Bryan Caplan  

The Case Against News

PRINT
How Overvalued is Italy?... Greenspan on the Economy...
By and large, I think news is a waste of time.  If I want to increase my factual knowledge, I read history - or Wikipedia.  News, I like to say, is the lie that something important happens every day. 

Most people think my position is crazy, even for me.  I was surprised to learn, then, that someone even more anti-news than me got to present his arguments at TED.  A few of his arguments are silly, and more are poorly documented.  But the best parts of the paper that inspired the TED talk are excellent.  From Rolf Dobelli's "Avoid News":
News is irrelevant.

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that - because you consumed it - allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business - compared to what you would have known if you hadn't swallowed that morsel of news.

[...]

Assume that, against all odds, you found one piece of news that substantially increased the quality of your life - compared to how your life would have unfolded if you hadn't read or seen it. How much trivia did your brain have to digest to get to that one relevant nugget? Even that question is a hindsight analysis. Looking forward, we can't possibly identify the value of a piece of news before we see it, so we are forced to digest everything on the news buffet line. Is that worthwhile? Probably not.

In 1914, the news story about the assassination in Sarajevo dwarfed all other reports in terms of its global significance. But, the murder in Sarajevo was just one of several thousand stories in circulation that day. No news organization treated this historically pivotal homicide as anything more than just another politically inspired assassination.
The conclusion is also great.
What to do instead.

Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey.

[...]

If you want to keep the illusion of "not missing anything important", I suggest you glance through the summary page of the Economist once a week. Don't spend more than five minutes on it.

Read magazines and books which explain the world - Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don't shy away from presenting the complexities of life - or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity. Try reading a book a week. Better two or three. History is good. Biology. Psychology. That way you'll learn to understand the underlying mechanisms of the world. Go deep instead of broad. Enjoy material that truly interests you. Have fun reading.
What you can look forward to:
After a while, you will realize that despite your personal news blackout, you have not missed - and you're not going to miss - any important facts. If some bit of information is truly important to your profession, your company, your family or your community, you will hear it in time - from your friends, your mother-in-law or whomever you talk to or see.  [All too true! -BC]  When you are with your friends, ask them if anything important is happening in the world. The question is a great conversation starter. Most of the time, the answer will be: "not really."
P.S. When I read this passage, the counter-example of Tyler Cowen came immediately to mind.
I don't know a single truly creative mind who is a news junkie - not a writer, not a composer, mathematician, physician, scientist, musician, designer, architect or painter. On the other hand, I know a whole bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs.
HT: Tim Harford



COMMENTS (29 to date)
Jason Brennan writes:

I don't have any statistics to back this up, but I'm under the impression that your view about news is pretty common. (I share this view as well.) For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure JS Mill has argument somewhere that reading newspapers--even good ones--is a waste of time.

z writes:

I subscribe to news headlines (washington post) in my blog reader. Just quickly scanning them gives me the impression that I'm "keeping up". But I probably only read1 out of 200 of them. I learn vastly more from the various other blogs I subscribe to.

Damien writes:

Maybe news is not information but entertainment? By and large, you don't learn anything important when you watch a movie either, but many people do anyway because it is very enjoyable!

Cahal writes:

Wow, an example of economists at their most detached from reality, placing little value on anything that isn't deemed 'productive'.

People enjoy reading the news. That's it.

MikeP writes:

You are of course writing to a highly selected set of people -- those who read blogs with depth in areas of interest rather than news. You will see much agreement.

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that - because you consumed it - allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business - compared to what you would have known if you hadn't swallowed that morsel of news.

Perhaps a news story that points out that NPR exists?

I know very well what is going on in the world, yet I give up virtually nothing to know it. The time that I am waking up, getting ready for the day, and driving is not going to be used for longish and deep articles and books that represent the world's complexity.

I get the newspaper, but spend less than 5 minutes on it a day -- mostly the opinion page and local shorts. As a whole the newspaper is a waste of time, as are TV news or internet news sites. But the radio allows you to get news and interesting articles while carrying on the rest of your life.

Jody writes:

Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey

I think the case is far too strong or too broadly scoped. For instance:

Do traffic, construction, weather, and school closings count as news? I mean, sure I'll learn about those eventually, but not without making some bad decisions first.

What about news about changes in taxes or changes in regulations? I'm certain that I would've learned eventually about the 2% SS change, but not before depositing the wrong amount with the IRS.

Does seeing Egypt erupt and filling up my tank count? Would seeing QE2 reported and hopping into the stock market count (not me on this case, but others certainly did)?


I think the issue is a lot of what is presented on "the news" on TV is gossip (see Charlie Sheen brouhaha or OJ back in the day)or entertainment (literally entertainment coverage but also sports and science) and too large of a fraction of "the news" is not news I could use.

But there are typically news items that affect my daily life, even if they're not life altering.

[Disclosure - I watch the local news, but not the national news; national news I get online where a la carte news consumption is easier]

Henry writes:

Ah, yes. I've had arguments with my mother about this - she berated me for not reading the local newspapers/viewing the local news broadcast whenever I expressed ignorance about some story. I countered that the vast majority of news is irrelevant for most people, including me. It's entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that. I do have a bone to pick with people who try to claim otherwise, though.

wintercow20 writes:

But the news is so replete with economic nonsense that it provides a wealth of teaching material for our classes and websites. That said, I don't watch the news - I've got dozens of news junkie students who have become attuned to this stuff and filter and pass along the stuff they think will be interesting for me to share.

Incredibly though, I find that there is less egregious nonsense in my news viewing today than say 10 years ago - maybe economists are having an influence? For example, I've yet to see a news article on the current high and increasing gas prices suggesting a price cap.

R. writes:

Where is the TED talk?

Joseph K writes:

There's a big difference between being a news junkie and avoiding the news altogether. I can definitely agree that reducing the amount of time you spend on the news and replacing it with time reading or watching stuff more could enrich your mind, but you can stay abreast of the biggest news items in a pretty short period of time.

Also, I don't buy the argument about the killing of Archduke Ferdinand. Looking at a series of events from a perspective of history is one way of looking at things, but also seeing the assassination as just one event among a great panoply of activity going on everywhere is also a relevant perspective. When we look at things through the lens of history we can forget that the assassination was genuinely one of many things going on at the time, and that it wasn't that important at the time but only became important because of what followed. We can forget that, say, when Einstein published his four papers in 1905 there weren't trumpet calls from heaven and the headline on every paper: "Modern Physics has Begun!" We can forget that the battles of Lexington and Concord were not really shots heard round the world. I think it's important to see the world sometimes through the perspective of the news as well as the perspective of history.

Richard writes:

Blogging, I like to say, is the lie that you have something important to say every day.

Just kidding (otherwise I wouldn't be here, right?). But this is somewhat surprising coming from a blogger. Current events are one of the primary sources of material for the econ blogosphere. Of course, it does not hurt to think at the margin and avoid irrelevant news.

Various writes:

I couldn't disagree with you more Bryan. News is after all, history being made in real time. Are you saying that knowledge of history is irrelevant? I hope not.

True, most news stories are rubbish. But others important. Part of the challenge is sorting out the important stories from the garbage. Understanding history real time is an important endeavor for many folks. I'm in finance, and I can recall off the top of my head numerous news stories that have altered my world view, to my advantage.

Second, there is probably a much larger and incalculable number of times I've acted on information from news stories and didn't realize it per se. This is because I mentally critique each story I read. I ask myself if the story seems accurate, etc. Once done, I then internalize the story into my integrated world view. I assume others do the same.

Third, feedback from news stories allows me to continually reevaluate my world view. I often decide that previously held views of mine were inaccurate, which allows me to revise my world model. Without this feedback from real events, my world view would be much less valuable because I wouldn't trust its accuracy.

To support my thesis, I can give you many examples of me using information in news stories to my advantage. For example, in approximately 2007 I read many news stories asserting that real estate values were flattening and in some cases declining. But in these stories the authors usually opined that this would have little effect on mortgage defaults because, according to most of the authors “history has shown a limited cause and effect relationship between housing prices and default rates”….or words to that effect. I then recalled may news stories I had read on experience with credit card debt that showed that the default rate on credit cards increased dramatically once a consumer experienced a number of negative life events (job loss, etc.). At that moment, I began to ascribe an increased probability to a housing meltdown if you will. I’m not saying I predicted it, but only that I was significantly ahead of many of my peers in this regard. This is just a single example.

In summary, I agree with you that the roughly 99% of news stories are worthless. But I also believe that, in the right hands, the predictive value of the remaining 1% of news stories can be tremendous. You’re missing out on this 1% Bryan!

Elvin writes:

If you are trying to be highly creative or highly productive, yes, the news is a diversion that you can do without, as well as doing without sports, TV, movies, and evening outs with friends. Complete focus in necessary. I remember one very prolific professor had no clue to sports or local events, though he did pay some attention to national news. I assume he knew nothing about movies or TV, either. Because of his great knowledge of history, he was a great conversationalist, however.

Bryan, my guess is that you have simply decided that what limited leisure time you have, you focus on quality family time and relaxation, not being a news hound. Given your situation, this is good decision.

Yancey Ward writes:

By and large, I think reading Econlog is a waste of time. If I want to increase my factual knowledge, I read news - or watch the Science Channel.

Of course, I am not being serious, but then I don't see why this argument is any less valid than it's original formulation. At least, my life will change for the better this afternoon when I take my umbrella with me.

joe cushing writes:

News can cause harm. It makes people believe rare and dangerous events are common. This leads to misplaced fear and it prevents people from living life as they otherwise would. For example, I was warned by two people not to sell things on craigs list because 1 guy out of millions got shot by sombody who came to rob him of what he was selling.

Consuming news is not worthless for people that aren't deep thinkers and creative minds on a professional basis, e.g. professors. For most people news consumption is their way of obtaining conversational aptitude in the "real world" of busy 9-5ers who signal their interest in something beyond their own hobbies and material interests by talking about what's going on in the world.

If you're young, in school and plan on pursuing an intellectual profession, take this advice. If that time has passed and you've failed, or you have no interest in it to begin with, I'd recommend continuing to consume news.

Brittany Catamount writes:

I completely agree with this blog. Most news is irrelevant to our lives and don't add any significance. Books will give you more underlying knowledge than anything you read in your city's newspaper. Plus, I can pick and choose what I read. There are so many different genres and I love trying new ones everyday. The one part I do appreciate about news is reading about technology and medical updates. It's good to read about how technology is becoming more advanced so people can stay connected. I love the medical advancements that will elongate peoples' lives and help with diseases.

Lee Kelly writes:

I always remind people that whenever one hears a news story about a subject one happens to know a lot about, it is usually clear that the story is mistaken, misleading, or even deceptive. I then remind them that this is probably true for the other 99% of news stories about subjects they are not particularly knowledgeable about.

When it comes to news stories, read the summary and nothing else.

Bob Ewing writes:

This approach makes sense for unsocial geniuses.

For normal people like me (who realize they won't be publishing the next pathbreaking classic) a big part of the joy we get in life is being a part of the world -- sharing and understanding and connecting to what is happening around us.

From intense political drama unfolding on the other side of the planet to harmless cultural events like Beiber-Fever...to the fact that my local video rental store is closing in two weeks.

Benjamin Wories writes:

I'd conclude then that news knowledge is for social signaling and entrainment.

You are certainly right that there is a lot of pointless noise out there, but being clueless of the buzz may come at a social cost.

Where's the TED Talk?

Patrick L writes:

I enjoy the sport of politics, and as such, I'm impatient to find out the latest plays and scores.

frankcross writes:

Herbert Simon said he didn't become truly productive until he stopped reading the news.

But it is hard to make a case for reading econlog under this theory.

Doc Merlin writes:

"On the other hand, I know a whole bunch of viciously uncreative minds who consume news like drugs."

Does by "viciously uncreative" he mean "people who disagree with me" in my little bubble of ignorance.

Ed writes:

Stephen King said that, for every hour he spends reading, he spends an hour writing. This forces him to keep his creativity going at the same time as getting new ideas from reading the works of others. I think that this can be applied to non-fiction as well.

I don't see how reading history is any more enlightening than the news. So much of history is disputed. How can you base your knowledge on information whose legitimacy can never be known?

Daublin writes:

Worth emphasizing is that the reporters don't know much about what they are reporting on, because they are journalists rather than domain experts. Usually when I see a news article about something I know about, I cringe with unease at what a casual viewer would think if they just watched or read that report and didn't know anything else. It's often worse than not knowing anything.

It seems much better to think of these programs as entertainment. Now if only people could admit it to themselves when they watch this stuff....

Allison writes:

Ironically, this article by Caplan appeared on my facebook feed as "news." Otherwise, I probably would have never heard - let alone delved into further research and consideration - of this argument.

Carl writes:

"Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that - because you consumed it - allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business - compared to what you would have known if you hadn't swallowed that morsel of news."

This is arbitrarily high standard to hold the news to. I think it is false to argue that most people consume the news to make better decisions regarding their lives. Most people consume the news for the same reason they read economics blogs or magazines like the Atlantic, because learning about the world around them gives them utility in-and-of itself.

Jason Collins writes:

In this post, could we replace 'news' with 'sport'?

InfiniteMind writes:

Great topic Mr. Caplan

I think this is an especially interesting idea for someone like myself who is still in college and only recently has started the journey to becoming an investor/trader.

Sometimes it does come in handy to know the major events of the day and to retain them for future discussions but the enormous plethora of information makes it impossible to know everything everyday. No matter how much you read the news, you will miss something. Kinda sad.

So thanks for the refresher!

www.infinitemind.blog.com

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top