Lately I’ve heard some version of this statement from several clients and friends:
I’m taking a break from the news.
I feel a little guilty, but I’m on a news hiatus.
I know I should be paying attention, but I just can’t look at the news right now.
I haven’t read any news in over a week, and it’s been good for my mental health.
I took a Facebook break so that I could get away from the news.
Given the chaos in our national political life these days and bad news about school shootings and police shootings at home and mall fires and jail fires abroad, paying attention to the news can feel like an endless assault on our sense of security.
I have been a news junkie all my life. My dad raised me that way. He and my mom subscribed to two newspapers and lots of periodicals when I was growing up. He insisted that it was important that we read those papers and keep up with current events. “You need to know what’s going on in the world,” he’d say. “It affects your life.” One of my more vivid childhood memories is of the day in 1974 when Daddy came home for lunch to watch President Nixon resign. He insisted that my sister and I watch with him. “This is history being made,” he said.
Daddy turned me into a news hound. Growing up, I usually knew more about political campaigns and recent scientific breakthroughs and lots of other stuff than most of my friends. A child of the late 1960s and early 1970s, I asked questions about the environmental movement and women’s liberation at the supper table. Following the news helped develop my liberal leanings, much to the chagrin of my conservative dad, but he never stopped encouraging me to be an informed citizen. In his view, following the news was not an option; it was a responsibility.
Still, as an adult, I’ve come to have a love-hate relationship with the news. My ambivalence started during the Iraq War. For years, my habit had been to set my clock radio to wake me to NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Even after the awful events of 9-11, I persisted in waking to NPR. But a year or two after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, I switched from the news broadcast to a regular alarm tone. I simply couldn’t start my day hearing about the slaughter of American troops and Iraqi civilians day after day. I still listened to NPR in the car, but I gave up the pleasures of book reviews and Storycorps interviews on “Morning Edition” in order to fight off my growing feelings of helplessness in the face of man’s inhumanity to man (to borrow theologian Reinhold’s Niebuhr’s words.)
Some time during that period—probably around the time of Hurricane Katrina--I also stopped watching television news. Thanks to the new phenomenon of 24-7 news coverage with its endless parade of pundits and commentators and the constant images of human suffering, I struggled to fight off depression . Visit to doctor’s offices and car repair shops where Fox News or (more rarely) MSNBC blared constantly were a test of endurance. I felt guilty about not looking bad news head on, and I sometimes had the perverse notion that if I didn’t pay attention, even more awful things might happen, but I began to confine myself to reading the news rather than watching it. But still I kept up with the news, both because of my responsibility as a history professor and as a citizen.
Then the 2016 presidential campaign and its aftermath turned keeping up with the news into an exercise that could easily cause PTSD—even for a news junkie like me. So like my friends and clients, I have taken “news breaks” in order to cope. On those days when news-fueled anxiety generates a clenching in my gut and a tendency to hyperventilate, I step away from the news for a few hours or a few days.
In these extraordinary times, I’m learning that it’s essential to listen to our bodies and our hearts and negotiate our own best relationship with the news. We have to balance our responsibility to be informed citizens with our need to preserve our mental health. Following every firing, senseless act of violence, and asinine comment by a public figure will not do one iota to change the world but can impair our ability to act in positive and productive ways. So when a client says, “Do you think it’s a terrible thing that I am limiting my exposure to the news?” I answer. “No way." Find your own best relationship with the news. Find the way to be informed and engaged that does the least to undermine your mental health.” And I’m trying to give myself permission to take my own advice.