journalistic review once a month in magazines like the New Yorker or The Economist. I do the latter. I dont read the daily news because it provides little more than sensationalist entertainment.
posted by vacapinta at 5:39 PM on January 4, 2007

News is quite important, IMHO. As long as you can get it some how, you should be paying attention. You need to be informed about the world around you to make informed decisions. Maybe you don't have to read in detail about the Middle East every day, but you should atleast give a glance over something like google news daily or through out the day.
posted by crypticgeek at 5:42 PM on January 4, 2007

As someone who is a news junkie, I think keeping up with the news (and not only "serious" news, but entertainment news, pop culture news, human interest pieces, etc.) makes you a well-rounded person... It gives you a window into things going on outside your own daily routine and an insight into other people's experiences... Plus, you'll have the benefit of being able to talk to anyone about anything (not in a "know-it-all" way, just in a "connecting with my fellow human beings" way)...

And yes, years from now, it will matter that you followed the news... You'll be able to evaluate current events from the perspective of knowing what's gone on before, and you'll be a fountain of knowledge for your children and grandchildren.
posted by amyms at 5:44 PM on January 4, 2007

Yes, they are repetitions of the same old stories, and when you've read the daily news for long enough you pretty much don't need to read it any more; if the story's big enough someone will tell you about it. It's been a long time since I religiously read the daily paper; I go through the Sunday NY Times once a week and that's it for my news immersion. It's like soap operas—if you've watched All My Children for a few months, you can come back to it years later and know exactly what's going on.
posted by languagehat at 5:44 PM on January 4, 2007

Think about the perspective your parents have on events that happened in the 1980s. You might have read some books about the '80s, but don't you find your parents understand that world in a richer, deeper, fuller way, to the point that no matter how much you read you'll never catch up? That's because they were reading the news every day and connecting it to what was actually happening, in real time. I don't think there's any substitute for that -- if what you want is to "learn how the world works." On the other hand, that might not be what you want, which is fine; it seems to me you have strong and somewhat unusual (but perfectly defensible) ideas about what things are important to learn about. I'm not sure what would make you want to read the news if you don't want to read novels.
posted by escabeche at 5:53 PM on January 4, 2007

Well, following the news allows you to have exciting, enriching conversations with your friends and colleagues. It improves your ability to chat, if you will.

Well, sure, but you can also chat (as well as have enriching conversations) about a whole host of other topics: art, books, music, hobbies, work, family, etc. Certainly current events come up in my daily conversations, but they definitely aren't the central topic on a regular basis by any means, unless something really major is going on (e.g., the elections).

I used to be a hardcore news addict (because I was a hardcore political activist for many years), and I've found that my general sense of well-being has increased as I've stepped back from the need to follow every news story as it develops. Of course, I have a good general sense of the daily ebb and flow -- I look at the headlines daily and read selected news stories regularly (plus read The New Yorker, etc.). But I don't feel the need to religiously read every section of the newspaper anymore. I almost never have CNN on at home. I found more and more that having the constant onslaught of news didn't really serve to make me more well-informed -- it only served to make me have a near-constant clench in my stomach.
posted by scody at 5:54 PM on January 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the great replies so far. I just want to emphasize that, as vacapinta observed, I'm curious about the benefit of following the news on a regular or daily basis. I am certainly interested in what's going on in the world so I can understand it and have stimulating conversations, but I'm wondering if it isn't just as useful to do something like read a monthly analysis of what the meaningful world events were.
posted by lunchbox at 5:55 PM on January 4, 2007

About a year and a half ago I decided I was going to stop seeking out national and international news, and instead focus about the same amount of time learning about local news (my city and state), on the belief that what happened in my neighborhood was more relevant and less frustrating than the latest iteration of intractable middle eastern conflicts or Beltway scandals.

Great decision. I urge you to do the same thing. There has not been any downside whatsoever, that I am aware of yet.

Including when it comes to having conversations with people about current events. The difference is that now, if someone asks me what I think about some piece of world news, I'll ask the other person to explain it to me, ask them questions about it, and then them about their opinion. This inevitably leads to better conversations, in my experience.

Also, what you say about just reading a summary of world events at the end of the year strikes me as a pretty good idea, too.
posted by Hildago at 6:02 PM on January 4, 2007 [4 favorites]

Reading daily (or weekly) news from a variety of sources allows you to come to your own conclusions regarding the state of the world, where I think that reading a single round-up at the end of the year would give you a very narrow, dumbed-down view of what's actually going on.
posted by Brittanie at 6:02 PM on January 4, 2007

Following the news is a vocational necessity for me. Since I'm a bartender, I will need to engage with hundreds of people on a weekly basis, and some of the crazy/bizarre/interesting stories that circulate make for excellent inroads to conversation with people (i.e. did you hear about...)

That said, I almost never talk politics with my guests, and if the subject comes up I basically just prompt/follow along/agree with them, as actively engaging in those kinds of discussions with my patrons can easily lead to stress...which is of course not why people go to bars.
posted by baphomet at 6:11 PM on January 4, 2007

Cut back on the news so that you can have more time to spend playing video games or other mindless pursuits. Don't worry, your politicians will take care of you just fine. You don't really need to worry your pretty little head over these things.

That is why you follow the news.
posted by caddis at 6:23 PM on January 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

And another Republican is born.

Kidding. Really, you follow news so that you can enrich your life and so you can make connections with others. If you don't know who is in charge of Germany and you meet a German they are going to think you are a douchebag.

Remember that Thoreau was the guy that was (very briefly) jailed for refusing to pay poll tax and support a war. Had he been avoiding news he would have neither cared about the election during which the tax was levied nor the war it was meant to pay for. Incidentally, if you go to Walden, it sure ain't very isolated. Thoreau was a master of exaggeration (I'm not saying he was a bad writer, but...)
posted by Pollomacho at 6:24 PM on January 4, 2007

As another news junkie myself, I have to say that following the news serves no beneficial function. Feel free to completely ignore the news and go your own way, it won't make any difference. The one exception is to pay attention to weather conditions in some situations, but you can do that without following the regular news agenda.
posted by Osmanthus at 6:34 PM on January 4, 2007

I get a lot more out of reading the Economist weekly than listening to and reading BBC News daily.
posted by matthewr at 6:39 PM on January 4, 2007

The only real differences between following the news on a daily basis and following it on a weekly or monthly basis are nuance and temporality. If you are interested in the news because you would like to understand cause and effect relationships in the world around you (rather than having some third person string together a causal story for you), then you will need the details. If, on the other hand, you just want the gist of newsworthy events, you won't need anything more than what something like the Economist offers. (Though you'll pay through the nose for that particular privilege!)

If my goal is to learn how the world works, I'm sure I could find many superior sources of information, such as books and essays.

I can't think of any reason why books and essays would be superior to the news. Authors use the same sources (speeches, interviews, etc.) that journalists do, they just have a much more leisurely deadline.
posted by B-squared at 6:40 PM on January 4, 2007

I can't think of any reason why books and essays would be superior to the news.

Depth of knowledge. Same reason why people who rely solely on the internet for their information are destined to know less than those who read books and academic papers (unless the internet reader happens to be reading books and academic papers online). The news is topical. It's there to wet your appetite for knowledge, not to quench it completely.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 6:52 PM on January 4, 2007

I can't think of any reason why books and essays would be superior to the news.

they just have a much more leisurely deadline.

and hence the facts line up better with the story (usually). You might be surprised at the number of uncorrected mistakes in TV and journalism news, due to the deadlines (and people have short memories anyway).

And speaking of short memories, I find that the more 'news' I take in, the less I remember, and so, the less I have to assemble into a bigger framework of 'how the world works'.
posted by philomathoholic at 7:09 PM on January 4, 2007

I have been a news junkie. I've read the news paper (or modern equivalent) every day since I was 8. Watched news on TV when I had one. Until about 2 years ago.

That's when I lived for a time in a country with very little access to internet and English language news. But there was enough other stuff happening to me right then that I didn't care or even notice.

After returning to America I turn on the TV and picked up a paper and immediately my stress level went up. Since then I don't pay attention to the news, unless "Weather" is news. My quality of life has improved, my ability to talk intelligently has not decreased. (It almost feels like it has increased since I can be more emotionally removed from some subjects than some of my friends.)

I'm not convinced that News lets me make better decisions (with the exception of Weather, again). News outlets aren't terribly concerned with my decisions, and don't feed me information based on that.

For the most part my life feel improved by having my attention on the immediate world around me that I can interact with rather than worrying that North Korea is going to nuke me.

My politics haven't changed, and my knowledge of what my government is up to is available (in much more depth and less bias) in other forms.

(What's with all the "My knowledge is bigger than your knowledge" dick swinging in this thread?)
posted by Ookseer at 7:22 PM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

Value in following local daily news: Odds are good there are no local monthly summaries of the important issues in your community: crime in your neighborhood, electricity rate changes, property tax rates, school funding, teacher shortages, road closures along your commute, environmental issues, major demographic changes in your neighborhood, the health or paucity of the city library's budget and its ability to stay open in the coming year, hiring or layoffs at the area's major employers.

These things affect your life every day, and by being aware of the issues that are happening in your community, you can have a real and profound affect on life for yourself and for your neighbors.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 7:32 PM on January 4, 2007

In the past year or so I have started paying less attention to daily news, and focused more on reading books and periodicals about both current and historical events.

I believe this has helped me get a significantly better world view than the days where I concentrated on daily news.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 7:38 PM on January 4, 2007

(What's with all the "My knowledge is bigger than your knowledge" dick swinging in this thread?)

I don't have a dick...

And, I don't think anyone is claiming their knowledge is bigger (or better) than anyone else's... I think we're just answering the question based on our own experience.
posted by amyms at 7:43 PM on January 4, 2007

George W. Bush has proudly admitted that he doesn't read any news. Instead, he says he relies on reports from experts. 'Nuf said.
posted by HotPatatta at 7:52 PM on January 4, 2007

George W. Bush has proudly admitted that he doesn't read any news. Instead, he says he relies on reports from experts.

And yet, what is the radio/tv/print media, if not a collection of self-styled "experts" imparting their own / their master's spin?

(Particularly here, where we have the choice between Murdoch, baby Murdoch, wannabe Murdoch, and the insignificant others.)

Personally, I gave up religiously following the news about 12 months ago after realising it was 95% repetition (repetition ... repetition). The other 5% - actual real news, breaking events or ongoing issues, local, national, or international - I generally pick up through a once-daily browse of selected national & international news websites, issue-based forums, level-headed political / economic / social blogs, and the occasional late-night news analysis / current affairs shows.
posted by Pinback at 8:11 PM on January 4, 2007

Which news followed daily? It is helpful to be up on current events to be an engaged human. Daily mainstream news is great at giving the appearance of providing this, but the corporate agenda of news makes it fail miserably. There are lots of negative side effects of following mainstream news daily. Choose news from sources (internet/print) selectively and regularly, but not necessarily daily.

Engage your brain and be critical. Do you know what's basically going on in your city, state/province, country, high news traffic countries AND low traffic news countries? If not, then maybe your weekly dose of news could include a rotation of types of sources and of geographic locations (eg Monday is mainstream TV news, Tuesday is alt political foreign internet, Wednesday is local print, etc.)
posted by kch at 9:38 PM on January 4, 2007

Corporations exist for profit, so the news has become a commercial product. Largely, the same mentality making decisions about entertainment is now making news decisions.

This theory was covered very well in Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death, and in the mid 1980s, at that.
posted by dhammond at 10:28 PM on January 4, 2007

My husband used to follow the news obsessively to the point where keeping up with "the world" took him about three hours a day. Now that he's subscribed to The Economist and cut back on the political blogs he follows, he has more free time for working on The Great Icelandic Novel and oh, spending a free moment with his loving wife without staring at a screen.

I go through spurts of following the news. Really though, I find it too depressing. If something important is going on, I might read a few articles here and there, but by and large, I figure if it's important either my husband will tell me about it or I'll read it in the Blue.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:52 PM on January 4, 2007

(I've got to say that there are an awful lot of Economist subscribers in this thread. I suppose that's a pretty good endorsement for it as a source of news.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 10:53 PM on January 4, 2007

Ok, conflict of interest statement first: I work in the news. As such, I tend to follow it religiously.

Here are the benefits (excluding the professional ones):

More informed conversations. I can tie in what's happening in disparate parts of the world with larger trends in history, politics and culture. I can also talk about what's going on with people from around the world fairly competantly. That's gotten me free acomodation in Europe and free pot in Vancouver.

Better decisions. By reading up on news stories, I find that I'm better able to plan vacations, purchases and set goals. I can also make decisions on what political causes to support, where to eat, etc. I can make sure that my government is representing me and my interests, and have solid factual arguments if they're not. Further, I can make these decisions quicker by reading the news than going to books. If Taco Bell is using slave labor to pick tomatoes, that's the sort of thing I'd prefer to know about now.

Finally, on a fundamental level, I find the news entertaining. I find the narratives of human experience interesting, and I think that the news does an excellent job in presenting them in their unpolished form.

The other thing I'd say is that a lot of the anti-news responses (which is a bit odd, considering the amount of newsfilter on the blue) seem to come from picking the wrong news to follow, or not wanting to expend the energy to think critically. I don't watch the TV news, and I do tend to favor the reporting done in magazines (which aren't as timely) over that of local newspapers. On the other hand, I think people are unfairly writing off the quality reporting found in a lot of newspapers, which do an excellent job of covering issues that matter on the ground.

I'd also say that a benefit of broadcast news (and to some extent paper) is the knowledge of what people REALLY said. Credible news sources do an excellent job of reporting what actually happened and what people said, and that means fewer gatekeepers. The complaints about how it's all, like, totally these conglomerates, man, come from an incredibly lazy place and should be regarded as the championing of ignorance as virtue. There are biases in any presentation, but good news organizations do their best to minimize them and by keeping your critical wits about you, you can counter-act most of it. Treating everything like it's Fox just makes you look like media illiterate.
posted by klangklangston at 11:03 PM on January 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Personally, I only enjoy following my local news regularly - my county is small enough that we don't have a TV station, so I read the local sections of the paper. I like it because I know, say, that we're getting a new restaurant next year, and stuff like that. Community-based things.
posted by IndigoRain at 11:59 PM on January 4, 2007

This is a long thread, so I'll just chime in to agree with the "giving up on following the [international] news lowered my stress level" folks and give props to Hidalgo for suggesting that you give local (city and state) news a try. It can be a challenge because it's more personal and you might have to more of your own legwork, but it's also an area where you can make more of a (hopefully positive) difference.
posted by msittig at 12:03 AM on January 5, 2007

Following the daily news (not the ferret-eats-baby-toes variety) trains you in spotting trends in politics, economics, entertainment, technology, etc. You may see just a brief mention of something a politician leaks in March and then see what he/she was really hinting at in June when the big story breaks. Same goes for technology (why buy something now that might be much improved in six months), economics (the housing boom/bust was very much discussed for a long time, which might give you pause or cause you to be more contemplative in buying a house), etc.

Think of how the Watergate story slowly unfolded way back when.

Big stories are often presaged (if that's a real word) months in advance. Reading the daily stuff helps keep you from being surprised (often in a bad way).
posted by loosemouth at 4:06 AM on January 5, 2007

One of my teachers made an excellent suggestion: Keep track of all the news media you take in over the course of one week. At the end of the week, go back over all the articles, newscasts, etc that you took in and see if any of them had any benefit or bearing on your own life. Usually, people find the overwhelming majority of "news" was worthless and less than ephemeral. He then recommended seeking out news journals not of the Time or Newsweek standard, but more academic ones that paint broader pictures of regional issues and underlying reasons why they're on the nightly news without any context.
posted by Burhanistan at 5:39 AM on January 5, 2007

If you don't know who is in charge of Germany and you meet a German they are going to think you are a douchebag.

That's true. But it's wrong to think that watching a daily news channel will tell you who that Horst Köhler is the President or that Angela Merkel is the Chancellor, or anything else of substance. As has been said again and again in this thread, daily news of any sort, TV news especially, is a poor use of your resources if you're looking to be a globally-minded, well-educated, thoughtful individual.

I don't have a TV and don't take a daily newspaper (I do get The Economist and The Week), and I have not once (at least in recent memory, probably 5 years+) found that I was news-deficient in some regard.

The news you really need to know about will rise to the top, and you'll be aware of it. If you choose to research it more, you can. The news you really don't need to know (specifically, news involving Lindsay Lohan, et al.) will be talked about by everyone around you (and, so, you'll have your fill of that quickly).

The one thing I miss in not getting a daily newspaper is the Metro and Style sections of the WaPo, which was substantial enough that it didn't feel like total fluff, fluffy enough that it was easy reading over Cheerios.

And, as others noted above, you'll hear about other significant news on the Blue.
posted by Alt F4 at 5:58 AM on January 5, 2007

I follow the news because I think it is interesting. It is enjoyable for me to find out things about what is going on. I don't think that following the news is a moral action, it is a form of recreation. Also the people that I am more likely to find interesting also follow the news, so even if I didn't find the news interesting it might be worth it to follow it so as to better connect with people I find interesting. I'm not sure if I was the kind of person who was not interested in the news I'm not sure that I would be as interested in people that were, but I'll never know.
posted by I Foody at 7:42 AM on January 5, 2007

I can't think of any reason why books and essays would be superior to the news.

Is this a joke? Do you actually read books? The news is written to deadline, with extremely partial information, from a few (biased) sources, and usually with little or no context. Books are different, and better, in every respect.

Some people seem to be missing the point of the question, which is not "should I be aware of what's going on in the world?" but "is following the news day by day the best way of being aware of what's going on?" I would say no, although I think having spent some time doing so lays down a good base of awareness topsoil (so to speak) in which to plant your longer-term insights. Reading the news obsessively for some years gave me a good basis from which to evaluate my reading about Russia a century ago, but my reading about Russia a century ago is more fruitful now for my understanding of the world than spending the time obsessively reading the news would be.
posted by languagehat at 7:42 AM on January 5, 2007

"But it's wrong to think that watching a daily news channel will tell you who that Horst Köhler is the President or that Angela Merkel is the Chancellor, or anything else of substance."

But a daily newspaper will. Which is why I tried to make sure to differentiate between following any news and following news selectively and wisely. But following daily news has been invaluable to me as a student, as a journalist, and as a citizen.
posted by klangklangston at 7:44 AM on January 5, 2007

I think it depends on *how* you follow the news. If you choose to do so by reading a single paper every day, you may not get a bigger benefit than if, say, you read the Economist weekly and watch the BBC, or read the Sunday NYT.

Part of this is because newspapers are reluctant to give competitors attention for their good work, and part of it is the limitations of time and habit.

This is where a really good news aggregator could make following the daily news much more useful than it currently is for most people. Around 1999-2000 Brill's Content started up a site called "All-Star Newspaper" which linked to stories from a number of papers. It tended to be a little on the elitist side, and not as broad as it could be, but it was a good example of how you could learn a lot by following the daily news, especially on events of national/international significance.

I suppose Slate's Today's Papers is a slimmer version of that, but I've yet to see a really intelligent guide to the best of daily news.
posted by thescoop at 8:33 AM on January 5, 2007

It will give you a better perspective on world affairs and enable you to talk knowledgeably about them.
posted by Johnny Showbiz at 10:27 AM on January 5, 2007

A old guy at work always says he reads the sports section of the paper first so he can read about our accomplishments before he turns to the front page to read about our mistakes.
posted by jasondigitized at 11:20 AM on January 5, 2007

i think weekly is a good news frequency. the dailies have to make inches, so they pad their stories and overemphasize minor points (think CNN live: "we don't know much at this point but she, or he, was driving a red car. a red vehicle. on a road."). the weeklies have an innately harder job, though- summarizing is harder than padding- so i think selecting a really good weekly news source becomes more important. maybe read two weekly sources with opposing world views, or supplement your weekly news with a good news blog or two. you'll still be saving time.
posted by twistofrhyme at 1:32 PM on January 5, 2007

Following up on a previous point [Jason's]: Following the sports daily will always give you something to talk about with other guys. Even if they don't follow sports, there's a societal pressure to do so.
Like talking about the U of M choke to USC [OLD NEWS].
posted by klangklangston at 8:39 PM on January 5, 2007

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