Why I've Given Up on the News (for now)
I’ve been a news junkie for most of my life. It started when I was ten years old, sitting with my grandfather, a World War II veteran, while he watched the 6 o’clock news and carried on a dialogue with me about the day's events. As a teenager, I wrote for my high school newspaper. I minored in journalism in college and later worked at several news organizations. As a young man, I cultivated a habit of reading news every day. Today, I teach news writing courses and I am the advisor to a college newspaper. Being a well-informed and smart consumer of news has always been a core value in my life.
Until recently that is.
Something broke in me about fifteen months into the COVID crisis. Like many Americans, I began the pandemic in full news-consumer mode, surfing news channels, websites, and social media for reporting about infection rates, death counts, lockdowns, testing centers, vaccines, and masking rules. March and April of 2020 seemed like a moment when the news would matter more than ever, especially at the local level. I began following local news for information about our hospital’s preparations for an influx of COVID patients and tuning in to weekly reports from the county health commissioner. More than at any other time since 9/11, the news seemed to align with basic human survival.
But over the next twelve months, this sense of urgency evaporated from my news consumption. The sheer volume of available news was the main cause—not a new problem but one that became obvious early on in the pandemic as my focus narrowed to a single consequential news item. Another cause was the dominance of national news coverage. I had been reading about the decline of local news outlets for fifteen years, but I could now actually feel it in the media ecosystem, the way in which the output from my local newspapers was overwhelmed by stories with a broader, more politically-charged focus. And finally, the pandemic became politicized, mostly because of Trump, but not entirely. Once the big COVID stories were also political stories, the big news organizations focused on Trump’s words and actions—and the backlash they produced—as if they were the bellwether of the entire crisis.
Eventually, the COVID news coverage began to make me feel edgy and irritable. Sure, the steady drumbeat of negative pandemic news was bound to eventually exert a corrosive effect on my mental state, but there was some new toxin in the media bloodstream as well, hard to even identify, but still there. Twenty years ago, in the week following the 9/11 attacks, the news coverage framed the story for me—and for many other Americans, I think. A core story with a strong factual foundation quickly emerged and then unfolded as new facts were revealed. Eventually, a counter-narrative would emerge, the 9/11 conspiracy theories, but these conspiracies lived in a clearly definable subcultural ring surrounding the main narrative, pushed out to the margins of it. If you had a taste for these stories, you could find them on blogs and YouTube videos and movies with the word "Zeitgeist" in the title, but they were distinguishable from "the news." In the COVID crisis, however, no such center-margins division exists between news and conspiracy. The toxin has dissolved these old boundaries.
As a genre of human communication, the news story has become disconnected from the socio-cultural reality that gave birth to it, the newspaper. Newspapers are a print medium that regularly fashion a retrospective accounting of local, national, and world events into a limited physical product that is still available for purchase in my local grocery store, though it is mostly people over the age of 50 who buy them. In a previous era, the physicality of the newspaper—which is literally a thing with a set number of pages, each one the same dimension, that you can hold in your hands—gave the news a sense of boundary and limit. There was a totality implied in the daily newspaper. It promised to literally put a day's worth of news in your hands and allow you to quickly skim through it, searching for items of interest. You could read it in whole (or more likely, in part) and when you were ready to toss it into the trash, you had a feeling of satisfaction that you had kept yourself informed of important events, trends, and human experiences.
Digital technology forestalls this sense of satisfaction. Hyperlinking and the ten-second Google search dangle the lure of constant deferral into new sources of information. If your grandparents were bored with a news story in the old-fashioned newspaper, they could flip the page and find another. The digital equivalent of turning the page, however, leads to a vast sea of easily accessible information that stretches off into an interminable horizon. How does a person find an island of rational, well-informed subjectivity in this ocean of information?
This island was easier to find in the era of legacy news supremacy when the news would “drop” at regular intervals during the day—a newspaper hitting the driveway at 6 a.m. or dad hitting the power button on the remote at 6 p.m. expecting to watch the nightly news program. News was packaged in these moments, an experience to be savored and digested. Now, when a news story breaks, we get it flung at us from multiple sources in bite-sized chunks—a sentence or two or a tweet—and then we can literally watch the story unfold on CNN.com as paragraphs are added to it. If the real journalists—the ones who practice multiple sourcing and verification of facts—are not quick enough to keep pace with the demand for more information, other less professional and less savory actors will quickly swoop in to fill the gap. Every story, therefore, is rapidly unfolding. There is more information to find about it than any one mind can reasonably digest. There are no longer socially acceptable experiences that create this sensation of being a reasonably well-informed person.
For a public that still expects news to provide essential information, this 24/7 firehose of information can be exhausting. How much news consumption is enough in order for a person to feel satisfied that they are well informed? How many hours of reading or watching is enough? Where does news consumption fit into a daily schedule now that a person can get news anytime or anywhere? How much news is enough? How do we even know that we are well-informed people?
This last question has dogged me recently. After months of obsessively consuming pandemic news, I did not feel especially well informed anymore. I also felt manipulated, as if tasty COVID news nuggets were constantly being pushed at me as I moved through my day. This feeling surged in me when stories about the Omicron variant began showing up in the news ecosystem. Setting aside the fact that “Omicron” sounds like a sci-fi villain who wants to turn half of the stars in the universe into sparkle dust, I could clearly see that the news coverage was queuing us up for another round of COVID hype, much like the way news organizations now cover every hurricane that blows in from the Atlantic Ocean as if it is the next Katrina.
The current news ecosystem is brilliantly illustrated in the Apple News feed on my iPad. Because I expressed an interest in receiving news about astronomy-related topics, I now regularly receive updates on the latest Eiffel Tower-sized rock zooming through the solar system and headed in our general direction. This fear-mongering clickbait is served to me by the same dubious sources that want me to pay attention to the human face in a crater on Mars or a cube-shaped object on the moon spotted by a Chinese rover. These stories circulate on social media and are then plugged into an endless churn of meme-creation, that great comet tail of frivolity that now streams out behind our civilizational rock as it hurtles through the void of space. In the old days of print journalism, you could find these stories in their own special place, in the racks at the checkout lane of the local grocery store. Now they pop up in my news feed, mixed in with every other thing.
So, I’ve given up on the news for now. I am one month into a four-month news fast, and I feel great. I removed the news apps from my phone and iPad and avoiding news sites, even the ones I pay for. That feeling of low-grade dread and anxiety has disappeared from my mental environment. Let the detox begin.
Will there be negative consequences of me shutting off the news firehose for a few months? I’m guessing that the answer is “no.” I’m willing to bet that someone will tell me if a pyramid-sized rock is actually on a collision course with the Earth, and then I will make my plans accordingly. And if I die of the Omicron variant after receiving my three doses of the Moderna vaccine, I probably had it coming.