How Being A News Junkie Made Me A Better Person
When I was a kid, I used to read a lot of books. I always had something to read during school lunches and on family trips. I could burn through an entire series in a week or two.
But by the time college came around, my pace had slowed. The Harry Potter ripoffs just weren’t that great any more; I felt like I’d seen it all when it it came to sci-fi/fantasy. Besides, there were too many required reading assignments in my classes for me to spend time reading for fun.
After college, I went on a non-fiction binge. Reading fiction wasn’t practical, not when I could be learning about science and psychology and culture and politics. I could read half-a-dozen books by Steven Pinker in the time it would take me to read a single Game of Thrones volume.
But those books too began to feel old hat. Been there, done that. Blink was Thinking, Fast and Slow was How The Mind Works.
My attention span was shrinking, and I didn’t have the patience to read a long-form nonfiction book over the course of a leisurely weekend.
So I did what we all do: I picked up my smartphone. I followed a bunch of people on Twitter, added a handful of news sites to my bookmarks, and began to compulsively check the home pages of Slate and CNN.
For the last several years, most of the reading that I’ve done has come in the form of news articles and blog posts.
I relocated to Portland last year, while between freelance gigs, and I was desperate to draw some kind of attention to myself on the Internet. I hoped that by posting articles I liked to my Twitter feed, my followers would see me as a curator of fascinating content and a memorable worldview.
I became embedded in the 24-four hour news cycle: each morning, I’d spend close to an hour in bed before getting up for breakfast, while skimming five or ten articles on my smartphone.
I’d check out some my favorite hashtags (#sharingeconomy, #polyamory) and get into lightly heated debates about Airbnb or same-sex marriage.
Each day, I picked about five of my favorite articles to add my Buffer queue, feeling encouraged by the occasional favorite or retweet.
All along, I kept silently judging myself for it. I was addicted to social media, I thought. I was wasting my time looking down at my smartphone when I should have been biking, doing yoga, enjoying the sun.
I would read articles that seemed important at the time, only for them to be rendered irrelevant the next day when new facts came to light.
I felt guilty that I wasn’t reading the long-form fiction and nonfiction that my friends were. The Sixth Extinction. The Name of the Wind. Outlander. I tried picking up a few books, but I couldn’t get into them.
I even got rid of my smartphone for a few months to try and rewire my brain, to cut down on media consumption. I modified my /hosts file to block access to news sites, the way some people try and block access to porn.
But as I looked back on the past few years, I realized how much I had learned from the process.
It was true that many of the articles I’d read had been less insightful than others; some of the comments I’d posted had been ill-thought-out or might never even be seen by another human being.
But on the whole, I’d become so much better informed about dozens of topics than I had been before — from race to gender to sexuality.
There were the insightful posts on LGBT and gender issues by by Mark Joseph Stern and J. Bryan Lowder in Slate Outward. Jodi Cantor’s New York Times piece on sexism in tech, as experienced by the Stanford class of 1994. Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Case for Reparations in The Atlantic that I read while resting from a bike ride on a sunny day on Mt. Tabor.
The most memorable stories were those that involved multiple viewpoints: Laurie Penny’s empathetic takedown of male “nerd entitlement,” contrasted with Amanda Marcotte’s less charitable one. The outrage over comments by an Uber executive reported by Buzzfeed, which kept me glued to my Twitter feed for hours. The pushback over the whiteness of this year’s Oscars.
Far from being an echo chamber, online media seems to be allowing for more diverse voices than ever.
I watched Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women video series, only to read feminist critiques of her comments on sex workers — which in turn were addressed by radical feminist critiques of those critiques.
Clearly, there was more to the blogosphere than the homepage of CNN. But who had the right to speak up on which issues? Which approaches — kind and gentle, academic, confrontational — were most effective?
Now, I no longer beat myself up for being a news junkie. I’m convinced that my years of news addiction have made me better educated, more tolerant, and more qualified to speak up about social justice and diversity.
I may not find the time to read diverse books this year — but I’ll be reading a whole bunch of news articles and blog posts, from as many sources as I can.
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