Statistician Nassim Taleb often points to an allegory of a fragile bridge. Regardless of what car drives over it, it will eventually break. The Swiss author Rolf Dobelli adds on to that: When the bridge collapses, what does the news focus on? It reports on the driver, on his life and on his family. These facts are attention-grabbing, but they are not necessarily relevant. The news should instead primarily report on the bridge because its collapse raises important questions (e.g., what types of bridges should local drivers avoid? Are there civil engineering flaws that are shared amongst other nearby constructions?). But news outlets do not center stories about bridges because fewer people will watch.
This scenario illustrates the two main problems with modern news. First, it increasingly focuses on rare and fear-inducing events. This approach makes consumers overly fearful and stressed about what’s happening around them. Second, modern news often functions as entertainment, reporting on events with little to no practical relevance to viewers’ lives. Because of these downsides, I believe that a significant portion of news is neither constructive nor important; in many cases, you might even be better off not consuming it.
Journalism and the news have value at their most critical moments: They hold the powerful accountable and provide vital information quickly during emergencies and natural disasters. And there are moments when we genuinely need to watch the news. But consistent news consumption for its own sake causes stress and is detrimental to health. According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, more than half of those who follow the news say that it causes them stress. Negative news consumption is also correlated with depression. Upsetting news events may even cause learned helplessness, a pathological feeling of powerlessness and a lack of control.
This is because regularly following the news makes people afraid and gives them a more negative view of the world over time. News outlets are often incentivized to report on sensational events such as violent crimes because they garner more attention. As such, frightening crimes such as murder receive a disproportionate amount of coverage (hence the slogan “if it bleeds, it leads”), causing these crimes to seem more common than they actually are.
For example, media outlets are more than happy to run many stories about the threat of violence on the New York City subway. Yet recent analysis from the New York Times shows that roughly 1.2 violent crimes occur for every million rides. While it is worth focusing further on public safety, it certainly doesn’t qualify as an “existential threat.” However, because of fear-mongering news coverage, studies have shown that people who watch local news overestimate crime rates and their likelihood of being the victim of a crime. Because negative events have a bigger impact on the human mind than positive events, it creates a feedback loop where consumers crave negativity and news outlets feed it to them.
Even when news is factual and not overly sensationalized toward extreme crimes, it still may not offer practical benefits. A lot of news that appears in major outlets primarily informs you about far-away events over which you have no control. Local tragedies can become national headlines, but a limited number of readers will live within a 50-mile radius of where the crime occurred, and fewer still will attend a public hearing or donate money to the victims. The headline’s main effect is to desensitize readers to the gravity of tragic situations.
Some remain committed to following the news because, even recognizing its downsides, they feel that it is important to stay informed. But following the news is a very inefficient way to do so. More than a fourth of the time in nightly news programs, on average, are ads. Furthermore, a significant portion of many news programs is “fluff” — light human interest stories. Social media news may even be worse. Viral news stories on social media often are “fake news” like the widely-viewed documentary “Plandemic,” which falsely alleged that the COVID-19 pandemic was a global conspiracy. Furthermore, the snippets of news on social media are often not long enough to give nuance to news stories or provide viewers with balanced perspectives. If you do follow the news, it is probably best to follow wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters that only exist to report the facts in a plain context.
Following the news is often perceived as a good habit, but doing so has an overwhelming net negative impact. News leverages our desire to stay connected to the world to achieve the exact opposite — we become more scared of our surrounding environments and desensitized to the graphic and extreme. Our news entertainment makes us stressed, fatigued and even depressed. As writer Neil Postman said in 1985, by watching the news, we are amusing ourselves to death.
Benjamin Aizenberg ’26 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org