Mindfulness and the News

Surviving the era of media glut

Over lunch last week, a friend of mine confessed that she was drowning in the deluge of recent news coverage. Even though most of what she read increased her anxiety and frustration, she found herself unable to resist another headline or update. Our current president’s penchant for late-night Twitter posts exacerbate this anxiety, compelling one to check news streams with dizzying frequency to make sure that nothing else has happened in the last twelve minutes. All at once, we are wracked with FOMOOWCSDTPT (translation: fear of missing out on what crazy stunt Donald Trump pulled today).

As the threshold for receiving information continues to lower, our society is increasingly vulnerable to an ever-increasing quest for information that is never completely satisfied. Phones buzz constantly with notifications. Alerts pop up on our computers. Cable news is never over. And many of us are torn. How can we balance the need to be informed citizens with the quest for mindfulness — the personal peace that we need to survive in our information-saturated culture? Frequent political updates disturb our serenity, giving us the allusion of control. The result is noise and a further sense of disembodiment.

So the questions resound: What should our relationship with media look like in our present age? How can an average citizen slow down the frantic pace of minute-by-minute news but still remain informed of key developments? Where does one go for longer, more contemplative pieces to break away from the ticker tape?

For those of us unwilling to leave the Internet entirely, there is hope. But it requires some strategy and planning. I have three suggestions that can help us to balance the need for information with a desire for mindfulness.

Choose depth over breadth.

It’s tempting to continue following another link to the next promising news story. Resist. A good rule of thumb: pick 1–2 significant articles a week that explore topics of interest. These should be lengthier (think New York Times Magazine or feature Economist pieces), chockfull of investigative research, and balanced analysis based on facts. This works especially well if you choose articles from different points of view. I might, for instance, pair a New Yorker article with one from the Weekly Standard or National Review. The goal here is to explore an issue with nuance and care because this counters the reactive and overly simplified aim of most headlines. For those of you not sure where to access news from different perspectives, visit Real Clear Politics, which offers a “dogpile” of opinions and news from both sides.

As someone with a Christian worldview, I’m also interested in news that thoughtfully helps me to discern current events through such a lens. While there are myriad blogs that do this, here are a few of my favorites for their conscientious writing and well-researched perspectives:

Podcasts are another good option that give you the chance to go deeper. Recently, I listened to an especially riveting podcast on the role of ethics in computer science with entrepreneur Anil Dash and Krista Tippett. It reminded me of how FaceBook’s audience of 1 billion plus users gives them unprecedented power and the implications of such power in our current political climate. Some of my favorite podcasts are:

Set boundaries.

Much of the news frenzy happens because there are no boundaries distinguishing our space from the interweb’s. In so doing, we have ceded more and more of ourselves to those with little concern for the state of our hearts and minds. If we want our space protected, then it is our responsibility to demand that it is so. It takes vigilance — intentional choices — to determine the relationship that you want with the media. Otherwise, the media is free to dictate the relationship it wants with you.

Settings and parameters are powerful tools to enforce boundaries. Turn off notifications (or don’t set them up). Subscribing can also help. Almost every mainstream newspaper, magazine, or blog has a newsletter option where you can opt to receive a curated selection of stories that apply to you. These are delivered directly to your inbox and thus limits the time spent mindlessly clicking from one link to the next.

Let someone else sort for you.

I’m a big fan of the “briefings” produced by many news organizations and bloggers. Here are two of my go-tos although I’m sure there are many more.

  • The Weekend Briefing is weekly news round-up with a social entrepreneurship bent. Even if social impact isn’t your thing, Kyle Westaway offers a thoughtful and empathetic curation of the week’s big news and developments as they relate to social change and personal development.
  • The New York Times has a morning and evening briefing for each weekday and one for the weekend. It lists the top stories and offers short summaries. You can subscribe to these via email so they are delivered directly to you without the need to visit their website.

In the words of G.K. Chesterton, “the simplification of anything is always sensational.” Breaking news alerts and Twitter streams deal in the simplified sensational. Slowing down the pace of words, checking them against other sources, and searching for multi-layered explanations brings us a different, more nuanced take. And that will set us free.