Digital fasting: my year without news

Posted on March 7, 2016


When did you last check the news? Was it a minute of updates from the car radio, between ads and songs? A headline floating across a shiny digital screen on your way to buy lunch? A notification on your iPhone? A link from a friend’s Facebook feed bookmarked for later?

For me, it was about an hour ago when The Guardian newsletter popped up in my inbox.

To be truthful, I still feel a little bit naughty whenever I check the news.

That’s because I just spent a year doing a news fast – no newspapers, no news apps, no news websites, no Facebook. Nothing newsy whatsoever.

It was an experiment of sorts. Because while we all swipe, slide and skim the news constantly, I was no longer sure if my consumption was anything other than a visceral distraction from life. The very stuff the news is supposed to be about.

So I thought I’d give it some space for a while to see what I missed and gained without the news to chart my course in the world.


Breaking up with the news

I was still in primary school when I decided that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. At that age, I was enamoured with the thought of uncovering endless mysteries and getting to write about them. As I grew older, I learned more about the power of storytelling and saw journalism as a way to facilitate important public conversations that could bring about social change. My notions of news were certainly idealistic, but there were still layers of truth in my vision.

In my first Media and Communications lecture at the University of Sydney, Professor Catharine Lumby asked how many of us wanted to work at a newspaper when we finished our degree. About three-quarters of us, myself included, raised our eager and sweaty hands. After all, a job at the Sydney Morning Herald seemed like the most prestigious thing we could possibly aspire to. With a wry smile, she suggested we expand our ambitions, and carried on with her history of Australian media.

Within four years, before I’d even graduated, it had become apparent that newspapers were not places to go looking for work. In fact, even as we studied “the Internet” in a unit devoted to the medium, it was becoming clear that the media as a whole was evolving at a pace far more rapid than a a weekly lecture could keep up with.

Through all of that, I persevered with my journalistic ideals – I founded a magazine for young people with Youth Action, completed a fellowship at The Korea Herald and edited university rag The Bull. I moved to China following a lead on a copy editing gig at a major English daily and with dreamy intentions of setting myself up as a freelance journalist. And then I suddenly wound up in Bangladesh (because life is like that) and, after a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing between sectors, ultimately decided that international development was where I could make a much bigger mark on the injustices of the world. (Of course, living in Bangladesh also taught me that I may not be able to make any mark at all, but persevering in spite of this is an essential part of being. I digress – that’s another blog post). Either way, I still felt that journalism had an important and powerful part to play in strengthening our society, but that my own efforts would be better directed elsewhere.


A siege on sensibility

Fast forward a few years. I was at my desk in Sydney’s CBD, a few weeks before Christmas holidays, when my colleague’s phone beeped with a text message. She read it in a matter of seconds, then turned to tell us that there was a siege at Martin Place. Channel Seven was doing a live stream.

Multiple browser screens opened up around me. Talking heads started 24 hours of speculation about the siege. Before long, more phones were beeping, more opinions being flung around, and then the fear, sadness and confusion started. These were all pretty reasonable responses given the chaos of the situation and the fact that every hyperlinked Tweet seemed to cast greater uncertainty over what was going on. Every fibre in our bodies wanted to know who, what, when, where, why and how. And our news system was busting every ounce of its fibre to give us answers.

But our insatiable quest – for truth, for certainty, for more – was failing us.

And I couldn’t help but feel that if this was what the news delivered when it mattered more than a weather update, then I wanted nothing to do with it.


Missing connection

We’re pretty lucky to be alive right now. Sure, there are plenty of bad things going on. But as a whole we are living longer, better lives than humans have at any other point in history.

The advent of the digital era has been a big part of this. We’re more connected than ever before, and this presents a beautiful opportunity for humans to harness. It also means that there’s a tricky transition period – where everything changes, nothing makes sense, and most of us cling on with our eyes shut for the bumpy ride ahead.

How do we make sense of these changes? Largely, in the way we always have – through stories. And now, our stories can be amplified across continents. We can reach across decades of knowledge without getting out of bed. We can meet a perfect stranger without ever learning each other’s languages.

With the privilege of knowledge comes the horror of truths – that while my cosy, safe life in Sydney is one truth of the human experience, so is the frightening and fragile existence of a family stuck in Aleppo. Of course, this has always been the case. But now, we are reminded of it every moment we tap into the pulse of our global, nanosecond-notated, hyperreal world of news.

How do we begin to process all this information?

Journalist Courtney Martin puts it well: “I’m talking about the chronic, contemporary pain of being an informed person. You wake up, reach for the phone next to your bed, start scrolling through Facebook and — just like that — you are immersed in the eternal stream of rubble, corruption, and death that is the daily news cycle.”

In 2010 I wrote my Honours thesis on Australian media coverage of Papua New Guinea. The essence of my argument was this – that news is meaningless if it lacks context. While we focus on getting updates out the door before the next journalist or the next event, we miss an opportunity to pause and reflect on what a moment actually means.

I want to add a small caveat here – after years of studying journalism and labelling myself ‘journalist’ on my CV, I know (and draw hope from) that there are many journalists who do in fact report with respect for their reader, their subject and the broader sweep of history that they speak from. But the thing I am speaking to here is much bigger than individuals – it’s about a system of news that prizes immediacy and clicks above understanding and engagement. Most journalists can’t fight against that – they just need to deliver a story to their editor, who just needs to raise enough revenue to please their boss, who just wants to figure out how to keep the whole thing afloat when nobody wants to pay for content anymore anyway.


Junk food

It’s true that I went a year without actively consuming news. But I couldn’t go a year without finding out news inadvertently.

A big part of my no-news experiment was seeing how I received information if I didn’t go seeking it. I tuned into the conversations that people were having about world events, domestic politics, social issues. I felt like I came to these conversations a little less informed on the specific details but a little more curious to engage in their views about what was going on. When we had a local election, I found myself online exploring the candidate’s websites in detail, cross-checking their views against each other, and being left with no option other than to speak to party representatives on voting day so that I could feel like I was casting an informed vote. Of course, in all these instances, there’s no reason why news couldn’t have added more value to my understanding of the situation, but something about stepping back from the noise made it all seem a little bit clearer.

There were two occasions when I broke my no-news rule; both instigated by friends insisting that I check the news. One instance was when Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ousted former PM Tony Abbott. The other was the attacks in Paris towards the end of the year. Both were certainly significant events in 2015. But in each instance, I was unsettled by how the story was much the same as it was when I tapped out of the news, even if the characters or details were different. There wasn’t much commentary that gave me new insights and I didn’t reconnect to the screen in horror at how inadequate my understanding had become while I’d been looking the other way.

It reinforced for me that so much of what we call news is just filler food – empty carbohydrates of information that stop short of being nutritious and as such don’t really serve us well in the long term. At any point in time, we can pull up a seat, enjoy some fries and get back on with our day – mildly satiated but barely wiser. This approach to news – which by virtue of its incessant nature is what most news is – is leaving us hungry.

Writer Maria Popova speaks similarly: “I worry about the temporal bias of the web – everything online is based around vertical chronology. The latest stuff floats at the top, and the older stuff sinks towards the bottom. It suggests that just because something is more recent, it’s more relevant; yet, in culture, the best ideas are timeless, they have no expiration date.”


A way forward

The reason I did my no-news experiment, and the reason I write with passion about the current state of news, is because I care so deeply about the role of news and media in our society.

The German Enlightenment philosopher Georg Hegel once said that society becomes modern when news replaces religion. There are a lot of reasons why we might believe that news has replaced religion. But if it’s the thing we turn to for meaning and answers, and it remains to be as meaningless as it is now, that’s hardly a definition of modernity that I want to subscribe to.

News has the potential to sharpen us, to enrich us, to connect us, to inspire us. Importantly, the stories we tell each other about the world we live in have the potential to breathe that very world into being.

I’m not advocating that we be coddled with fluffy, feel-good news stories that only focus on the nice stuff. And I’m not advocating that we only get hit with political pieces that speak in serious tones of doom and gloom. It’s also not about going back to some alleged golden age of news when facts were labelled clearly and filed daily at most.

Instead, I think we need to reflect on what we need from our storytellers of news. Rather than fretting about the end of the industry and producing endlessly meaningless content just to keep up with the Joneses (or perhaps the Kardashians), maybe this is a moment to pause and listen rather than show and tell.

As a news consumer and occasional news producer, I want news that:

  • Cultivates understanding, not fear
  • Challenges stereotypes rather than perpetuating them
  • Builds empathy and connection between people and place
  • Celebrates a diverse range of storytelling voices and styles
  • Makes the important interesting
  • Asks questions with humility, more often than it delivers answers with impatient arrogance
  • Equips us to act as global citizens and local change agents.

There’s already some good stuff happening. Solutions journalism is becoming a thing. Slow journalism is a growing movement, as is long-form. While these are interesting examples of the principles above, I still can’t help but feel that we don’t need a genre of news to deliver us what the whole thing should be. These styles are useful only so far as they do what all journalism must – to help us understand the world a little more clearly, and in doing so, to bring us a little closer to making wise decisions about the kind of society we’d like to live in.

So now that it’s 2016, I have returned to the news again. There have been some changes in my diet – I haven’t downloaded any news apps to my phone, as I don’t want to scroll distractedly through stories that deserve my attention. I still haven’t re-subscribed to The Guardian Weekly, though I’m not sure why yet, perhaps I just like the space that comes without it. I’m very firm on staying off Facebook. But I’ve returned to reading stories online, and I still use Instapaper to save things for later. The proliferation of podcasts has opened up all sorts of listening possibilities, which is delightful because radio really is such an undervalued medium in this visual world. I’ll keep reading books – sometimes emotive, other times hard-hitting, but nearly always thoughtful, contextual and well-written. And conversation  about the world we live in – with friends, family, strangers –remains the single most meaningful way I know to make sense of it all.

It seems fitting to finish with these words from philosopher Alain de Botton’s The News: “We need relief from the news-fuelled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premiere parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to rise up into space in our imagination, many kilometres above the mantle of the earth, to a place where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us – and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against the aeons of time to which the view of other galaxies attests.”



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