Busted Halo
column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

Click this banner to see the entire section.

October 4th, 2009

What Works: Turn Off the News

You won't miss anything important



(Actual 9/23/09 WABC-NY local news tease at 10:32 p.m.)
At 11, we follow the food to local restaurants and our investigation could take your appetite away! (video of bloody meat being handled unsanitary) … An act of love or murder — why did a man shoot his wife of more than 50 years? (video of body bag being removed from building) … And, he stopped for a bag of ice at a corner store, but he never saw this coming. (video — no joke — of a pedestrian being slammed into in a parking lot by an SUV)

I don’t mean to put anyone out of work in this difficult economy — I even have several friends in this profession — but I implore you to turn off the news and leave it off. Mainly, I want you to turn off the local news, where “if it bleeds, it leads” and the priority, after titillating you with gore, is to scare you — because they thrive if we think we have to watch or we’ll die.

There are a number of reasons I recommend turning off the news. First, life is stressful enough already. Who needs this? Second, if you are powerless over something, there’s usually no benefit in worrying about it. Third, exposing yourself regularly to the ugliest aspects of society darkens and coarsens your view of other people, which takes you away from compassion and love, and thus away from God. It undermines your spiritual fitness.

Rather than helping us better to mourn — to see the suffering in the world with an open heart — watching the news regularly hardens our hearts. In order to face so much suffering with no option of relevant action, we detach from it; we tune it out, if you will.

I’d rather you turn off the nightly network news too. It’s only a better written and less sensationalistic rendition of the same principles — replace food safety scares and neighborhood murders with flu epidemics and terrorism. (The 24-hour news channels present a different problem. In order to fill all that time, they invent conflict, scandal and crisis to have something to talk about.) If you must, a weekly recap show is sufficient. Better yet, read the Sunday paper. (Hey, they could use the sales.)

I’m not anti-TV. I watch plenty of TV. Television is still the main mode of mass communication in our culture. Entertainment shows help us relax and escape; sometimes even challenge us to think. Documentaries and talk shows, at their best, educate us and build a sense of community and connectedness.

You won’t miss anything important

If you are really concerned about missing something important, don’t be. You’ll hear about it. For years now, the way information is disseminated has been shifting from a top-down route through a handful of gatekeepers at the newspapers and networks to a diffused model — first with cable TV and then exploding thanks to the internet.

In just the last few years, a whole new even more decentralized mode of news distribution has appeared thanks to social networking and pervasive connectedness. Today, people receive a substantial amount of their news through non-news sources at any time of the day and in any location — directly, through friends’ text messages and emails, and indirectly, from blogs, Facebook statuses and Twitter tweets. The office water cooler is now everywhere. “Push” — an unrealized technology concept of the 90s — has finally arrived: the things you’re interested in are pushed to you; you don’t have to tune in at a specific time or go to a specific place.

Why watch the news?

Instead of asking the question, “Why turn off the news?” I want you to ask yourself a different question, “Why watch the news?” Take a minute and think about that. Most people’s knee-jerk response would be some variation on, “I need to know.” But why? And what? Do you need to know about the bloody crime that was committed last night a mile from your home?

To that, someone might throw up the argument, “I need to be vigilant and aware that there’s a killer in the neighborhood — this information is relevant to my safety.” Hogwash. Unless you know the victim — in which case, you’d probably already know about the crime — then you are just as safe or just as at risk whether you know about it or not. Unless of course it’s a serial killer targeting someone like you. But how often is that the case? For me, never. And even in that remotest of likelihoods, do you need to see crime scene footage?

So this idea that you need to know about local crime for your own safety is garbage. Then there’s the pure entertainment value some people get from the danger and violence. I don’t think I need to explain why that’s problematic. Or the illogical sense of satisfaction or relief people get from seeing that harm befell others and not them — “Thank goodness that didn’t happen to me,” or “That would never happen to me. I’m smarter than that.”

The illusion of control

The main reason people think they need to know things is for the illusion of control over them. If I am up to speed on a situation, it creates a sense of mastery, a sense that I’m going to be able to handle it. You don’t have to be afraid of the unknown — because you’ve created the illusion that it’s known. But you don’t really have control, so this doesn’t allay the underlying anxiety.

Why else might it serve you to know? Now we get into the realm of more spiritual matters. The main reason people think they need to know things is for the illusion of control over them. If I am up to speed on a situation, it creates a sense of mastery, a sense that I’m going to be able to handle it.

You don’t have to be afraid of the unknown — because you’ve created the illusion that it’s known. But you don’t really have control, so this doesn’t allay the underlying anxiety.

This is not the same as saying “ignorance is bliss.” That expression suggests that knowledge is possible and one is staying ignorant to deny the truth. This is not about denying the truth. It’s about choosing one’s reality. Do you want to focus on all the negative things in your world, or the positive ones? Ignorance may not be bliss, but information without wisdom can mean suffering.

Of course, there are times when one should pay attention to the news. When there is literally a crisis occurring, it might be helpful. When there is a national issue in which your input is possible, such as elections, or something like the current health care debate, you want to play your part. But these are specific issues for which you can tune in or visit websites at specific times. Or at least you can watch the news only while these situations are occurring.

Otherwise, I want you to consider turning off the news altogether. In the sidebar, I make a few suggestions. Share your experiences with trying them out, or if you already skip the news, tell me what motivated you to make that decision, so counter to the culture we live in. I’d love to hear your reasons. Leave a comment below or email me at phil (at) bustedhalo.com.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
See more articles by (92).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Maria Kasper

    I stopped watching TV news — both network and local — after 9/11. The screaming sensationalism, the sickening voyeurism of sticking a camera in the actual death a human being dies on-camera, the blathering of breathless commentators, just shrivelled my spirit. I do still have newspapers from that event, which gave me the story of what was going on, and I have read the 9/11 commitee’s report. I subscribe to the daily newspaper. I read every day’s events the next morning. I get the facts in a much calmer tone of voice, without all the yelling and screaming. I actually found that the newspaper accounts allowed me to recieve details which my TV-news friends never heard. If I want even more details than the paper had room for, there are follow-up on-line connections to go to. People have said, “But you don’t get the news till the next day. What if it’s something important that you need to know today?” If it’s that big a news story, for sure somebody will tell me about it. Whenever anything major has occurred, a couple dozen people have been eager to spread the word. But I find that reading about it in the paper the next day allows me to receive the news in a calmer, more factual, less emotionally hysterical tone.

  • Jack Fisher

    I tired of news on TV and newspapers long ago and quit subscribing to them with the exception of occasional stories that demand my attention. What I find useful is reading “headlines” of stories that come to me over the internet and screening the ones I want to read about and deleting the rest. I find that I become more prone to reading about the stories of national and international interest, human interest stories with a happy ending, and scientific discoveries. The doom and gloom is for the most part avoided.

    It is good to know, that I can also search the internet for the stories and information I want to read. I find Wikipedia a good source to begin my topical search for information. What you do not mention in your article is how much public opinion is influenced by the media. I have yet to find a definitive discussion in the matter – most articles just give further opinion to the matter.

  • Carmelita

    Great topic of discussion. I’ve been discerning and questioning other Christians/Catholics about their take on this for years.

    Yes the local news is too sensationalistic. And the national network news is one-sided, canned; and even worse, frequently siding with the large multinationals, and other massive,corrupt, powers that be.

    Still I have a dream. My dream is that some Christians & Catholics, maybe even a few Buddhists, could produce the news we REALLY NEED. This is what we really need:

    A.High tech updates and alerts: We need to know both what’s excellent, and what to take immediate action on. (Like the email scams of the past two weeks.)In this area we need constant RELIABLE High Tech info. Since keeping up with it can actually be a strain, and affect ordinary families’ earning power.

    Also many elderly Christians/Catholics experience this need,(could use more compter help) to keep in better communication with younger family members. This can impact/improve their health needs.

    B.MORE GOOD NEWS: I would love people like Maryknoll doing this as a ministry, explaining to kids, nonCatholics, all the breadth of their work and the footage of church groups, interdenominational justice work about things such as disaster rebuilding and microbusiness for single Moms.
    C.EDUCATION: With truly gorgeous programs being offered on PBS (not saying every single one is perfect) with the camera there is such an opportunity to teach, teach, teach. So much beautiful nature out there, fantastic science, environmental causes that people can be quickly made aware of through the VISUAL gift of film.

    These great works of art as film coverage, and film storytelling are, in my opinion, desperately needed by kids. So many youth over the whole planet don’t even know what awaits them instead of their overuse of video games.

    • Palesa Floret

      There have been shows like this in the past, but they haven’t lasted

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Adrienne and Mike, thanks for your thoughtful comments. When you say that we should be “made more compassionate” by being exposed to news, it’s just not my experience that this is what happens. My contention is that bombarding yourself daily with situations for which you can do nothing does not improve your sense of connection and compassion, but rather tends to either harden or overwhelm you. I am further suggesting, and this is much more controversial, that thinking you are doing something about a situation by staying informed on it is an illusion. I’m not suggesting being uncompassionate. Far from it. I’m saying the way to express and enrich your compassion is more personal — either local action or something that resonates for you personally.

    Adrienne, you make an excellent point that in the name of taking control of what you are exposed to, some people will choose only news sources which reinforce their existing views. Of course we should teach future generations to think critically, expose themselves to varied opinions and come to their own conclusions.

    I believe there are many ways to address both of these issues without turning over control of what I see to a company that makes its choices based largely on how to scare and titillate me.

  • Adrienne

    Although I agree with turning off the news that is sensationalist, I think caution should be used in a media culture where things are “pushed” to you: It’s too easy to have a very limited bit of news delivered to you. I think it’s important to be exposed to news so that we are made more compassionate and more involved in our communities and world – which is harder to do, I think, if we’re selective in what we read/see/hear. Our iPod and BlackBerry society honestly does a lot to cut us off from each other while it connects us in ways we never imagined. Instead of just tuning out, I think we should demand a media culture of balanced news, one that doesn’t try to sensationalize and that does try to bring in good stories. I personally like NPR and the occasional NY Times for this reason – I am fed with a wide range of information and, in the case of NPR, more or less factual and balanced. Again, instead of just boycotting or tuning out, we should try to work towards teaching future generations how to think critically and to ask for all sides of the story – and life.

  • Mary

    I used to watch Maury Povich paternity test shows, as well as Court TV shows, with the intention of “praying for those who need it.” While I did pray for them, I found with time that I was really just addicted to the rush of disgust I felt toward others “more screwed up than me.” Despite all my pretenses of prayer, I watched these things to make myself feel better about myself at the expense of others. Now, I still pray for those in such situations, but I don’t have to watch it to know that it’s happening somewhere in the world–and I *do* find that this makes me more compassionate, because now my intentions are more sincere. The same goes for *any* kind of news shows… I prepare my home for a possible break-in, whether or not there is reported crime in my neighborhood. I am cautious no matter what. That’s just common sense; I don’t need the news to remind me to strive for safety. And I certainly don’t need it to know that evil is happening in the world.

  • Mike Hayes

    What if the news makes you more sensitive to the plight and hardship that others face? I agree that CERTAIN people should turn off the news if it makes you more hardened of heart but what if it has the opposite effect as well?

    Secondly, would you consider something like “The Daily Show” news?

  • Paul Davenport

    The news, nothing but bad things are shown %99.99 nothing but lies, yes I am a catholic I like the truth even if it hurts.

  • Sharon

    “Of course, there are times when one should pay attention to the news. When there is literally a crisis occurring, it might be helpful. When there is a national issue in which your input is possible, such as elections, or something like the current health care debate, you want to play your part. But these are specific issues for which you can tune in or visit websites at specific times. Or at least you can watch the news only while these situations are occurring.”

    I don’t think this sounds silly, ridiculous, stupid or would produce a lack of credibility. I think selective news watching is a good stewardship of time. You can stay informed enough to pray and take action without 24/7 viewing.

  • Pat

    How silly. Not knowing what is going on in the world for your own peace of mind makes you ridiculous. Be as informed as you can be. Know the worst so you can pray or take action. Bad things happen because good people do nothing. Know everything you can and be conversant. How can you defend the truth if you seem stupid. To say ” I don’t know what’s going on” makes you much less credible.

  • amiehartnett

    I am way ahead of you there; turned off evening news for good after the 2008 elections. And not only news programs but political *discussion* shows (which are less discussion and more yelling and posturing) are off my radar these days, too.

    I have to admit, though, after our local weekly paper was shut down by its parent company, that I became addicted to an online news magazine that is basically a local police/fire crime blotter. I have it bookmarked and often my husband and I find ourselves discussing the *latest* headlines from that source over dinner.

    And – this might sound silly – but I receive email notices for our parish prayer list – which is a sort of news feed in itself in that it lets you know who died, who is in the hospital having surgery, recovering from a car accident, etc. Of course after I digest that news, I do say prayers for the ill/injured!!

  • Georgette

    If you turn the news off, then how do you know if there is a crisis?… reading the newspapers or listening to your neighbors??? DON’T you want to see and hear for yourself what the politicians say from their own mouths their own words and use your own jugement when comes your turn to choose?Why would anyone want to be ignorant of what is going on in his/her life? Why would you give up your freedom to choose given to us by God…?

    • Palesa Floret

      Believe me you’ll find out. And if you only watch the news once a week, every two weeks, or even once a month you’ll find they are still talking about the same thing. Ya know why? Ad dollars.

  • Sharon

    I’m so glad to read this! I had recently commented to a friend that I didn’t think God intended for us to know, and carry the burden of knowing, every bad thing that happens in the world. We get addicted to hearing “up to the minute” updates on so many tragedies that we can do absolutely nothing about. It just breaks my heart trying to process all the grief and suffering. I prefer to lift it all to the only One who can handle the burden. Sufficient for each of us is the trouble near us, in our families, among our friends and in our neighborhoods.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for your work and your upbeat attitude. It is refreshing. I quit watching the news about 30 years ago for these very reasons. My kids were small and my plate was very full of (mostly) joyful and time-consuming reality. I had no need and no tolerance for the sensationalism of television in the general and “TMI” News programs in the particular. My spirit was relieved to have the life I was actually living to deal with and not the fantasy fears of network news. Our family actually quit subscribing to a daily paper as well, choosing only to read Sundays and to protest LOUDLY to the culture of death editorial slant of our local newspaper each time a salesperson called to question our lack of subscription.

    I found very quickly that people were only too happy to inform me of every tidbit of “news” that had crossed the airwaves, most of it entirely negative. It was simple to let them know that, “No, I hadn’t heard about that…God bless those poor folks.” It also became an occasion to remember how the good news of Jesus is so necessary to survival in our world. And the offering of that Gospel of Life to a world sorely in need of it became much more of a call in my day-to-day encounters. There are some things we just never need to hear, and we need to guard our hearts and our minds, submitting all things to Christ. At the same time when we DO hear lies and calumny, gossip and scandal, it is imperative for us, as Christians, to bring the conversation back to life-giving truth and gospel charity. Thanks for the reminder and the encouragement to address this issue once again.

powered by the Paulists