Friday, September 16, 2011

The News Dilemma

I used to be woefully ignorant of current events. I wanted to care about the world, but I did not particularly want to care about scandal and politics. When I got to college, there were plenty of late nights discussing issues, but I rarely went out of my way to read a newspaper, and I stopped watching television, so unless it reached me some other way, the news of the day passed me by.

All of that slowly began to change the first time I lived abroad in France. That was, after all, when the United States invaded Iraq. When my friend told me about “Freedom Fries,” I thought it was an Onion article, until I saw the French newscaster explain it on television that evening. Upon heading back to the United States, I paid a little more attention than before, but life got in the way, and then I was back in France without good internet and without a television. Other parts of life were more important – such as learning to speak French.

Law school changed all of that for me. I remember my first year of law school listening to a conversation about the Enron scandal and having almost no conception of what people were discussing. I had heard the names before, and I knew something big had happened, but somehow, I had missed the specifics. I felt woefully inadequate. I decided lawyers should understand the issues of the day; we need to know what is happening. We need to be “informed.”

I am now at the other end of the extreme. My RSS feed and facebook feed are full of news organizations and legal blogs. Even though, because of the time difference to New Zealand, I wake up around the time the news day ends on the east coast, I read the feeds from earliest to latest. I like to know how the news develops. I read stories about Herman Cain knowing that he will never be the Republican nominee. I just want to be “informed.”

So, what have I learned? The news is depressing. The news is mightily depressing.

The yoga and meditation community have a different take on “being informed” by news. DO NOT DO IT!!! Generally, the advice is to purposefully ignore it. Knowing all of the heartache, pain, destruction, and ridiculousness of the world is only a drain on your system. All that negative information causes your own body, mind, and soul to react negatively. I went to a Laughter Yoga Seminar yesterday evening (more on laughter yoga in another post), and one of the facilitators said she has consciously stopped watching and reading the news. She does not want the negativity. One of the participants added, “if you cannot change it, why let yourself be depressed by it?”

I felt my insides tighten. I know it is true that the depressing news just makes us more depressed. But at the same time, I refuse to by into the notion that we should shut it out completely. There are people who take news vacations, a day per week or a week per month where they tune out. That makes some sense, but what if there is another huge earthquake during that break? I do not want to not be able to reach out to friends and family anywhere in the world because I did not know about the news. I cannot imagine missing it, even for a day. 

But I also know how horrible, difficult, and depressing the news can be to read and see. From stories about war and famine, to stories about racial profiling and tea partiers cheering death, the media is not good about sharing the uplifting stories. It is easy to wonder if there are uplifting stories left.

I have waffled with these issues for years, wondering why I get more and more drawn in when I know it would be healthier to let go. Then last night I got an answer, and it was (perhaps ironically) from the person suggesting we should all just turn it off. Her statement, “ if you cannot change it, why let yourself be depressed by it?” made me realize that is why I watch the news. I may not be able to end poverty in Somalia, solve the middle east conflict (though I have an incredibly inspirational cousin working to do just that), or prevent racial profiling on planes in the United States. Chances are even better I cannot stop earthquakes, floods, and tornadoes.

But I can have compassion. I can tell hear and see their stories, share them with the world, and send metta, lovingkindness their way. I can ask that others do as well. The Quebecois have “Je me souviens (I remember)” on their licence plates, Jews say “Never Forget” about the Holocaust, and Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost begged Hamlet to never forget his story. This need to be heard, seen, and understood is deep.

That is why I read the news. That is why I share the stories. That is how we can hopefully all begin to understand one another. What began as a need to feel "informed" in order to be able to keep up with conversations among lawyers has become a need to feel connected to the world, connected to the people within it, and connected to their stories. Might it be possible for all these tragedies and wars and disasters bring us together enough to understand? I simply do not know. But I am going to continue trying to share stories and bring these issues to light. The more we see, the more we awaken to our deepest connections of humanity.

And just for my own sanity, one of these days, I may take up that idea of a news vacation.

What do you think? Have you given up the news? Do you seek it out? Why? Why not?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved


  1. I like this post! I'm kind of a news junkie, and so this is an interesting perspective to hear. I do like to take intentional breaks from it, not just because news can be sad, but also because it's good for me to experience real-life and not just mediated-life. But here are some other reasons why, even just reading about it in your post, I feel STRONG disagreement with the people in the yoga class:

    1: It is your responsibility as a member of the community, a member of your culture, a citizen of the world, to be attentive about the news. Ignoring it because it can be sad is not a the act of a socially responsible person. I DO think a person can make intentional choices about how to consume the news in a healthy (but still consistent) way -- like, you may choose to get more news from magazines like Yes! and Ode, which have a consciously positive filter to approach the news. But, again, ignoring it in a blanket way is simply not acceptable, in my mind.

    This is also why I think it's important to support/subscribe the media that is local to wherever we live.

    2: Actually, you CAN change things. Learned helplessness is a common, but really unnecessary, result of news consumption. But, say, while it may be overwhelming to hear news about climate change, that same news can prompt us to change our own actions so we reduce our climate impact, and agitate for public policy that makes serious steps in challenging climate change. When we get lax, the news can help keep us inspired to keep going.

    3: A lot of times, the news is actually fun. It can be something to connect us with one another (like sports is). It can be exciting like in following the machinations of the presidential primaries. It can give us a picture of how huge and amazing the world is. It can teach us things -- about science, about other cultures, about what's happening in our local schools.

    So: yay news!

  2. I like this post and the above comment. It actually puts the finger on something that makes me feel a bit disconnected from my yoga/meditation friends. I hadn't identified it as news per se, but as a more general "If it's negative, don't think about it." To me, that is like intellectual pablum, not to mention social irresponsibility and sometimes - ironically - lack of compassion on a personal level (i.e., towards friends dealing with difficult personal situations). But to the news issue: I completely agree with both points made above: following the news is important to 1) being a compassionate member of the world community and 2) being socially responsible. For me it is/has always been just intellectually a given - I am fascinated by how societies function, the ideas that inform (or don't) whatever is happening, and any intelligent analysis of it all that I can find.

    I think that may be the challenging part of following the news these days: So much of media (and many other aspects of our lives) are presented as entertainment, are driven by marketing, etc. This does not result in intelligent reporting or analysis, so I am very selective about where I go to get my news.

    Thanks for this great post!

  3. Thank you both so much. Anna, as always, your thoughts are insightful and inspiring. You are one of my best connections to news and have opened me up to so many new avenues I never would have traversed. And yes, it is absolutely vital to also experience the real world and not someone's vision of it, even if it is someone we trust.

    And Anonymous, I understand that irony of tuning out the difficult parts of life in the yoga community. By no means do I think it is everyone, but there is a definite push back throughout the community that I find somewhat disheartening. I do believe we can make a huge difference in the ways you both describe. The first step is simply showing up, and that means consciously finding our connection to the news.


  4. I have had a similar journey to paying attention to the news. It wasn't until I went abroad, to Guatemala in college, that I started paying attention. I really had no idea when I got there what kinds of issues they were facing, what kind of history they had, especially history with US involvement and therefore how they might view me. When I got back, I started listening to NPR every day. When I decided to go to Australia, I wanted to be much more prepared so I signed up for news headlines to my email inbox to get familiar with who their political leaders were and other things that were going on. Anytime I meet someone who doesn't care about world news, they also have not been out of the country.

    On the other hand, yes, the news is depressing. Most weekends, my whole morning routine is different so I often don't listen to the news at all. While it can be nice, by Monday morning I'm often feeling like I have no idea what's going on in the world - and sometimes I'm right. I also don't watch hardly any TV but make a special effort to avoid the local news. This is also good and bad: as my sister says, there is nothing more dire than the local news. They do tend to blow everything way out of proportion and sensationalize even the tiniest event for ratings. But at the same time, friends who watch the local news are much more informed about what is going on, both good and bad. It can be useful for avoiding dangerous areas of the city instead of ignorantly wandering wherever. And yes, one should be vigilant always, but it's easy to forget and let our guard down.

    One more note: be careful where you get your news from. I don't just mean Fox vs. NPR (though I am aware I get an arguably liberal slant to my news by sticking only to NPR). My cousin is in Israel right now and her Facebook status recently said "it's mind boggling how different the [world] news in the US is compared with in Israel." Just some food for thought...!

  5. Well said, Amy. And yes, the location of the news is so, so important. I like to annoy Google algorithms and specifically read articles on the same topic from vastly different sources and locales. I once read the same story from Fox News, NY Times, Haaretz, and Al Jazeera. I used to read French news a lot, but my French got too rusty, but the New Zealand news has been interesting. And I agree that people uninterested in world news tend to be people who have not traveled, but only if they are American. Non-Americans "know" a lot about us, but I have found it is just as misinformed as our news of other countries. It's unfortunate. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  6. Not saying we must watch teevee news, but we mustn't turn away from suffering. Very good topic. Thank you.

  7. I certainly do not watch TV news, but that is mostly because I do now own a TV. I do, however, spend a lot of time reading news and talking to people about it. Thanks, allbeingsyoga!

  8. Thank you for this post. I am one of those people who avoids the news - except from Jon Stewart. And, I don't believe that's the most healthy approach. But I don't feel 'strong enough' to pay attention to the news without going numb and/or apathetic. So, if I keep the 'hose' narrow enough, I think I can manage. And I thank you for paying attention for me.

    1. These days, I'm starting to feel similarly, but I do still pay some attention. I just do not have time to pay as much attention as I did when I wrote the post. I still try to see as much as I can handle.