When we read the news, what does that do for the world?

The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Erik Hagerman stopped reading the news. A New York Times profile tells us that the Ohio resident and former corporate executive takes white-noise headphones with him when he goes out so that he can block out ambient news (Dolnick 2018). When he went to stay with his brother, the brother had to warn all his friends ahead of time not to bring up any current events. He only makes an exception for his mom’s updates about the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Is Hagerman doing anything wrong? Does he – do the rest of us – have a duty to read the news?

Minimally, it seems like Erik Hagerman is not as virtuous as he could be, yet some aspects of our commonsense moral attitudes suggest that we think that he’s doing something outright morally wrong. The existence of high-school civics class, the despair over the decline of local newspapers, the hand-wringing
over the small percentage of adults who are informed about politics and economics – all of these suggest a commonsense belief that it’s a duty, not just a

virtue, to stay abreast of current events.1 But dig deeper, and it’s not clear why reading the news would be morally obligatory or even virtuous. When we read the news, what does that do for the world? Most of us rarely have the opportunity to change the lives of those whom we read about in the morning newspaper.

In this paper, I’ll argue that reading the news is generally morally obligatory anyway. Initially, we’ll see that many potentially promising justifications for this duty fail. The duty to read the news cannot be justified solely because of the value of information or the material benefits to others, or as an obligation of democratic citizenship, or as a self-regarding duty. Our duty to read the news is best justified because we have a positive duty of respect for others – and it’s difficult, often impossible, to fulfill this duty without reading the news. We’ll then explore some of the ramifications of this justification. Seeing reading the news as a way to respect others means that we will likely find ourselves reading less about political horseraces and minor economic shifts and more about the real lives of people whom we don’t know and will never meet.

Before we begin, some clarification about what it is to read the news. By news, I mean factual information about current events (political, economic, human-interest, sports, celebrity, art, and so on), not opinion writing or hot takes. When I talk about reading the news, I’m using this as shorthand for any way we consume factual information about current events – the newspapers, magazines, radio, podcasts, blogs, tweets, and TikToks we read, listen to, and scroll through.