The media fast

Michael  Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, recently blogged about his self-imposed media fast. I’d been following him on Twitter while he decided about it, and the fact that he decided to take the plunge after I encouraged him to do so is entirely coincidental. 🙂 But if you’d care to say “great minds think alike” then please feel free to do so.

When Wendy returned from Japan, she saw a headline that encapsulated her entire view of the American media system: “Temporary Tatoos! What every parent should know!” The implication being that there was a hidden danger, and if you didn’t know about it, you were a Bad Parent and your children would meet a Grave End. But now you knew better and could save their lives and souls.

The news media, to be blunt, is not selflessly informing us of anything. Maybe journalism used to have that as its intent, but nowadays, the news media is selling a product. It’s a matter of them asking you to keep returning to them for their service, and in order to do that, they have to create what you perceive to be an unfilled need.

What do papers and TV news want? To sell advertising. In order to do that, they need viewers and readers. In order to get those, they need to provide “news” or something approaching that. My 11 year old laughed, but was later upset, when I explained to him the concept of “the news hole.” That is to say, a  newspaper is put together by first laying out all the paid advertisements, and then whatever space is left over is called “the news hole,” and the editorial staff seeks to fill it.

A newspaper owner told me once, point-blank, that if he could sell a newspaper that consisted entirely of ads, he would proceed to do so at once. 

Given that, the media “hooks” you to come back by creating uncertainty (“What don’t you know that may kill you?”) and providing a soluti0n (“Everyone else is in a panic but now you know better.”)

Two relatives of mine used to work as park rangers. In the mornings, they awoke to the news and got out of bed at the first report of an unnatural death. Some mornings they’d stay in bed five minutes. Others, they were up like toast out of a toaster (“Fifteen children dead in school bus accident!”)

Do we need that steady diet of adrenaline? Not really. We haven’t hooked up our cable TV. I haven’t gotten a newspaper subscription since moving to Angelborough, and I don’t miss it. I find out enough about the world from other sources. I’m calmer. Sometimes the weather surprises me, but I’m able to cope.

For what it’s worth, Michael Hyatt reports that he’s been feeling calmer and less stressed too. Sometimes what gets trapped in our hearts is really only what we put there in the first place.


  1. Ivy

    I can’t choose ignorance. I need to know what’s going on in the world, and depending on other sources is sort of iffy. I’d get “Obama is Satan incarnate”, “Obama is the messiah”, and “Some football player shot himself in the foot.” My crowd rarely discusses stuff like Mumbai, the new species found in Mekong, or the incredible breakthroughs in cancer research that have come out over the last few months. Sad, really.

  2. philangelus

    It’s not ignorance to pick and choose what and where you listen/read. The news has a one-hour slot every day. If there isn’t one hour worth of news, they’ve got to fill it anyhow, so they fill it with stressful garbage.

    Fifteen kids die in a bus accident in Minneapolis. It gets reported. Why on earth do you need to know that? You don’t live in Minneapolis (where, arguably, people do need to know that) and you don’t have children who ride a school bus. You aren’t in charge of road safety. You don’t certify bus drivers. You don’t teach at a school. Is there any reason you *needed* to know that?

    And half the time the reported “cure for cancer” vanishes into the ether and we don’t hear about it again because it was only a lead to begin with, not an actual cure. And the media never reports, “Oh, that cure for cancer we talked about three years ago? Further studies proved it was just a placebo effect. Cancer’s still deadly.”

    I’m not saying turn off the news *completely* but rather that we need to be extremely choosy about what we read or listen to, and we have many options about when and how we take it in.

  3. Cricket

    Analog had a story years ago, set any day now, where we paid editors for lists of what to read rather than publishing and printing houses. (It didn’t mention how the authors made enough to eat.)

    I wake up to the local radio because it has weather. (One hose is an idiot, and the music is either good enough to listen to or makes me shut down, but it has the school closures.)

    The evenings we flick to the news, our tempers are shot and the family quality goes way down. As others have said, if it’s really important, we’ll hear about it. I just started checking Yahoo news with my mail, but don’t know if it’s worth the time.

    Dad checks the markets and email lists almost hourly, even when we’re there. Drives Mom crazy, but I pretty much ignore it. I only go online over the holidays once every few days, and then only because I moderate a few local groups. I’ve yet to come off a holiday computer session glad that I went on.

  4. Ivy

    Jane, watching that one hour slot isn’t a media fast, though. What you’re doing is allocating an appropriate amount of time to the news, and not obsessing about it. You’re busy. You have a full, active lifestyle. You don’t have time or energy to hang on every detail of every news article. That makes total sense. It’s striking a sensible, healthy balance.

    Many of the people who are on a media fast are on an actual, total, fast. Zero newspapers. Zero TV news. Zero radio news. Zero news websites. Ask them about the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe and they’ve never heard of it. It’s yet another form of illiteracy we’re inflicting on ourselves. We have biblical illiteracy to a point where some people can’t even list the ten commandments. We have scientific illiteracy to the point where many people don’t even understand the basics. I’ve had two people tell me that we stick to the Earth via, not gravity, magnetism.

    Can we get by without this? Sure. A person could never crack a book, know nothing about literature, history, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, the bible, science, politics, or current events, and survive just fine. I just don’t think that’s a good decision, and clearly, it’s not the one you’re making.

    I read the Journal and the Times because they offer conflicting points of view. The closest approximation to truth, it seems to me, lies in the overlap.

    Cricket, I take it you’re not a fan of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die or The Lifetime Reading Plan? The latter is pretty good, actually.

  5. philangelus

    I don’t watch TV news and I don’t get a newspaper. I limit myself to reading the headlines on the news sites and getting a flavor of the events of the world from that.

    And as for the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe — okay, so now you’ve heard of it. What have you done about it? What can you do about it?

    I’m not talking about no longer reading philosophy or the Bible. But if you’re spending an hour a day reading the newspaper and filling your head with the temporary, that’s one hour a day you don’t have for filling it with the eternal.

  6. Ivy

    I haven’t done much about the conquests of Alexander, dark matter, the parables of Jesus, or linguistic morphology. Nor can I. I think knowledge is, in itself, valuable. As to the cholera epidemic, I’ve sent money to Mercy Corps to help support their emergency relief efforts. I know, not a huge thing, but didn’t Mother Theresa say that too few people are doing the small things as it is?

  7. philangelus

    Unless you’re donating to EVERY cause you hear about on the news, then I disagree that knowledge in and of itself is valuable. Have you read the story about Pug the Pirate in the Cyberiad, where the inventors give him the machine that contains all knowledge?

    At first it seems great, but as the knowledge goes on, it becomes obvious that Pug is now trapped forever. The winner of the Intergalactic Freedom Wars is mentioned, and next the number of grams of butter on Princess Cordelia’s toast that morning, and then the number of carbon atoms in a molecule of gasoline, and then the number of library books checked out by men named Smith in 1963, and then the number of people who died during the nuclear meltdown on Andromeda Nine, and then the number of minutes between trains on the public transportation system in Pelletier CIty on the planet Oomba….

    Indiscriminate information is not the same as knowledge. The news media is providing indiscriminate information.

    And yes, you can do things about the conquests of Alexander, dark matter, and the parables of Jesus: you can incorporate them into your life. Incorporating stressful tidbits about things that cannot be controlled will only give a sense of anxiety, urgency, and impotency.

  8. Cricket

    On one level, I like lists of books I’d like to (or should) read. There are books I had to read in school that I’m glad I read, but will never read the author again. I always want to have things I want to do that I haven’t yet done. (That’s different from making good memories with my family — those shouldn’t wait.)

    But, yeah, I tend to avoid those lists. Firstly, I’ve had bad luck with “good examples of a genre”. I love SciFi, but hated all the samples we read in school. Canada’s got some great authors, but in school we were fed “CanLit is about hardship and stoicism”. I prefer recomendations from friends who enjoy the same types I do, but are still outside what I’d grab for myself.

    Secondly, as you surmised, things that I don’t enjoy and don’t help me (or others) in some way are a waste of time and mental energy. I’m constantly trying new things, but try (not always successfully) to stop the things I find aren’t of benefit — they take time away from what is.

    Thirdly, lists of “shoulds” make me feel guilty. I’m a valuable, intelligent person even if I haven’t read what some expert says I should.

    As a kid, we weren’t allowed to fill the library bag with authors we already loved. We had to include a new author or a non-fiction. I’m not that disciplined these days, but I’m glad when I am.

    I like knowing a bit about what’s going on in the larger world. There may not be much I can do about the current cholera epidemic, but I can teach my kids proper sanitation. The latest holiday resort disaster reminds me why I prefer staying home (not that home’s any safer).

    I like the new media. Little guys get more of a chance to ask questions, and real news, as opposed to shocking news, has a chance to be tweeted and digged and such.

  9. Ivy

    Cycles back to my point that allocating an appropriate amount of time and energy is sensible. Pug is in an obsessive situation.

    What works for you, works for you. I wish you much luck. It’s just not something I would want to do.

  10. Wendy

    I got quoted! Neat! 🙂

    I am on a media diet. No TV news. No newspapers. I occasionally listen to NPR and surf the headlines on the internet. With the headlines, I can decide whether I Need To Know details about how one single iota of body fat can kill us of heart disease (yawn, no) or what pet and child products still contain melamine (definitely). It does a lot for my peace of mind, and my peace of mind is in short supply.

    Someone left a paper on the table in the break room today. On it were the usual gloom and doom headlines: College kids can’t find jobs. People are canceling their doctor visits and car insurance policies because money is tight. I realized I don’t need that nonsense. I’ve had hard times during good times and good income during hard times. I do not need to stress over someone else’s panic headline.

    Though I have to admit I miss reading the Sunday funnies. Reading them online isn’t the same.