My mom assures me that this is a true story. Around the age of 5 or so, reflecting on the content on the local news show on TV, I asked my mom why they didn’t call the show “Bad News” instead of just “News”.
I’ve been traveling for the last two weeks, so my daily routine has been heavily altered. One of my routines is to check in with some news websites. New York Times and Washington Post are my staples, but I tend to add Al Jazeera and Fox News for some additional color. (Diversification is a good thing, right?)
But I hadn’t checked in for a while.
I was still checking my mail occasionally (especially for those who write me here). And of the various mailing lists I was on, I started to notice a trend. Paraphrasing, I received emails like: “We are deeply saddened and horrified by these tragic events.” “We will be observing a moment of silence today.” “I know you are struggling with what happened in the same way that I am…”
What in the world happened? Or rather, what happened in the world?
I later looked up the events, and was as horrified as one would expect. But it did get me to thinking about the role of media and news in our lives.
Table of Contents
I’ve been reading newspapers for years, ever since I grabbed a copy of my college’s daily paper in the dining hall and found I liked reading while I ate. As print newspapers declined, I switched to reading news online, a habit I’ve continued to this day.
I enjoy learning about the events around me, and feeling connected to the larger trends happening in our world. At its highest aspiration, reading the news is an attempt to understand humanity. Moreover, learning about current events feels like it gives me a head start on learning about history, hopefully giving me an edge against being “doomed to repeat it“.
Lofty goals to be sure. But it’s not always so simple.
Fear of a peak planet
In 2007 or so, as the U.S. and global financial worlds were starting to teeter, and I started learning about what was happening. More specifically, I was trying to understand what the rise of oil/gas prices meant for our economy. And this led me to learn about peak oil and the unsustainable nature of our development patterns. I started reading sites like The Oil Drum and the work of James Kunstler.
The more I read, I more horrified I got. Any way you worked the numbers, it looked like humans were in for a catastrophe the likes of which had never been seen in modern times. As oil became more and more scarce and prices kept rising, economies would collapse, and society would break down. And there seemed like there was no stopping it from happening before my eyes.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I read had deeply affected me. I began to see the world through this lens of impending doom. For example, when The Road came out, it felt more like historical fiction that just hadn’t happened yet.
Make no mistake, reading about the world is not merely an enriching activity; it can have deep and lasting emotional consequences too. Or, with more pith: what you consume can consume you.
Eventually, I made a decision to stop reading those kinds of sites.
To many people, the same type of emotional distress can happen from reading the news. Whether it’s regarding climate change, rampant social injustice, or the latest mass killing, a daily dose of this can affect people over time.
You are what (media) you consume
But here’s an important realization: Almost all of your experience about the world around you is gleaned through media and news sources. You have almost no direct experience in anything.
This is a recent idea that is both obvious and profound to me. If I wasn’t consuming media, I wouldn’t have learned about, say, the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, or the current coup attempt in Turkey (to use two random examples).
And I don’t know, but sometimes that seems like a good thing.
Now I know what you’re probably thinking, because I had the same gut reaction when I thought this myself. “Are you suggesting that in the face of tragic events that we turn away and ignore them? That is insensitive and unconscionable.”
Interesting gut reaction, I know. And to be fair, I’m not suggesting that we totally tune out on what is happening in the world. I’m only asking us to question our involvement.
Take the latest mass shooting. (No matter when you read this, there will probably have been one.) What did you gain from learning about it? I’m assuming that you knew no one involved. The only people you know who were affected were emotionally affected by the reading about it, an indirect experience.
That experience is optional. If you take away the indirect experience, you have no experience at all.
Is it unconscionable to want to limit this kind of emotional involvement? Why exactly?
There are benefits to a low information diet. It frees your brain up to more localized experiences, more direct experiences. So you can in some ways remain more present in your current circumstances.
Moreover, it’s actually difficult to stop consuming media, as it’s a habit just like any other. Case in point: just before commencing writing today, I found myself pulling up the New York Times website reflexively, in spite of myself.
So on balance, I’m not saying that you should never follow the news or care about what’s going on in our world. I think we need a well-informed populace, and current events are one of the methods to achieving this.
But it’s important to remember that what you consume is significant, and so too the decision on what to consume. And if you find yourself affected by events, you have the ability, the freedom even, to change what you consume.
There is no benefit in getting depressed because of world events. We have too much work to do in our own worlds right here, and we need all the emotional strength we can muster.
But enough about me. How are you affected by the news?