2020: News/Infotainment Detox

by Sunita

Like so many other people, I’m exhausted and stressed by reading the news every day but I don’t seem to be able to stop. I’ve written before about how frustrating I find the conflation of reported news, speculation, and opinion/analysis. I can’t count the number of times I’ve started to read a story only to find that it’s not actual news, just someone’s take on what might happen given particular scenarios.

Last month, I proposed a news detox to TheHusband, who has been in the same stress boat. I suggested that we completely avoid reading the news online and return to the old ways of acquiring information: the television, radio, and printed newspapers and magazines. This would be a big change for us, because both of us read news sites more than any other on our phones and computers. But after the daily frenzy of impeachment “reporting” we had to do something. Impeachment was a textbook case of the problem: there was actual news, as in hearings, votes, etc., but that took up a minority of the virtual inches devoted to the subject. So much of the coverage was about what might happen, how it might affect the Democratic race for the nomination, and so on.

We started in mid-December and set some ground rules. We decided that we could continue to read the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times because they have clearly delineated news vs. opinion sections, and they have very little gossip fluff of any kind. We also allowed ourselves to check in on local newspapers for similar reasons. We could read the front page of any paper as long as we didn’t click through on an article. And I kept reading sports and book sections. So we weren’t completely offline for news.

At first it was pretty disorienting. It turns out we spent a LOT of time on The Washington Post (both of us), the Guardian (me) and CNN and BBC’s mobile versions (mostly TheH). The WSJ and the FT take a lot less time to read online, too, so we were done pretty much when our morning tea was finished. Over the rest of the day we had to find other sources of timepass, which meant reading more on our ereaders, me knitting, and even playing card and board games.

It also turned out to be more difficult to find printed newspapers. In CA, the paper boxes at the little shopping center near us only carried the San Francisco and San Jose papers and the Starbucks and grocery store had both stopped carrying the New York Times. Driving across the country we saw only local papers, perhaps because our short and overnight stops were in truck stops and small towns. Nevertheless, we were far from news-deprived. The online papers we still read gave us all the breaking news and we continued to watch BBC News America and the Newshour on PBS. That’s actually a lot of content! And on our drives to and from CA we listened to the BBC World Service and occasionally NPR. We kept up to date on major and minor events and our stress levels had gone down.

We broke our rules a few times. We read a couple of Iran stories in the WaPo and the NYT. I went down the Royal Family Crisis rabbit hole for a bit, because how could I not? And I read the various news and online magazine stories on the RWA blowup because ditto. When we got back we both unthinkingly opened the WaPo app on our Kindle Fires and skimmed before we realized what we were doing.

We’re now over three weeks in to our changed news consumption patterns and we intend to keep going. The online cacophony is only going to get worse as the election season ramps up, and who knows what other catastrophes lie in store. Being a news junkie used to mean reading a bunch of newspapers and magazines, but now it means having your time and psyche shaped by the 24/7 content monster. Quality news sites offer less outrageous and flat-out untrue speculation than the tabloids, but it’s still speculation. Opinions that aren’t based on specialized knowledge or unusual access are just opinions, even when the person is intelligent and thoughtful. Your opinions are probably no less likely to be on target, and you already come equipped with those.

It’s been an interesting exercise to discover that reading news sites all day is in some ways very similar to reading social media all day. Scrolling is scrolling; after the first burst of information it’s pretty much all the same kind of material. We’ve moved a long way from the old internet, where listservs were full of people we’d come to know and newspapers were essentially the same online as they were in print. The newspapers I’ve read for decades are unrecognizable in their current forms, and they’re much closer to the Buzzfeed model (listicles, “how to do X” posts, essays on how someone feels about something) than to their previous incarnations. If you look hard you can find the reported stories and interesting features, but most of us inevitably get sidetracked by the more click-friendly headlines and there goes an hour or two. If you can do that without raising your blood pressure in these times, more power to you. I can’t.