Last week, I had the opportunity to listen to the wisdom of a long-time newscaster who suggested that we need a solution to the polarization of news sources in our lives. Her comments have made me reflect a little bit on why I quit the regular consumption of news a few years ago.
I admit, when I first started, I felt a little irresponsible. I had heard several people, including over-hyped radio commentators, urge me and the rest of the world to not “unplug”. I had a vague fear of somehow not being true to my civic responsibility to know what’s going on around me. This seemed so logical, except that almost everything that I saw and heard on the news had so little to do with my day-to-day life that I was pretty sure that I would be okay.
It took me a while to really internalize why giving up the news was not only okay, but why it was a requirement for my sanity and for me to be as successful as possible in the things that really mattered. And as I look back on the past few years, I can see how much this paradigm shift has helped me enjoy greater peace and purpose in my life.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to address only the three most important reasons I quit the news: first, almost none of it was relevant to my daily life; second, it was so sensationalistic and ad-driven that it was causing me a fair amount of anxiety; and third, it just wasn’t true.
When the idea of quitting the news first popped into my head, I started asking myself the question, “Is the subject of this article relevant to me personally, to a family member, or to someone that I know? If not, why am I reading it?” Most of the time, the answer was a resounding “No!”, so it was easy to skip over many headline stories. Yes, I understand that there is a big dispute between Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea about their borders, but what does that have to do with anyone that I know? Nothing. My next thoughts would often turn to a playful recitation of the Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things which should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. And then to top off the irrelevance of it all, Cosmo Kramer’s Serenity Prayer would pop into my mind. It took me a while to realize that in order to distinguish between what I could change and what I couldn’t, I should spend a lot less time filling my head with things that I could not change.
Sensationalism has always been the hallmark of the news. It has always been what sells, so advertisers have been willing to put money into it. Two thousand years ago, the didactician formerly known as Saul spoke to people at Mars Hill in Athens who “spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.” But just because something is new or crazy doesn’t mean it is pertinent to my life. I can hear some people say that’s exactly why they read the news including Entertainment Weekly, the National Enquirer, and the Washington Post. Well, some people like to eat cheese puffs, too. I don’t.
This is a big one. And it’s not really possible to tackle in a couple of sentences, but here’s the gist: once upon a time, in a land far away, there were (probably) people who tried their hardest to discover the truth of a particular matter by investigating its issues as much as reasonably possible. This entailed talking to people with opposing views and reporting both sides, although there have never really been just two sides to a story. It also entailed making any editorializing clear and being honest about inherent and implicit biases. This approach to journalism has seemed to disappear from our society for multiple reasons. One of the main reasons for this is that there has been an explosion of readily available information. Another reason is the gradual disappearance of a moral center. However, as far as I can tell, very few people have the ability or will to sift through practically infinite information, even those with a strong moral center. The poet T.S. Eliot noticed the infancy of this dilemma over 80 years ago, well before the internet age, when he said, “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” By valuing information over knowledge, and knowledge over wisdom, it appears we have lost our ability to determine what is actually true.
The Road Ahead
Management guru Peter Drucker once commented that the biggest problem of our time of information overload is that “[f]or the first time – literally – substantial and rapidly growing numbers of people have choices. For the first time, they will have to manage themselves. And society is totally unprepared for it.” As I have moved away from the overwhelming tide of largely irrelevant, sensationalistic, and untrue news stories, I have reimagined what it means to be “in the know”. This has led me to increase my consumption of high-quality literature, both past and present, the kind that takes talented authors and teams of editors hundreds or thousands of hours to write. It has also driven me to occasionally read articles from curated news (read “no frills”) websites like Quartz. And when people talk about current events that concern them, I listen with fresh ears.
I hope that we can become as successful as possible in the things that really matter by learning to better manage the abundance of information and choices of our time. This is probably only possible if we take a step away from the noise in our lives and ask ourselves what is truly essential, then quit the rest. Just as in most successful endeavors, this will take time and effort, but the reward of increased peace and greater purpose will be worth more than we can imagine.