What Works: Turn Off the News

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(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.