Do We Need the News Every Day?
I don’t read the news daily anymore. There I said it.
Okay, I don’t really mean that I don’t read the news at all, and I don’t mean to suggest that whoever reads this piece shouldn’t either. That kind of brings me to my point, as it happens.
You see I do read the news, a little. I’ve limited myself to literally Quartz’s weekday email bulletin, and whatever few minutes of NPR I hear during my morning routine (not technically reading, though).
I used to make following the news a priority. I used to value knowing the ins and outs of current events — the political issues of the day, the big goings on. To me, being up to date and in the know about the broader world around me was tantamount to being a compassionate and caring cosmopolitan, as my liberal education had suggested I become.
Then I became a husband, a father, and I closed the window I had left open to a life in academia. To state it more bluntly, my focus shifted.
Don’t get me wrong; I still care about what’s going on in the world. I still have strong political opinions. I still think that what is happening in the corners of the globe is significant.
However, I no longer think that my knowing about each little wrinkle in the stories, as they unfold, is important. For 99.9% of us, knowing those things probably isn’t important. In reality, those wrinkles, presented in so many articles, blog posts, and tweets, are of relatively little importance — even to the broader story of which they are a part.
There’s just way way too much noise bombarding us today for me to even muster up the energy to keep up. There are thousands of outlets publishing news stories, analysis, and opinion pieces pushing each other against the gates of our collective attention each day. They report contradicting facts, contain outdated information at publication time, or just don’t really report anything at all.
But for those who hoped — as I at one time did — to be “in the know” about current events, all that work trying to “keep up” is enough to buttress an acute case of FOMO. It can get to a point where one’s morning coffee is barely half guzzled before the wave of panic washes over: “what am I missing out on?”
You’re Not REALLY Missing Anything
Here’s some relief: I don’t think you are missing out. Okay, that’s a little oversimplified of an assessment. You are missing out on the intelligentsia’s version of gossip (on a global, geopolitical scale), but you’re not missing out on two key things that you should care about: understanding and wisdom.
To be connected with and aware of the transitory goings-on of current events is to have knowledge of small, discrete facts. That is what I would estimate 97% of news outlets concentrate on. But any connection to those things quickly fades. It is not understanding or wisdom; it just isn’t that valuable.
After all, knowing that there were 681 heroin-related deaths in Illinois in 2014 is somewhat useful, but quickly becomes dated and less relevant, as days pass. Knowing that the State of Illinois made severe cuts to mental health programs in the years preceding this mortality spike is a bit more valuable. But in order to find out the latter, you’d have to wait for stats to be gathered, and reports to be written. For clearer understanding, patience is required.
Understanding is valuable, and thus, it takes much longer to gain than mere knowledge of factoids. So rather than consuming news and spreading links and commentary on Twitter and Facebook like a madman (or madwoman), allow some time to pass. Seek out researched and vetted narratives about the issues written well after their inciting incidents have come to a close. (Longform is great for this, by the way. They also have an app!)
This is not news (pardon the pun). Government agencies, academics, and think tanks have all followed the same model. The 9/11 Commission Report wasn’t released until July of 2004. The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission didn’t release it’s report until January of 2011. That’s a 3 year lag on both occasions.
But that’s the point. To get what’s valuable from information, one has to distill it. As anyone in the business of distillation can tell you, it’s a time-consuming and intricate process. The more you rush it, the poorer the quality of what you end up with.
So far as the the flow of information goes, there are 3 currents that any storyteller can grab onto when conveying information:
- The Lower Current: fluctuating, changing, different from one day to another, turbulent and hard to keep track of.
- The Higher Current: the long-term trends, little change, and what change there is is marked by its slight nature.
- Highest Current: unchanging, universal truths. Truths about human nature, truths about the universe, etc.
Get To the Top Currents
All of the day’s discrete stories and factoids of longer-running sagas play out in the low current of information. There is turbulence. Things change from day to day, and uncertainty abounds.
Here, you can speculate, guess, and give conditional predictions, but at best, you’re presenting small and disconnected pieces of reality. Whatever story there is, it’s disjointed and clunky because it’s current and unfolding. No good, coherent, insightful story is ever the result of merely conveying what is happening in front of you in real-time.
A valuable and coherent story is the result of distance between the storyteller and the temporal location of the story — the time and place it happened.
That distance allows for reflection — for the storyteller to grab various theoretical lenses through which to view what happened, to try to make some sense of it, and put it in context.
That distance is only obtained by floating up to the highest current — where the moral of the story lives. It is not an easy journey to float up there, but it is well worth it.