The case for giving up online news

By the Rev. Margaret Marcuson

I gave up online news for Lent, and I haven’t gone back.

In my last article, I mentioned this fact, and I want say more. Every year, I prayerfully consider what my Lenten practice will be. This year it was startlingly clear. I was getting distracted by the news. I’ve never had headline notifications turned on anywhere in my life, but even without them, it’s all too easy to switch over to a news site. So I gave it up for Lent. The surprise was this: It was one of the easiest disciplines in which I’ve ever engaged. I immediately felt better day to day. I didn’t find myself tempted at all (the way I have been by chocolate in other years!).

Here’s what I’ve found: I’m happier. I’m less distracted and more able to focus on my work. I’m practicing what I preach to leaders all the time.

Remember, the media is trying to get your attention by raising your anxiety. That’s the model, now more than ever. This barrage of anxiety-raising articles, posts and tweets is bad for all of us. To make a difference, we need to keep our wits about us, and stay relatively calm so we can think clearly. Most of my work with pastoral leaders is about gaining more clarity. A constant influx of news has just the opposite effect.

Of course, social media amplifies it all. I recommend you also make some choices about how you engage with news via social media. Don’t let it just come at you. I use Social Fixer, a browser add-on for Facebook. It lets you block posts by keyword, and block the trending headlines. It allows me to use Facebook more for my own purposes and less for other people’s.

Think about it: Compare the time you spend with the news with the time you spend in prayer. I’ll be honest: Even with my new practices, I spend less time in prayer. As spiritual leaders, we, of course, need to be engaged with the world. The Karl Barth quote about having the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other as we preach continues to be relevant. But most of us, myself included, are wildly out of balance.

An article by Shane Parrish goes even further, suggesting that you never read the news — that in six months, it will all be irrelevant. While I haven’t gone that far, he makes a good case for it.

Does this mean I advocate putting your head in the sand and ignoring what is going on in the world? Of course not. The publication you are reading right now — The Christian Citizen — provides solid opinion about relevant current events viewed through a faith- and justice-focused lens. In addition, I read my local newspaper. It’s not what it used to be, but I get the basics of local and national news. I also read The Economist, a British-based weekly newsmagazine. The writing is terrific, and it’s an outside perspective, which I appreciate. It’s not about economics only — I know far more about global news than ever before.

You may very well make a different choice than I have. You may have a particular issue you are following for ministry purposes. I like to read text, but you may prefer video. However, most of us do not need to track the news throughout the day. Really. You don’t need to know the headlines minute by minute, or even every hour.

Whatever your choice, I do suggest that you find a way to bring a spiritual awareness to the news. Can you pray for the people you hear about (including those you disagree with or even dislike)? Here’s one idea: Stop at noon, look at the headlines, and engage in a special noonday prayer time for your community and our world.

Ask yourself:

  • What is my purpose for engaging with the news?
  • What is the best way for me to consume news, in accordance with that purpose?
  • What habits can I develop that help me consume news in that way?
  • How can I prayerfully engage with the news?

The Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.