The Joy Of NOT Paying Attention To The News All The Damn Time
Until three weeks ago, I spent the better part of the past three-and-a-half years as a reporter, covering criminal justice, politics, and other subjects that were mostly unpleasant. I wrote multiple stories every evening, with no days off, and I was constantly monitoring cable news and social media for the next breaking story. It wasn’t until I stopped doing this that I realized how exhausted I was with it.
Before the election of 2016, reporting the news was essentially a privilege and something that I truly enjoyed. I care a great deal about the United States and the state of the news media, so doing my small part to explain and comment on stories voters need to be informed about was a dream job. (I mean, given the low pay, I had to love what I did or I would have never been able to keep it up.)
All that changed, however, when our current president descended his gilded escalator in the tower that bears his name, and turned the dial on the idiocy and ugliness of campaign politics past the maximum into a whole new strata of stupid. So much so that it started affecting my mood, and I didn’t even realize it.
On any given day, I would spend my mornings watching and reading the news, because the “news cycle” went into hyperdrive. Step away from Twitter for an hour or two, and when you got back some new outrage supplanted what people had been discussing before. While working, I would stream all the major cable news channels (if a story popped up on two of them, that meant that it was something the site I worked for should be covering).
As the election unfolded, I noticed that I was becoming a much more miserable person than your typical brooding writer-type. I withdrew from social circles, argued with family, and was quick to snap in anger at people in-person or online. Immersed in the news, partisan and negative with commentary rarely added in good-faith, it was starting to affect my state of mind and well-being. Add to that never taking a day off (unless too ill to work, and even then I’d lose money), and you have a recipe for, as we Pittsburghers say, a real jag-off.
The night Latest.com dismissed all their writers — caught up in the same strange revenue downturn that has affected Mic, MTV, The Blaze, and other outlets — was the night of the neo-Nazi rally in Charleston, Virginia. And it was through witnessing this horror that I learned two important things about myself.
The first is that writing about the news helped me find a way to not exactly deal with it on the level that most of us do. I would react to breaking news events like this, but not as a “person” but rather as a reporter, looking for sources, context, and a fresh angle on the story. Without that role to play in this breaking news event, I was struck by how helpless and angry I felt. I had no outlet to channel those feelings into (well, until I decided to make regular use of this site), and I realized how bad it must be to be just a news consumer in today’s world.
It wasn’t until after watching President Trump’s disgusting Trump Tower press conference about Charleston — with my daughter, biracial but who identifies as “black,” — that I finally just turned off the news, essentially “for good.” Of course, as I continued to write about current events in this space (thanks to incredibly humbling and generous help from individual donors), I’ve gone back to my news-gathering ways, but nowhere near to the degree that I used to.
It was my hope to write at least one or two daily stories on here, both to stay in practice writing about the news and since people have supported me directly with their own money, I feel a sense of duty to do it. As I chase down new writing gigs, I’ve been able to stay afloat financially thanks to this, but I am also able to work fewer hours per day that I did before.
Thanks to the new gigs and the support of readers like yourself, I have been able to do things I wasn’t able to do in the past three years. I’ve written something like 80,000 words of fiction (of which only about 20,000 were any good). I’ve started reading for fun again (well, for a book reviewing gig with Indie Reader, but it’s still fun). I even got to take about 80 percent of last weekend “off” altogether, and I realized I had almost forgotten how to relax.
In the past, I’ve written articles about how Americans overwork themselves by spending too many hours per day on-the-job and not taking vacations. I know that this makes one’s quality of work suffer, and can even lead to medical issues like depression. Of course, I never considered myself one of those of folks.
Let’s face it: writing for a living is not, in the traditional sense, a difficult job. Most of the time, I do my work in my pajamas. There are hundreds of people out there right now who would have killed to be able to pull down a meager income from slinging words. I never forget that actually being able to professionally do that thing you’ve dreamed about as a child is a gift and nothing that should ever be taken for granted. You gotta constantly earn your place to do it. A day “not writing” was a day I felt like I wasted that gift.
Yet, I think I am going to take my own advice, and perhaps take a bit of a break from the day-to-day focus on what is terrible in the world. It’s also something I recommend that those of you who are constantly tuned to cable news or following stories constantly online do as well.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that people disassociate from being informed citizens and carefully reading, scrutinizing, and reacting to the news. I also recognize that for many people, such as transgender servicemembers wondering if they will be “culture-war’ed” out of a career or immigrants whose communities are looked at with fear and suspicion by the government, not paying close and constant attention to the terrible news of the day is not an option.
Nonetheless, given the current political and media landscape, people have made outrage an industry and it’s hurting us all. I have former teachers, friends, and family members whose online presence has been reduced to one political outrage story after another. Some think the U.S. is descending into a racist authoritarian nightmare, others think that an anti-American conspiracy of media and college kids are trying to bring down an entire belief system.
Ironically, they aren’t entirely wrong (although, neither reality is as dire as those whose daily bread is earned by stoking your fears would make it seem). But it breaks my heart to see people I know are good people spending their days (and in some cases their twilight years) surrounded by fear, paranoia, and suffering.
My struggle to achieve a work/life balance is the struggle we all should face about how to both be an informed and engaged citizen but not become consumed by it all. These are trying and troubling times, but its important to not let it dominate your life. The news can make us feel scared, angry, and helpless at times, but it need not make us that way all the time.
So, while I take a few more glorious days to focus my attention on things other than the news, I urge you to do the same. Take a breather. Find something that makes you happy, whether it’s the escapism of books, TV, and video games or escaping out into the world, interacting with friends, family, and even strangers.
Hopefully, for me, this will help my work be less captive to media narratives and news cycles. I can focus on stories that are important and underrepresented, or cover the big story on everyone’s mind without any of the frenetic breathlessness as other reporters might. It will only be by accident if this makes me a better person as well.
But for those of you who do not make your living reporting the news or fighting the good fight everyday for causes you care about, there’s a benefit to backing up from the constant onslaught of terribleness. You’ll see firsthand that the world is bigger than the top ten trending stories. You’ll stop seeing people as their media demographic — conservatives, liberals, etc. — and recognize again that they are your neighbors. Instead of looking at the world with wide-eyed panic or anger, you can just look at the world.
American society has lost a lot of the context it once had, even just a few years ago. Perhaps this is one way to get it back. At the very least, everyone deserves a break now and then.