Initially, I planned to entitle this column “Don’t look away.” The topic is the toll of consuming news during these painful times in the country and the world. And the importance of staying informed, and bearing witness.
I still believe those things are important. I also have come to understand that taking a break from doing so preserves our energy to engage at all.
I’m a daily newspaper reader and have noted in the past that Twitter (or that platform now known as X) was a handy news aggregator for me. It seems less so now — more clickbait than content. I still check the world’s goings-on there, it just takes more effort.
TV news? That’s been hard to watch. During the pandemic, my daughter and I made a habit of watching Anderson Cooper on CNN every night. It fed our need to understand as best we could what was happening and fed my need, as a mama bear, to gather information I thought could help keep my family safe.
But at some point it became too much and we stopped watching.
Now with the Israel/Hamas war, I’ve been trying to tune in regularly again. Mostly I’ve watched David Muir on ABC’s World News Tonight. He used to be on Boston’s WCVB-TV, and there’s something trustworthy and calming about him. It helps that former colleagues of his here affirm he’s a really good guy.
But the images he shows are anything but calming.
In fact, ABC’s tact of summing up all the horrible news in the first few minutes of Muir’s monologue with accompanying images is the opposite, it’s inciting. To my pulse rate.
A friend who provides house cleaning services in town recently told me he’s noticed the rising anxiety, in how people are driving and how they are acting. They work all day and come home and see the news and it’s all stress. He may be right, though I also think the reality that you don’t have to wait for the evening news and cable shows — that we are fed 24-7 bad news simply by owning a smartphone — is even more the problem.
The problem has a name, actually several names. Media Saturation Overload. Doom-scrolling. Headline Anxiety. Headline Stress Disorder.
What’s the cure? There isn’t one. Like with many chronic afflictions, there are management techniques, in this case what the professionals call “dietary media restrictions” along with efforts to right-size the impact of world trauma in your day to day life, and, importantly, taking action if it aligns with your values.
On that ubiquitous news deliverer, your phone? The advice I’ve read amounts to — leave the thing in your purse or pocket. Specifically, turn off all notifications, add tech-free periods to the day, don’t bring it to the dinner table. And limit social media checks to 15 minutes.
Easier said than done but worth trying.
On TV news consumption? Limit yourself to a few times per week to stay informed but not overwhelmed. The right-sizing or “keep it in perspective” advice is harder to swallow these days. The Israel/Hamas war is thousands of miles away? Nope, not when antisemitism and Islamophobia are happening right here. And many have friends and family actually in harm’s way. Mass shootings are rare? They sure don’t seem that way.
Maybe self-care advice is more relevant today than “keep it in perspective” — walk in nature, meditate, exercise.
Finally, taking action is an instant antidote to feeling helpless. So long as it is productive. Sign a petition, write your lawmakers, even protest. Just don’t go scream in somebody’s face, tear down a poster or hit share on some negative social media post. Be constructive, not destructive.
I’m trying one other approach, too. While checking in on TV news and reading daily coverage, I’ve started listening to a book on Audible that I recommend to anyone trying to more deeply understand the Mideast conflict. It’s called “Israel. A Simple Guide to the Most Misunderstood Country on Earth” by Noa Tishby. She takes a secular, methodical, historical approach to this huge subject.
I want to be informed. Sometimes I need to look away. Both are good things to do.
A member of the Marblehead Current’s Board of Directors, Virginia Buckingham is the former chief executive officer of the Massachusetts Port Authority, chief of staff to two Massachusetts governors, deputy editorial page editor for the Boston Herald and author of “On My Watch: A Memoir.”