Sunday, May 28, 2017

How Much News is Too Much News?

There’s so much news. There’s so much access to news. News about home, news about the world—there’s a constant barrage of news 24 hours a day. There’s television news, there’s radio, there’s podcasts, there’s social media, there’s webpages, there’s blogs…

It’s overwhelming.

After 9/11, my relationship to the news changed dramatically. Before the terror attack in New York, I used to turn on the Today Show in the morning and have the nightly news on at six. I would periodically scroll through headlines on news websites. 

But after 9/11, I became obsessed with waking up and knowing what was going on in the world. Checking news was the first thing I did when I woke up and it was usually the last thing I did before I went to bed. And it seemed to me as if there was not enough news to satisfy my need to know what was happening. I wanted answers, I wanted to feel that I understood what was going on everywhere.

So I watched news. I watched all the time.

I didn’t realize how much the events of 2001 had changed my relationship to news until a couple of years ago when noticed I was feeling emotionally drained by the news and by my feelings of constant worry about the state of the world. I hadn’t previously noticed that turning on the television to news was the first thing I did in the morning and it was the first thing I did when I returned home from being out. I didn’t notice that I had the news on all the time and that I had stopped watching non-news television.

After 9/11, watching the news was no longer about my wanting to stay informed, but was about the fact that I'd become afraid of not knowing what was happening. So I turned on news in the morning, worried that something terrible had happened while I'd been sleeping. I'd leave it on all day. And, I would constantly check news headlines on the computer and, in later years, on my phone.

And clearly I wasn’t alone because the news industry exploded. News has transformed from just relaying information to becoming its own form of entertainment. Simply reporting what happened wasn’t enough. Now stories have to be titillating and explosive. To complicate matters even further, the spread of technology has made it almost impossible to differentiate between established and sources from people who have decided to create their own news stories. All a person needs to create a ""news story" is a computer and $50 worth of video or photo editing software.

After the election last fall, I decided I had to stop. I had to consciously stop myself from looking at the news. I was drained. I didn’t watch any television news and stayed off social media sites for a month, trying to get myself out the state of panic I felt. I would turn on the Food Network or have movies on if I wanted background noise or distraction because turning on the news brought feelings of dread.

Once I had given myself a chance recover from the mental stress of the 2016 Presidential campaign, I took some time to think about how I wanted to receive my news. I didn’t want to go back to watching cable news anymore. I didn’t want the constant buzz of impending doom in the background. But I also didn’t want to feel as if I didn’t know what was going on. So I decided that I would focus on Twitter to get headlines and then I could look up stories that I felt were important on news websites. 

I feel like it’s been a pretty good compromise. Twitter, if you’re not familiar with it, is a social media platform where you only have 140 characters per post. So the posts are short and easy to scroll through. It’s become the go-to place for journalists to post as individuals, as well as media outlets and newspapers. So it’s an easy way to get an overview of what’s going on. And in my experience, most news stories hit Twitter before they show up anywhere else. 

A lot of people don’t like Twitter because it’s hard to get in-depth information, and it’s easy to get lost in misinformation if you’re not careful. And none of the sources are vetted in any way, so you have to trust who you're following to feel confident that it's a valid source of information. But again, if I see a headline that looks interesting, I can research it further. I don’t take a lot of posts on Twitter as “truth,” but as a starting place. 

And while it’s not perfect, it seems to be the right balance for me because I wanted to have real-time updates about news, but I didn’t want to feel glued to my TV all the time. And I didn't only want newspaper headlines because there are people whose opinions and analysis I value. But I don’t necessarily want to hear pundits debate every issue. It seems as if television news is often more about hearing people argue for the sake of arguing.

I also like that Twitter makes it easy to see posts from a lot of different sources all in one place. In addition, most of my social circle doesn’t use Twitter, so it’s not a place where I have to scroll through lots of posts from friends about what they ate or what their kids did when all I want is to get the news.

There is also the added bonus that people on Twitter generally don't take themselves too seriously. There are a lot of smart and funny people out there. There are also a lot of "Twitter Trolls" or people who are just on Twitter to be mean. In fact, the anonymity of Twitter seems to give people license to be awful. But if you are like me and are just on Twitter to view and not post, you can avoid most of that unpleasantness.

I do still turn on cable news in the evenings. I enjoy some of the prime-time news shows and I have gotten better at not getting too wrapped up in the stories.  But I’ve found that many stories show up on Twitter before they are reported on television because Twitter is direct information from individual sources. As an example, recently, reports of the bombing in Manchester, and the reporter who was attacked in Montana, were on Twitter well before they were reported on television.

And on the days when I’m feeling particularly stressed, or if there’s news that is disturbing that I don't want to be exposed to, I don’t need to be bombarded with it over and over because I simply don’t look at Twitter. And I don’t turn on the news. I've realized that the world is just fine if I don't know what's happening at every minute.

There are moments when the familiar feeling of news-panic returns. This week, the story of the Manchester bombing triggered emotional feelings in me because I have twice dropped my daughter off at stadiums to watch Ariana Grande concerts. So I found myself back in a place where I felt compelled to know as much as I could. I watched the news for every update and to find out what all the "experts" had to say. 

But after a couple of days, I forced myself to turn the TV off. I forced myself to acknowledge that watching the news would not make it easier to accept what had happened.

It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t have to take in all the information simply because it was available. 

This brings me to my mom. I imagine that as a person with chronic Illness, she has had to decide how to deal with the barrage of news in the 24-hour nature of today’s news cycle. I know she has limited energy and because of that it’s more important for her to be careful with how she spends it.

Here are some questions for her.

I know that growing up, you used to read the newspaper. I’ve never subscribed to an actual hard copy newspaper. Do you still read one?

Yeah, I grew up reading the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper for the town you're in now. Note long ago, we subscribed to four daily newspapers. Now we subscribe to two. Until about six months ago, I always read at least one newspaper a day. 

We get The New York Times delivered daily. Your dad reads it every morning, and he gives me stories he thinks I'll be interested in. They're usually on health or the arts. Yesterday, he gave me one on the French Open tennis tournament. We also get our local paper, The Davis Enterprise. I used to faithfully read every article. But now I don't always read it. There's a new, younger generation in town. Because your dad was an elected official for many years, we knew a lot of the people who were in the paper—he often was! Not any more. In addition, due to my illness, I'm not active in the community like I used to be. 

So, I don't regularly read a newspaper anymore. It feels odd to say that because I feel like I come from a newspaper family. My father-in-law worked for Bay Area newspapers his whole life. He was very well respected as a reporter and writer. So we love newspapers in print. And I still love seeing them in front of the house, even though I don't always read them.

Do you think part of that is because you read stuff online?


Do you still watch television news? How do you usually get your news?

I used to faithfully watch network news, either CBS or NBC. I stopped about six months ago and rarely watch it now. I don't watch cable news. I like to say our house is a cable-news-free-zone. That said, if there's a disaster like 9/11, I'm going to put it on.

The only television news I watch now are two weekly segments on the PBS News Hour. On Mondays, I watch Politics Monday with Amy Walter and Tamara Keith. On Friday, I watch Shields and Brooks. Mark Shields is the liberal and David Brooks is the conservative. I love all four of them—they're smart, insightful, and good-natured so I enjoy their company. The four of them analyze the top political stories of the moment and that's all I need from TV news. I don't want to watch videos of the news anymore. It's much less emotionally upsetting to read the words as opposed to watching news videos.

In addition, most of the TV show hosts sound like they're yelling. I'm sure they've been told to get their adrenaline levels up and talk fast and loud. But I don't like hearing it. And, with the tone in their voice, they tend to signal how I'm supposed to feel—"this is what you should be worried about" or "this is something you're supposed to be afraid of." I don't want to be told how to feel.

Here's how I get my news. I figured this out about six months ago. I reviewed all the news web sites and settled on Google News. On that site, you have a choice of settings. I use "Classic." With that, I see a headline (from a variety of news sources) and the first five lines of the story. That's usually all I need to know. But if it is something I want to be better informed about, like what happened in Manchester last week, then I click on the story and read the full article.

I do feel an obligation to know what's going on. Not everyone feels that way, but I do, so I keep informed by using Google News. Oh, and I do see headlines in my Facebook News Feed because family and friends often post them there. 

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the news? How do you handle it?

I feel overwhelmed by the news a lot. 

I do two things: I practice equanimity and also take an historical perspective. 

Here's what I mean by the latter. Since the beginning of humankind, people have been in conflict. There's also been kindness and compassion—people who wouldn't hurt a flea. But there have also been people who are violent, either physically or mentally. (I consider a racist comment to be form of mental violence, for example.) Humankind has always been this way. The poet Robert Frost called it "Man's inhumanity to man." I wish it weren't so, but it is. 

In my second book, I reference this in the subtitle which is about navigating life's joys and sorrows. It comes from an ancient Chinese saying about life's 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows. We're going to experience both during our lifetimes. So when I get upset about what's going on in the world, I remind myself that conflict has always been part of the human condition.

So has what's now being called by the news media, "tribalism." The increase in tribalism is, in my view, alarming. By tribalism, I'm referring to people only wanting to hang out with people who share the same views. That tends to make it hard for people to change. So that kind of mentality—only wanting to associate with people who are like you—and sometimes getting belligerent about it—can lead to violence.

So I take the historical perspective and also remind myself of the many ways life is better for us today, from the advent of the automobile to the discovery of antibiotics.

On a practical day-to-day level, I just wrote an article on equanimity for Psychology Today in which I describe a practice I came up with where I intentionally start a sentence with "It's okay if..."

Now, this has to be used wisely. If something truly horrible happens to you, it's not okay. So you have to know when to use it and I talk about that in the article. But it's been extremely helpful with something like my illness, for example, where I can say, "It's okay if I feel terrible today. That's how chronic illness feels sometimes." People have told me that the article has been very helpful. [Mara here: We'll put in a link to it at the end.] So I use that practice when I feel overwhelmed by the news. Obviously, Manchester was an example where I didn't use it, because that was not okay. 

But here is an example from the news. First off, let me say that I have a large number of fans on social media from all political backgrounds, including Trump supporters I assume. So this is just my personal opinion. When Trump was running for President, I thought "This can't be happening. He's not qualified. I don't agree with what he's saying about just about everything." So I started to practice equanimity by saying to myself, "It's okay if Trump is running for President; it's okay if he wins." 

Around this time, I gave a book talk and shared these thoughts with the audience. Some people gasped at my "It's okay if..." sentence so I said, "You know, there are only three requirements in the Constitution for becoming President. You have to be 35; you have to have lived in the US for 14 years; and you have to have been a natural born citizen. So he meets our democratic government's requirements, which means he has the right to run for President and he has the right to win." 

Lots of people at the talk seemed to get my point. It doesn't mean it was my preference that he win or that I shouldn't be an activist against his winning...but it's okay if he wins. That's our democratic form of government and I like living in a democracy. I have faith in our system of checks and balances and Separation of Powers to keep one wing of our government from getting too powerful. 

So I use that practice when I feel overwhelmed. It works most of the time—not all, I admit! And I take an historical perspective. Violence and abuse are not new. It doesn't mean we shouldn't fight against them, but they're not new.

Here's the link to my mom's article on "It's okay if":

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