I wrote the following essay shortly before the Roe v Wade leak happened, and now this is all truer than ever.
When I was young, I liked listening to the news just because I liked hearing different accents from around the world. And this is one of the reasons I will often play the news on the radio when my kids are around.
But it’s a risky choice. We may end up hearing a neat, entertaining story like this one about long-lost wax cylinders, which we all enjoyed on the way to school.; or at very least, they may be passively gleaning some awareness of the world around them, which is a good thing.
But of course current events are mostly not kid-friendly, and pretty often I have to quickly change the channel because there’s a story about something kids don’t need to know about — or it’s presented in a way that is antithetical to our worldview, but it’s too hard to give a cogent counterargument while we’re driving along making five different stops.
And then sometimes the news is just . . . too real. It’s too real to be entertainment, and I have to admit that that’s how I’m using it. I’m using a flow of information about the lives (and often the deaths) of real people as a kind of auditory wallpaper to make a pleasing background for our own life, and we chatter over it as we will, no matter what kind of thing is being reported. This is something to think twice about — not only when I’m choosing what to expose my kids to, but when I’m choosing what I listen to, myself.
News isn’t entertainment. When we treat it like it is — keeping it on constantly, having it on when we’re not really attending to it, hearing the same stories repeated endlessly throughout the day — we run the risk of trivializing the things that are being reported. It’s almost inevitable. We’re training ourselves to hear words like “mass shootings” and “atrocities” and “famine” and “sexual assault” and not blink an eye, but just continue buttering our toast or flipping through Twitter or updating our spreadsheets.
It has a second effect, too, because we can’t tune it out entirely: Even if we don’t listen to some hyperpartisan purveyor of shock headlines, but instead choose some mainstream, middle-of-the-road objective reporting source, some of the emotional content of the news will filter into our consciousness. And it will make us feel bad.
It will feed our anxiety, our dread, our sense of helplessness and rage and doom. It will give us the sensation that the enemy is outside the walls, and we will always hear its muffled roar as we go about our day. How could that fail to affect our mental and emotional state?
So we’re crafting ourselves the worst of both worlds: We’re simultaneously deadening our sense of empathy, and heightening our sense of personal grievance. No wonder people are at each other’s throats when they actually meet in person. We feel like we’re in constant danger, and we feel like no one else is completely human. A guaranteed recipe for conflict, if not outright violence.
There is a lot amiss in the world, but one thing we can easily change right away is to change how we consume the news. If we want to know what’s going on in the world — and we should! It’s important — we can find that out deliberately, in a limited, controlled fashion: say, once or twice or three times a day.
It won’t be easy. We’re very used to the idea that the news is just on, all the time. It’s everywhere, in waiting rooms and lobbies and on all of our phones and computers and social media feeds, always. It’s hard to get away from. But we may be more in control of it than we realize. We may be able to limit it, and be more deliberate about when we consume it, than we want to admit.
We may have internalized the idea that we have a duty to keep up, to stay current, to the minute, with the news. That there’s some virtue in retweeting a headline first. Who do you suppose gives us that idea? Clearly, it’s the people who make money by keeping us tuned in. They have a vested interest in making us feel like we’re actually doing something wrong and irresponsible by turning the news off. And in turn, they feel the pressure to amp up the novelty and shock value in what we hear, whether there’s actually something new and important and shocking happening or not. It’s an almost entirely artificial cycle, fueled by money.
But once we recognize it for what it is, we can opt out of it. Decide how much news we really need, and then otherwise, simply opt out. Don’t retweet it. Don’t chase down every headline. Don’t have the radio or TV on in the background all day. Just opt out.
We don’t have to become hermits or live in stony silence. We can choose to listen to music. Listen to someone explain music. Listen to podcasts. Listen to stories. Listen to audiobooks. Listen to interviews with interesting, knowledgeable people. Listen to wild birdsong.
If something important happened, it will still be important in a few hours, I promise (and if something life-shattering happened, it will make its way through to you, I promise). But we can make the choice to nourish our humanity, rather than eroding it with a constant stream of news-as-entertainment. Because we really have to acknowledge that that stream is not making us more informed. It is one of the things making us less human.