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Manufactured Crisis or Thoughtful Analysis? Stay Informed Without Losing Your Mind

Some days it seems that everyone I know is stressed over what’s going on in the world. Extremely stressed. I mean, like, freaking out. Panic attacks.

This is most apparent on social media, where everyone’s fears are repeated, reinforced, and magnified in a white-knuckle crescendo of screaming feedback and hyperbole. Some of the stress is justifiable: it’s pretty clear we’re not living in the best of all possible worlds. Bad enough that we have North Korea, ISIL, almost weekly terror attacks in Europe, resurgent racism, and what looks like a new cold war starting up. Add to that an unpredictable US president with a Twitter account and a penchant for pouring gasoline on every fire he sees, and it’s hard not to be concerned.

In the last few weeks, I’ve seen many people expressing fears about everything from nuclear missile attacks vaporizing US cities to civil war in the US. Friends and acquaintances are having panic attacks, rage episodes, and experiencing chronic depression. This is hardly surprising, since the two biggest stressors in primates are lack of predictability and lack of control.

I share some of my friends’ concerns to a degree, but I’m far from depression or panic. Part of this is simply being older—I remember the Cuba missile crisis and lived in London throughout the brutal IRA bombing campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s. I’m still here, and so is almost everyone else.

Beyond that, there’s one thing I do control, and you can too: your media. That doesn’t mean not staying informed—in fact, you can be both better informed and less stressed if you want to.

First, let’s remind ourselves that it wasn’t always like this. The 24/7 news cycle began in 1980, when Ted Turner’s CNN first came on the air. Before that, the news cycle was a daily one, beginning with the newspaper, and the same applied to the evening news on network TV. CNN was a game-changer: suddenly news was breaking 24/7, and anything even remotely newsworthy stood a good chance of being magnified for impact.

It’s important to understand the power of the visual medium in humans, who are primarily visual creatures (unlike, say, dogs, who get the vast majority of their information through their sense of smell).

Accordingly, a dramatic news item presented as video—a CCTV clip of a car mowing down innocent pedestrians, say—has infinitely higher emotional impact on the viewer than if they read the same item in textual form. Repeat that image over and over, and the impact on the audience is multiplied. Anyone who watched network news daily at the time of the 9/11 attacks probably saw the twin towers coming down at least scores of times, and probably several hundred: the networks played them over and over and over. For weeks. Months.

When Marshall McLuhan, back in 1964, wrote, “The medium is the message”,1 he wasn’t joking. The medium in which content is delivered shapes the content and the way it affects society in ways that are often unforeseen.

I haven’t watched TV news in almost thirty years. I have for many years listened to the BBC and NPR news on radio, and for the last decade mostly online, but in the last year or so I’ve mostly ditched that too.

How do I stay informed? I read. I read good news sources that report accurate, factual news—and, no, there’s no debate over what that is. (If you’re someone who believes the alt-right and president Trump’s definitions of “fake news”—or for that matter think Occupy Democrats and Addicting Info are credible news sources—you really shouldn’t waste your time reading this post. You’re not going to be convinced, and there’s a good chance I’ll can your comment: it’s my blog and my op-ed.)

I happened to be born with news media in my veins. My father was a celebrated, first-rank journalist, and I had a clear grasp of media accountability and the importance of credible sources before I was ten. Nine or ten newspapers were delivered daily to our house, and a number of news and current affairs weeklies, from Time Magazine to The Economist, as well as several Italian and French publications, were always to hand.

Now here’s the point. Television and radio news are push media: what that means is that the newsroom determines the hierarchy of importance of each item or topic and pumps them at you in a steady stream: you can’t just dip in and grab what interests you or what you consider important. Moreover, TV news has to be both sensational and simplified enough to keep the largest possible audience riveted: it’s fueled by advertising dollars, and airtime is very costly.

Text, on the other hand, is a pull medium: you can scan, determine what matters to you, and read just that; moreover, you can usually go and read more on that same subject in depth elsewhere. Lacking dramatic video imagery and manipulative voice tone, text media is much closer to sterile than visual or audio. Articles may of course carry spin or falsehoods, but selecting good sources addresses that.

Here’s a handy graph which compares news sources. The vertical axis defines journalistic quality; the horizontal, partisan bias. On the whole, I think it’s very accurate.

News Source Graphic

image too small? click here to enlarge

Another upside of text is that it’ll leave you better-informed. A four-minute radio piece—about the length of most items on NPR, undoubtedly one of the best news sources in the world—is perhaps 600 words. That’s not much, about the length of a typical blog post;2 you can barely scratch the surface. By contrast, the average length of a NYT article is around 1,200 words. Publications that take analysis really seriously, such as The Economist and The Atlantic Monthly, run some articles up into the several thousand-word range.

It’s true that readers’ attention spans are diminishing, and many people won’t take the ten minutes or so required to read a 1,200-word article. And the fact that everything is powered by the advertising makes it even more likely that newsroom editors, even in gold-standard publications, will be tempted to trim analysis and background material from articles.3

So: get your information fix from image-rich, emotionally manipulative push media, or pick your topics at leisure from in-depth, thoughtful, and less strident text media? Anxiety attacks or informed consideration?

The choice is yours. And there’s always antidepressants, right?

 

Notes

1  Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan (Signet, 1966)

2 Most of my posts on this blog, and when I guest post elsewhere, are usually in the 1,200-1,500-word range—that’s how long it takes to dig a little into a subject.

3 https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/2015/jul/15/tldr-quartz-associated-press-article-length

Thanks due to Vanessa Otero for her wonderful graphic comparing news sources. Check out her excellent blog here

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Just Say No

After an unusually hectic seven straight days of nonstop work—CAD, writing, and some paid copyediting—I found myself so tapped out on Monday that I could hardly reason. When, lying on the couch in the late morning (there are some benefits to working from home), I reflected on my condition, I remembered the importance of continuously re-evaluating commitments and priorities.

I have friends—I’m sure you do too—for whom anything less than too much seems to be not enough. These people are constantly on the go, 24/7, afraid, perhaps, that they might miss out on something, or seize up if they slow down. Rather than sipping and savouring life like a fine wine, they seem to want to drink it down like water from a fire hose.

And then there are those people who seem unable to say no. These are often deeply giving, caring people, volunteering for this and that, espousing causes and helping others even at the expense of their own health and the wellbeing of their family.

I understand most of this. We live in a hyperfast, ultraconnected world full of distraction, temptation, need, social and peer pressure—and insecurity. Those of us fortunate enough to have jobs are working more hours than ever before, in many cases for less money; there are the phenomenal demands of children and their own activities, and a mass of good causes clamouring for support.

There’s a Chinese saying that goes, one lake cannot hold all the water in the world. You can’t do it all. You have to prioritise. You have to draw lines.

I’ve always been a little stingy with my time and energy, and I recommend that when you see the wall coming up, you do the same. Just say no. It’s okay. They’ll find someone else to help clean the beach or be the society treasurer. Someone else can usher at the kids’ school play. And however much they want to play baseball as well as soccer, unless you want your kids to be as tapped out and frenetic as you are, you’ll be doing them—and yourself—a big favour by drawing a line. When you exhaust yourself, you’re no good to anyone. Don’t even go to the edge. Just say no.

No is a really empowering word. Used correctly, it’s a kind word, and a thoughtful, even wise one. It’s survival. It lets you live to fight and win the next battle.

A lot of people seem to overload and take on more and more as some kind of validation, perhaps to bolster low self-esteem. Others might have an inflated sense of their own importance, like the workaholic middle manager who won’t delegate and can’t seem to trust anyone else to do anything. These behaviours are, in my opinion, inefficient and even unhealthy, sometimes to the point of pathology. We all need downtime, mental space, relaxation. Without enough sleep we become cranky and our immune systems begin to break down. The eventual outcome is often depression, ill health, or divorce.

Here’s what’s important: time with ourselves and with our loved ones; regular and sufficient sleep; good meals, eaten in comfort with family, not in the car or at your desk. Exercise. Time in nature. Please understand I’m not judging or preaching, but I think we sometimes all need to step back and remember we have choices. They may be hard, but we still have them. It’s easy to forget this.

So I cut out my Saturday blog post, because I realized it was pushing me to overload. I let go of my SF reviewing gig for Tangent (which I rather enjoyed) a few weeks ago because other things were starting to suffer. I politely declined to stand for the board of a new SFF society because I knew I couldn’t do it to my satisfaction without something else important (to me) suffering. I don’t play any MMORPGs anymore because I’d rather have the time in hand and I spend too much of my day at the computer anyway. My own physical and emotional wellbeing requires exercise and time spent preparing and eating good food. And by constantly reevaluating and making choices, when something vital does come up, I can not only say yes, but I’m whole and healthy enough to be both reliable and efficient.

The thing is, the people who are important will understand. They get it… and if they don’t, do you really need those people in your life?  I don’t like people who flake on commitments, and I certainly don’t want to become one of them. If I make commitments I can’t keep—to others or to myself—everyone suffers. Better to say an honest no to begin with. They’ll find someone else, or maybe even realize that they’ve taken on too much.

Just say no once in while, to yourself as well as others. You’ll be glad you did.

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