The news is important. Try turning it off.

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.


Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash
A version of this essay was first published at The Catholic Weekly on April 8, 2022.

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5 thoughts on “The news is important. Try turning it off.”

  1. My 25 y.o. daughter does not watch or read the news. Ever. And she is not some empty headed loser bumbling her way through life. She is a summa cum laude graduate from one of the top business schools in the country and has an excellent job to show for it. She rocks at pop culture and literature in bar trivia down where she lives in the DC area (the belly of the political beast). When she encounters people absorbed by some issue or demanding that she choose a side, she shrugs her shoulders and can honestly say she knows nothing about it. If pushed, she explains that human beings were not meant to live in a 24/7 news cycle and that she has opted out of it. Eventually, she’ll hear about things. Or she won’t. But the world manages to go on either way. She’s very happy.

    One of my best friends had been in therapy for more than a decade. She is a socially liberal Rockefeller Republican and as such took both the Obama and Trump years badly. Her husband is another one who doesn’t watch the news and is very happy. Anyway, when she found out that my daughter also takes no interest in the news, she told me she was going to try it. She’d been thinking about tuning out for a few years and knowing someone other than her husband was doing it pushed her to take the leap. About a month after tuning out, she noticed she was less stressed. Eventually, she was actually able to stop therapy, even though (according to her) current events were rarely her focus with her therapist. Full disclosure: her first grandchild was born during this time so it was not difficult for her to shift her priorities.

  2. Hearing the bad stuff (and news is basically about the bad stuff, with a feel-good item thrown in here and there) over and over just has to have a mental health effect, and hearing it more doesn’t do more, the same way using more detergent or body lotion than you need is helpful; it’s just excess. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to find respite – even many of the sewing websites which were previously my “safe space” to relax and enjoy seeing what others have made and get inspiration for my own sewing have devolved into nasty comments, especially since the Supreme Court leak. The pandemic, politics and moral issues have led to a point where I almost dread social interactions as the potential for nastiness and the lack of restraint have tensions at a hair trigger. Mother’s Day was not nearly as nice as I wished it could have been as my own 35-year-old son would not attend the brunch with my husband’s family – and me – because they do not align perfectly with his political and moral standards – there is agreement on some issues, but not enough for him to make the sacrifice of spending time with them – in some ways I understand that he wants to protect his boundaries and feels he is upholding his values, but I have to say, it felt awful, on top of a whole week and several years of awful.

  3. You make some very good points here. Finding the balance can be difficult, but not impossible.

  4. One of the primary reasons I deleted my Facebook about a month ago. I struggle with anxiety anyway, and it was making it much harder to function.

  5. This is the best piece of good sense I’ve read all week. You expressed my own thoughts admirably.

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