Why Follow the News? A Post-Election Day Musing.

Today’s post is the first of two essays that look at the light, breezy, simple topic of how daily news and other forms of storytelling help us make sense of our world. Part one, below, looks at the actual value of daily news (which is often more of an addiction than a solution) and part two looks at the ways in which art can step in where daily news fails. 

“Breaking News” photo by Rich Mason

Yesterday was Election Day, and like a lot of people I know, I had to do a lot of research immediately beforehand because I wasn’t up to speed on the candidates and their platforms.

On the one hand, this made me feel like a doofus: Here I am, an educated woman who is passionate about creating a better world, who doesn’t know about the candidates in her own backyard. On the other hand, I forgave myself, because my god, there is only so much time in the day, and only so much information a person can consume.

In toeing the line between over-saturation and escapism, I veer these days towards the latter. It’s just too much, and it’s all just like a soap opera  the same old dramas playing themselves out with a sometimes-changing cast of characters. Even when you dip out for a while, you can pick it all right back up again the details may have changed, but the stories are the same: Politicans are fighting, money is corrupting government, there’s war in the Middle East. People are suffering from hunger and disease and bigotry. On a more positive note, it’s also always true that activists are working to make the world a better place, despite all the bullshit  but of course, we don’t see as many stories about this in the news.

The news is like a soap opera  the same old dramas playing themselves out with a sometimes-changing cast of characters

It’s exhausting to take it all in, and what do you gain, really, from being in the know? You can become an activist yourself, in ways large or small; you can vote, both with your ballot and your dollar. But once you achieve a certain level of knowledge, and you know which causes and groups you want to support — and you support them, as I do, monetarily or by volunteering my time  then really, what is to be gained from consuming more and more information?

I’m not sure there’s anything to be gained. It takes a certain amount of time and energy to convert information into knowledge and engagement, and time and energy are in short supply for me these days. I’m raising a toddler at the moment, which is the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m married, and I take my marriage, and our romance, seriously, giving it the care and feeding it needs to thrive. I also run my own business, write, take care of an aging dog, go to physical therapy for post-pregnancy back issues… maintain relationships with family and friends all over the globe… recently started volunteering for a local nonprofit… and the list goes on.

Given all of these passions and commitments, at the end of the day, I prefer a good novel or an episode of The Mindy Project to an issue of Harper’s or an episode of Frontline. It’s better for my mental health. And frankly, tuning into joy and laughter is just as worthwhile as tuning into ugliness, suffering, and other serious subjects. 

And I don’t think there’s inherent virtue in following the news religiously; the virtue comes in what you do, based on the information you’ve gained. I know plenty of people who follow politics like they’re binge watching TV; for them, the Big Bad Republicans might as well be the criminals in an episode of Law & Order. Following news as a distraction from being present or as an addictive form of entertainment is no more valuable to our democracy than opting out to read a novel instead. 

I don’t think there’s inherent virtue in following the news religiously; the virtue comes in what you do, based on the information you’ve gained.

Still, despite how pointless or impossibly depressing it can sometimes seem, I go through fits and spurts of feeling like I ought to be more informed about current events. I’ll read an issue of The Week, which at least steps back from the daily fray to synthesize the most important developments and gather up a representative range of perspectives on what’s occurred. Or I’ll watch a documentary that offers an in-depth treatment of a particular issue or public figure. I am grateful to live in a society where so much information is available. I really am. I value our diversity of media choices. Yes, many of them are disappointing  shouting matches, sensationalist headlines, and the like  but there are also plenty of independent and public media options out there that are thoughtful and worthy of our attention. I have the skills (if not always the time) to seek them out.

Still, I think we are in desperate need of innovations that make it easier for concerned but busy citizens to meaningfully process news about the world — on top of work, on top of family…on top of life. All the technology that makes it easier to consume news on the go, in the car, on the moon, won’t ultimately make a difference if people (a) don’t know those tools exist, and (b) don’t have the ability to truly process this news, and, ultimately, to act upon it. I am grateful to organizations like the Knight Foundation and leaders like Josh Stearns who are dedicated to improving journalism and media systems to create engaged communities. If you care about this stuff, too, you should follow their work. 

Tomorrow, I’ll share part two of this essay, where I talk about two works of art I recently saw back-to-back: CITIZENFOUR, a new documentary by Laura Poitras about Edward Snowden’s decision to leak thousands of classified NSA documents; and The Source, an oratorio by Ted Hearne about Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks. They explore some of these themes of individual responsibility and engagement, and underscored for me the importance of having art about current events as a complement to journalism to help us make sense of this crazy world. 

To go back to the place where I started this essay: In the end, if I’m researching candidate information on the night before the election, that’s ok  not ideal, maybe, but ok. What’s important is that I do the research.

What’s YOUR news diet? How do you create space to actually process all the information you consume? And what would help you do a better job of it?

Read part two of this essay, Where Daily News Fails, Art Steps In, and sign up to receive my blog posts by email.

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