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News consumption sanity: There's steps for that

I live with a lot of panic. Not just because I have lifelong issues with mild anxiety, but because I live with a man who likes to talk a lot about all the crises involving climate change, Donald Trump, and the coronavirus – sometimes as they relate to one another.

Although I share his concerns with all of these topics, I generally cope with it in part by trying to minimize my exposure to news. This is anathema among my former colleagues in the news industry, I know. But even when I worked in news, I recognized how toxic constant exposure in the name of being informed could be to my mental health. Being freed from my journalism career gave me license to avoid news at last.

If I have to choose between being overinformed and being sane, I’ll choose the latter.

Austin Kleon, one of my favorite writers and online life coaches (my term, not his), tweeted this morning: “Honestly, you’d probably be just as informed and much, much saner if you stuck to reading news produced for kids these days.” The New York Times, for instance, produces a monthly news section in its Sunday paper just for kids – that is, probably for kids up to their early teens – and now I read it more than the Styles and Review sections I used to read religiously.

These days, I try to rein in my media exposure for the sake of my peace of mind. Here’s a few steps I’ve taken that seem to help.

  • Use Feedbin. This feed reader allows me to follow Twitter accounts without actually being on Twitter. It effectively isolates me from the toxic back-and-forth that comes with replies. Also, I can subscribe to newsletters and good old-fashioned RSS feeds.

  • Avoid Twitter. See above. I still go there occasionally, but not as much as I used to. If you have to turn to Twitter, turn down the noise by turning off retweets from others and mute freely. That helps me a ton. (The same could be said for Facebook. I didn’t mention it because I’m rarely on it now.)

  • Turn off notifications on the phone. Unless you’re an actual journalist, avoid getting news alerts on your damn phone. The worst part about a lot of these so-called news alerts, at least with Apple News, is that half of the alerts are of dubious value and not really “news.” A 10,000-word thinkpiece on Trump’s disregard for the Constitution might be interesting but it is not breaking news. (This brings up the danger of leaving news decisions to inexperienced nonjournalists and AI and algorithms, but I digress.)

  • Narrow down news sources to reputable, non-aggregator journalism sites. This means no Google News, no Drudge, no deliberately right- or left-leaning sites like Breitbart or RawStory. (Don’t @ me, as the kids say today.) I subscribe to The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times; for the sake of time and sanity, I try to limit myself to those daily. But I also go to NPR and sometimes the BBC, CBC, Politico, even Vox. Also, the Atlantic is producing some of the most thoughtful long-form work online; I’m thinking about subscribing there, too.

  • Select thought leaders carefully. By “thought leaders,” I mean sources of thoughtful analysis and ideas rather than reactive, impulsive “hot takes” on the news. There’s a handful of cultural/political journals I like to check out online: The Bulwark (which can sometimes get into “hot takes” territory), Hedgehog Review, New Atlantis. Also, there’s several thinkers I like to follow on social media: Alan Jacobs, L.M. Sacasas, the aforementioned Austin Kleon. I probably should also count Stephen Colbert, whose nightly monologue is the closest thing I come to TV news. (Also, if you disagree with my choice of journals or thinkers, that’s fine. But in this toxic day and age, I can see people disregarding this advice just because I don’t visit, say, Daily Kos or Salon or Daily Caller. I’m just saying don’t overwhelm yourself with a zillion sources for analysis.)

  • Read real books. Yes, Kindle books count.

There is a certain wisdom in the old rhythm of reading the newspaper in the morning – or the afternoon, back in the really old days when afternoon papers were a thing – and then going on with your life. The 24/7 news cycle that came with the Internet, especially in the age of Trump, has left us beaten down and broken, just as the rising of the seas has eroded shorelines.

Given that, my next goal is to turn off the news spigot more often during my day; my compulsive checking of headlines during work breaks or on my phone – first thing in the morning, while I’m waiting in line, after dinner, and just before I go to bed – is unhealthy and no way to live.

So, to quote another great thought leader, Douglas Adams: Don’t panic. And don’t worry about being uninformed or “woke.” Limiting your news exposure – creating a little silence around yourself – doesn’t leave you uninformed. It’s a means of survival and sanity.