Why we should not turn off the news, and what to do instead!

One lovely fall day I was standing at a college tailgate party, pontificating about how I had created “the antidote to the daily news” to a woman I barely knew. She was the mother of another player on my son’s new basketball team there and I would be seeing her regularly for the next three years. (That will be cringingly important after a few more paragraphs.)

Prior to that day, I saw our project at Ever Widening Circles as the antithesis of what contemporary news had become and I had developed a kind of soft rant that tended to diss “the news” as an out-of-touch, failing model of sensationalism over balance. (Yikes! Looking back now, that sounds excruciatingly familiar. What was I thinking!?)

Anyway, there I stood blathering on to this nice woman about how irresponsible it was for news agencies to relentlessly bombard us with all the negative parts of our world, when there was so much to celebrate in the way of progress. I had my points on all this down pat.

Given any encouraging body language from my listeners, (or even if they just failed to interrupt me) I would hop on my soapbox. My recommendation was that people should just turn their backs on the whole news industry as long as it continued to follow the “if it bleeds, it leads” format. And I always finished off my little diatribe with a rousing admonishment of the entire industry as a bit daft for not seeing how hungry we all were for good news!  

(Sighing now.) When I finally stopped yammering, she made a very slight grimace of objection and told me that she and her husband were journalists, and worked for two of the largest and most respected news agencies in the world. (Cringe here.)

Well, folks, I’m not sure what planet I was coming from for so long on this topic, but my very kind new friend pulled me back to earth. I believe she saved the future of EWC by transforming my way of thinking with no more than a few polite comments. She gracefully pointed out that if people turn off the news then everyone is essentially in the dark and nothing good can come of that: an important point since that was at the core of my thesis for Ever Widening Circles in the first place!

And, to put an exclamation point on my metamorphosis, she pointed out that the press is no longer the best check on power if no one knows what’s happening day to day.

I felt like Dorothy, spiraling out of The Land of Oz and landing with a thud back in Kansas.

The movie is black and white again.

Think back to every scandal ever brought to light and consider that at the epicenter of that tempest were journalists who simply refused to stop pulling on the threads where deceit appeared to be going unchallenged.

I know it’s painful, but think where we would be if the work of journalists hadn’t exposed the abuse of children in the Catholic Church, hadn’t forced the disclosures in the Watergate Tapes, and now compelled Facebook to make major admissions and course corrections on misdeeds that may actually prove to have changed the course of history, etc.. etc...  

Every one of those scandals - and countless others-  when given the full light of day, began a transformation in society as a whole that eventually improved business, politics and culture.

We have a new social contract with each other after scandals are brought to light by professionals in the press.

Yes, there seems to be a reason why freedom of the press is part of the FIRST amendment to our constitution.

A Solution to the Bad News Dilemma

So now I have a new problem myself: people tell me almost every day that their strategy for coping with the overwhelm of the news cycle is to simply tune it out, turn it off. And now that’s precisely what makes me worried. It’s not much of a leap to suspect that what little news does make it through our filters, may only be the loudest, most outraged voices. And their language of extremes is exactly what rubs us the wrong way.

That said, this is too important to go the heads in the sand route. I suspect it’s time for all of us to find the courage to stay informed, toughen up, and put some markers down on trusting someone for the facts.

I’ve been reformed. Now I encourage people to find 1 or 2 news outlets that display the least bias they can find and then pop in on them once a day to stay informed.

And here’s my litmus test for “unbiased reporting”: if a news outlet includes a lot of talking heads with negative emotions like outrage, fear or angry astonishment, I count them out. You see, I’m suspicious of people who spend more time playing to my emotions than they do just laying out the facts.

Even in my personal life, the minute people try to convince me of their position by using fearful examples, I assume it is because they don’t have the facts.

Keep in mind that we’ve lost sight of what qualifies for ”facts” these days. If you listen carefully, you will find that more and more, people confuse the facts with one-off, personal stories and anecdotes.

Bottom line on “facts”: Most of us are good at using “common sense” to solve problems. Lay out the facts in front of me (maybe you’ll need to have done your homework) and if your argument makes perfect sense, in light of the facts, then I’ll be with you all the way!

Another good way to look for reporting that is unbiased is to find an outlet that rubs you the wrong way from time to time, especially in the beginning. After all, if you seek news that feels too comfortable, somewhere you just nod a lot and feel like your team is winning, then you are not expanding your worldview. We need to be left scratching our heads often. We don’t know the whole picture. Well-intending, non-emotional journalists often do.

The best journalism for our times might be the kind that leaves us feeling like there is more to the story and we are curious to know more. We will always find our most courageous insights out on our growing edges.

News Fast versus a News Diet

Here are some suggestions:

If you’ve tuned out the news completely, I’d call that a “news fast”, and you know how fasting leaves one in the end: dazed and confused.

To stay healthy and go bare minimum on this, maybe try a “news diet”.

Here’s what my smart millennial daughter is doing: she listens to UpFirst (15 minutes in the morning while she is futzing around) and NPR News Now on her way home from work. She knows just enough about the world to stay savvy, and if she gets curious she heads to the BBC or The New York Times. No one is perfect, but the rigor is there.

And one major heads up: Keep in mind that if you trust social media for your news, you are definitely going to be asking for bias. Media that is “social” has an implicit bias because we rarely socialize outside our tribes. In that model, our algorithms are feeding us what we are comfy with. With social media, we are getting news that fits our views, because that’s the essence of how things get shared.

You could be successful at getting unbiased information on social media, but it’s a slippery slope. How will you know? I always go back that old adage: a worm in horseradish thinks the whole world is horseradish.

If you are not hyper-vigilant, getting your news from social media is like getting all the food you consume at a hardware store. You can do it, but there will be something wrong with you, eventually.

So yes, I’m transformed and I’m encouraging you to take a leadership role on this in your circles too.

In every conversation and in the public speaking I do, I’m talking about all the possibility in the world and I actually encourage people to avoid the impulse to “tune out” the daily news. I now tell them to use Ever Widening Circles as an extension of their knowledge base: for the rest of the story.

Our work at Ever Widening Circles is shining a light on the amazing things that haven’t found their way to the surface of public knowledge, yet, but should and we hope to start our visitors on a journey of discovery.

Bottom line: It’s important to know who the outliers are every day; the social misfits who are holding back human potential, and then contrast that knowledge with insights about those that are making the world a better place.

It helps calibrate your own compass to be both a savvy citizen and a part of a mindset of progress.

Remember, the ostrich with their head in the sand is easily taken by the jackal.

We haven’t changed our course at Ever Widening Circles a bit! We just look at our role as additive.

Be wise. Stay informed and hopeful. There are countless ingenious people proving it is still an amazing world. And we are here, pointing you to them every day!

Liesl Ulrich-Verderber