A couple of years ago I logged onto the website of a particular news outlet. There was a press conference happening that afternoon, I forget what for, and I wanted to read about the income. Instead of an article though, I clicked onto the live updates. The press conference had finished, and the journalist running the live blog promised that ‘instant reax’ would follow.
I was struck by that phrase. The news can move so fast that even the expression ‘instant reactions’ is too long.
We’ve had a lot of ‘instant reax’ over the last ten days – lots of snap judgements, kneejerk conclusions, conjecture and speculation. It’s understandable. A whole lot of things have been thrown up into the air, things we normally rely on for at least a small part of our peace of mind – things like knowing who is running the country. We hunger for clarity and answers to our questions, and the media has plenty of people ready to pontificate.
I don’t know about you, but the news has really dominated life recently. The radio is always on, it’s the only topic of conversation in the office or at home. There is a bit of a thrill to the news on days when events are unfolding at pace, but there’s a price to pay for it too. I turned the news off for most of the weekend, and I’ve been thinking about it. Here are a few observations.
First, a news bender can distract us from things that matter. Last week my wife and I were talking politics a lot. As you can imagine, there was a degree of ranting involved, and more than one outburst of ‘turn this **** off’ when some unwelcome guest appeared on the radio or the TV. I was aware that the kids, three and five, picked up on this anger and didn’t understand it. I try to involve them, and I don’t see the need to shield children from politics or our own reactions to it, but it’s not fair for it to sideline them and their own smaller concerns over the dinner table. It is their concerns, after all, that are the real business of living.
Secondly, too much news can make us feel very powerless, that the world is running out of control and that we have no influence over it. And for most of us, that’s not true – our own spheres of influence remain almost exactly what they were. In our households and workplaces, our streets or at the school gate, the positive or negative influence we can have on those very real places is exactly the same as it was last week. But if we feel powerless, perhaps we’re less likely to bother with the kind word or the welcoming gesture that we could have offered. Perhaps we add to the cynicism others are expressing, and only compound the uncertainty and fear. It’s easy to be caught up in the Very Important Events elsewhere, and neglect the more mundane needs around us.
It’s also addictive. There was a day last week, you can probably guess which one, in which I got almost no work done because we spent most of the day talking about what was happening. Even if I wasn’t reading the live news feeds myself, others in our co-working space were, and shouting out the headlines. Some of this is fine. We have intelligent folks on both sides of Britain’s current political divide in the office, and have robust debates without falling out with each other – and that’s a rare enough thing. But too many days of news watching is unproductive. Most importantly, it captures the imagination, so that I was thinking about it while I was supposed to be doing other things, wondering what would happen next.
In his book How to be Free, Tom Hodgkinson boasts: “I have managed to cut down to one newspaper a week, which leaves a lot more time to concentrate on the important things in life, like drinking and music.” Indeed, and whatever you consider to be the important things, you can free up time for them with less news. It’s not like we really need to know about the day’s events as they happen. We used to be content with finding out at the end of the day with a summary news bulletin, or the day after with a morning newspaper. And we survived for centuries without the idea of news at all. I know a few people who read a weekly newspaper. As well as the time saving, you just get the most important bits, and you get considered opinion rather than instant reaction – always a more valuable thing.
Last week I spent a happy morning pulling thistles and nettles out of a meadow at my son’s school, to make more light and space for the wildflowers the kids had planted. It was an ideal task, manual, practical, with just enough peril to occupy my mind, and at the end I could see the difference I had made. I can recommend an outdoor manual task to anyone feeling overwhelmed by the news at the moment. Cooking ought to do it too, or mending or DIY. Don’t escape the media with different media. Do something that changes things in the real world, that changes a little piece of reality. Do it in nature if you can.
If you’re loving the drama of it all right now, then carry on. If it’s feeling like more of a treadmill, stop. There is such a thing as too much news. And it’s okay to turn it off.