The Unbearable Weight of World News

Friday, September 5, 2014 - 5:45am

The Unbearable Weight of World News

The baby is snoozing away in her Pack n’ Play in the bathroom (don’t judge, travel requires serious sleep innovation). My dad has just grilled up some thick burgers. My mom, my husband, and I sit down at the table, surrounded by the calming hue of adobe and the electric Santa Fe sky that lives up to the hype, particularly around sunset.

And then I make my mom cry.

“Did you read the news about James Foley’s beheading?” I ask. My husband talks about his brother, who went to college with James Foley. We express our horror then transition into talking about the danger journalists face reporting in regions like Syria or on topics like combat, the drug trade etc. I slowly — too slowly — realize that my mom’s eyes are filling with tears.

It’s been a rough news month. Let’s be real, it’s been a rough news decade. (As I was working on this column, I heard that journalist Steven Sotloff suffered the same fate as James Foley, despite his family’s pleas.)

So how does one process all the heartbreaking news? I’m not talking about the much-discussed decision whether to watch the brutal violence done to James Foley and Steven Sotloff. In some ways, that choice is easier because it’s acute. You do or you don’t; you suffer the psychic consequences.

I’m talking about the chronic, contemporary pain of being an informed person. You wake up, reach for the phone next to your bed, start scrolling through Facebook and — just like that — you are immersed in the eternal stream of rubble, corruption, and death that is the daily news cycle.

My mom’s been making a concerted effort to take in less bad news on a regular basis. As a result, she just isn’t as “scabbed over” as the rest of our family. “I try to titrate my exposure to news because media focuses mostly on horrific kinds of stories,” she explains. “I don't feel the human psyche is wired to take in that amount of sadness.”

I think a lot of us feel this way. In fact, studies show that “not only are negatively valenced news broadcasts likely to make you sadder and more anxious, they are also likely to exacerbate your own personal worries and anxieties.” According to Pew, despite purported civilian massacres and so many other harrowing events in Syria, just 12 percent of Americans follow political violence in that country very closely. Some of this may be disinterest, but could it possibly be an act of self-preservation, intentional or otherwise?

In some ways, titrating her consumption overall actually produced a more moral response in my mom in the moment; whereas my husband and I were able to speak about James Foley’s death with sadness, to be sure, but also with a certain amount of detachment. My mom’s response was actually closer in line with her own humanity and James Foley’s humanity. His death in Syria is an event worthy of tears, even for a stranger in Santa Fe.

From a different angle, however, shielding oneself from the news is dangerous for everyone. If we, the relatively safe and privileged reader, don’t act as witnesses to the world’s violence, how can we fight against it? Is our mental comfort more important than the motivation that our discomfort might produce?

Then again, on a deeply practical level, how useful is our motivation? To do what? Where? For whom?

Susan Moller, director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, makes a strong argument that readers must look at the pictures, for example, of the victims of alleged chemical weapon use in Syria. She writes, “…we the adult audience have the responsibility of looking at it — forewarned of the horrors to be seen perhaps, but not coddled into a comfortable obliviousness.”

She continues, “Let us fight against compassion fatigue for the victims outside Damascus, even if the evidence is hard to look at…so that when at some future date more confirmation comes that a crime against humanity has been committed, not only the perpetrator can be brought to justice, but we the people know enough to hold every political leader accountable to humanitarian standards.”

But it’s not just news consumers that have responsibility here. Those of us who produce the media must count it as our moral obligation to reflect the world accurately, which means, indeed, reporting on James Foley and Steven Sotloff and chemical weapon use in Syria and murdered children in Palestine and on and on, but also reporting on the wide variety of responses to our world’s worst social problems. I’m not talking about hero worship — the fluff stories on “truly exceptional” people; I’m talking about stories made of the same rigorous ingredients — evidence, interviews, visuals, analysis — but focused on solutions. It’s what my colleagues and I call “solutions journalism” and it’s a practice we’re trying to spread.

ISIS is beheading brave journalists, but Syrian refugees in Lebanon are using cooking to remember and move on. Innocent Palestinian children have died in the recent flare-up of violence in the Middle East, but an Israeli father invented a citizen emergency medicine model that has equipped ordinary people to save one another’s lives, no matter the religious differences. Ebola is ravaging parts of Africa, but rural Rwanda is also turning out to be the proving ground for a new kind of hospital, where the architecture itself contributes to healing.

When the media actually reflects back the world as it is — horrible and beautiful, tragic and smart, corrupt and innovative — then individual people won’t have to face the damned if you do, damned if you don’t decision of whether to expose themselves to the day’s news. They will feel the desperation that surrounds us all, but also the potential for transformation. That’s not fluff to comfort. That’s not shock-and-awe to sell papers. That’s real and it’s fortifying.

I agree that news consumers should not be coddled, but I also believe that it’s both unethical and inaccurate to provide headlines that almost exclusively reflect back the worst of our humanity. We must shine a light on the darkness, but we must also cease overshadowing the light.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

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A quote from one of OnBeing's guests: "Report the news so that the readers may be menders of what is broken in our society, nit its judges, nor its mocking observers."
J Chittister

I ADORE Sister Joan. Thanks for sharing.

I was brought up in Colombia, and my adolescence was set during the Pablo Escobar terrorist bombings, and the school I attended, run by Americans, was frequently threatened and we were scurried away in School Buses. I studied journalism and used to be a 24/7 news consumer, radio, newspaper and tv were my favorite outlets, in that order of preference. Then, I moved to the U.S. as an adult, and found the stream of tragedies being broadcast was steady. Once I had children, time was so scarce, my media consumption deviated into books, games and outings, only occasionally watching news reports, with weather on my mind. And I became so much happier, lighter, playful, optimistic, engaged with life and its rhythms. So I started writing children's books, illustrating, dreaming, believing, AGAIN. I watched news as a by-product, and inhabited instead a world of possibilities and future plans, media intruding only through airport runs and morning shows playing in the background. I tuned in again this year,when I have an empty nest, and found news outlets stuck in the same news report 24/7, that week it was the disappearance of an airplane above the ocean. I know tragedy abounds, I read, watch movies, magazines, newspapers, where I can process, digest, conclude, deduce. Television is a fabricated reality, as is radio, and I adhere to the Buddhist tenets, we are here to observe, to witness, to reflect, but our only true proprietary realm is our own self, our internal affairs and crises, and our immediate surrounding reality. It is around us, locally, familiarly, within our community, that we can effect the biggest change. I do feel grateful for the power new media have afforded to the people, and I use it pro-actively to share insights, information, inspiring stories and thoughts and ideas, but I am highly critical of information systems driven by greed, commercial interests and political motivations. I think ultimately, the responsibility to be informed, to care and to feel summoned to DO is taught by our own families and must be a human endeavor, entailing much more than consuming stories of terror and despair,relying instead on the fabric woven by knowing ourselveson a much deeper level, and within our own frailties and strengths, finding a mirror into humanity and the world.

Bravo, Lina. I agree. From a spiritual perspective, the focus on tragedy is soul-killing. The only way we can change the world is by changing ourselves. I, too, used to be a news junkie and have a degree in journalism. I worked for ten years in television news before the corporations started dictating to the newsrooms what should be covered. Even after leaving the business I was an avid news junkie. But I couldn't take the negative emotions anymore, especially when I felt helpless to effect change. So, now I watch some local news and weather and am much happier and much more able to send positive energy out into a world that needs the Light.

This is a beautiful response "relying instead on the fabric woven by knowing ourselves on a much deeper level, and within our own frailties and strengths, finding a mirror into humanity and the world." thank you for sharing this stunning and simple truth

Wow, Lina, this is so beautifully put. I love how you introduce the idea of the seasons of life and the ways they interact with the news. As I navigate life with a 9 month old, I'm so interested in the way she makes me more present and healthier in just the ways you describe. Thank you for sharing.

"I adhere to the Buddhist tenets, we are here to observe, to witness, to reflect, but our only true proprietary realm is our own self, our internal affairs and crises, and our immediate surrounding reality. It is around us, locally, familiarly, within our community, that we can affect the biggest change."

~ LINA CUARTAS

So beautifully put...I will remember.

Thank for for writing this - I've found myself listening less and less to the news for just these reasons and that doesn't at all feel like the right response. So much better as you say to have the news help us all bear witness more fully to the world as it is.

My poem "Morning News"

I understand that journalists stand there, too, in danger more than ever. Good news from the same areas as tragedy really helps us to stay in touch with humanity and the importance of your work. Thank you.

As much as the constant barrage, the repetition from 24/7 news sources must contribute. Not only does it grind it into our psyches, whether we are even aware, but that repetition keeps it there, reinforcing its effects over and over. Research with mice calls the apathy that comes about as a response to continued exposure to environmental stressors, "learned helplessness." It's very hard to reverse.

Dear Courtney:

Your writing is wonderful to read. You weave your words with humor and compassion no matter what the topic. I look forward each week to your column. Thank you so much for being such a great writer who reaches deeply,and far and touches us all so kindly with your words. The news does drag us down yet you have the ability to shine a light and pull us up even when covering issues that are painful, difficult and head-shakingly crazy (the insurance time suck piece). Bravo to you.

Wow, thank you so much Annie. This is extremely generous.

Being win oriented is a strong, perhaps a defining, American value. And therein lies a trap. What happens to an identity based on winning when winning seems unattainable; when the heroic struggle shows no sign of success? Do you struggle harder? Do you give up?

From the great liberation movements of history emerge this golden thread of wisdom. When the situation reaches the absurd; when everything is cast in the air; hope remains. In this, hope must be wider, deeper, and stronger than a wish or a knowledge that success is possible. Many have spoken of hope and I hear it strongly in Vaclav Havel, who experienced absurdity under the oppression of empire. He wrote, in 1986 when things were particularly dark:

"Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don't. Hope is not a prognostication—it's an orientation of the spirit. You can't delegate that to anyone else.

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or the willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.

Hope is definitely NOT the same as optimism. It's not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

It is hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope."

Along with the necessity of being aware of the state as presented on many feeds, there is another necessity which is to be aware of hope. To allow hope to be stolen is to live "pointlessly, emptily, without meaning". Is it any wonder that hope is the first target of oppression and the first goal of liberation?

I find hope in every step I take, every breath I take, every person I meet. Even if I cannot see where that hope leads.When I lose hope, which happens from time to time, hope is what I seek first.

I'm a former reporter who has drastically reduced my news consumption. I'm down to print only. Great post. Funny that you wrote it a day after I wrote this:

Nicely done. Whether you know it or not, you spoke for a lot of people with this piece.

Thank you for describing so accurately, and well, the deep reservations I have about the psychic and spiritual impact of violent news even as I try to behave in responsible ways as a citizen. And I love the idea of solutions journalism. You inspire me, Courtney Martin.

I think what the author is saying is very true and it can be totally overwhelming just trying to keep up with everything in the world plus dealing with your own home life and other daily issues. We must find a balance in our lives which are full of stress and we also need to set the examples for our children and grandchildren of how to life well or as well as we are able.

I taught many years ago...a kindergarten class and it was during the Viet Nam war...and I had one little boy who must have been way over exposed to the daily news and the horrid things that go on during war..and during that time...and he was only 5, and the picture her drew were full of blood and killings and the words he spoke were that "he was only going to grow up and die in war"...how very sad for a 5 year old to have been that exposed to all the news and to have those thoughts running though his mind...so although we cannot protect our children and/or grandchildren from the horrors of the world, we can sit and talk with them in moderation to explain different situations in an honest way, not giving too much overwhelming information....and we need to make certain we teach our children/grandchild to respect the differences of people regardless of race, religion, gender, etc...it is our responsibility to teach this next generation much more tolerance and civility.

The thing of which I'm proudest in my very ordinary life is that someone once said they'd hired me as a consultant because "You're someone who looks for solutions, not problems." I didn't know then what I'd done to deserve the compliment. I still don't.

I thank you for your article as I ponder this subject everyday. The problems in the world are so great it is overwhelming.

I agree with this perspective. In the last two years, I have largely become a "nonconsumer" of media. My own life took several turns that has caused a huge load of responsibility and some significant struggle on me. I was never able to read or listen to the news without having a gut reaction, a desire to make a different - to be part of the solution. I literally do not have any room in my life for that added burden now. Therefore, I must tune it out. I am sure I am not the only news consumer in this type of situation. I studied journalism, though took a slightly different trail in my career. But I understand enough to know that there needs to be some critical analysis behind what is covered, why it is covered (beyond ratings and revenue generation), and the impact it actually has on readers.

What a beautiful commentary about where the media converges with mental health and the pain of human existence. As a mental health professional who has directed an integrative mental health center for over 25 years, I have witnessed many times the anguish, anxiety and despair that is embedded in the psyches of our clients and patients in response to the imbalanced reporting (along with its deeply disturbing imagery) about the status of our world and it's people. It is a sad reality that those most impacted by this are the profoundly good -- the humanistic, the samaritans, the existentialists -- that absorb the horror and feel the helplessness and hopelessness of what they see and feel. And, so, as competent mental health professionals we work to reconstruct the myths that reflect stories that the world is essentially bad and doomed. We do our best to restore hope. We try to empower the good to do good at home and in their communities. We remind them to see the beauty and the gratitude and the innocence around them, for it does exist. Do we need to know what is going on in the world? Yes, of course. However the media must take some responsibility for the impact on mental health and mental healthcare must take responsibility for attending to the issues of human existence that transcend DSM diagnoses. We are all responsible for keeping hope alive.

What a beautiful commentary about where the media converges with mental health and the pain of human existence. As a mental health professional who has directed an integrative mental health center for over 25 years, I have witnessed many times the anguish, anxiety and despair that is embedded in the psyches of our clients and patients in response to the imbalanced reporting (along with its deeply disturbing imagery) about the status of our world and it's people. It is a sad reality that those most impacted by this are the profoundly good -- the humanistic, the samaritans, the existentialists -- that absorb the horror. and feel the helplessness and hopelessness of what they see and feel. And, so, as competent mental health professionals we work to reconstruct the myths that reflect stories that the world is essentially bad and doomed. We do our best to restore hope. We try to empower the good to do good at home and in their communities. We remind them to see the beauty and the gratitude and the innocence around them, for it does exist. Do we need to know what is going on in the world? Yes, of course. However the media must take some responsibility for the impact on mental health and mental healthcare must take responsibility for attending to the issues of human existence that transcend DSM diagnoses. We are all responsible for keeping hope alive.

Thank you for bringing a 'solution' to the imbalance in news reporting. A few years back I began to search for sites that reported on the work people are doing in the world that makes a difference. We need that balance of seeing how ordinary people are doing brave, creative, kind, just things in their own communities and in distant places to help the world's needs. Focusing on the bad news is not the whole truth Thank you.

I've no idea if my choice to stop ingesting news of all kinds two years ago is negatively affecting my living. I heard inklings of this group ISIS and their badness, but I have, nor do I want, details.

What I know is that as a two year divorced parent, 47 years old, I'm happy; not only that I am more mentally active and productive than any past period of my life, including college years attaining my architecture degree, but that I'm actively engaged in living and learning.

I have no plans or desire to get a TV, or turn on the radio in the car, or scan a newspaper. I purposefully walk away from airport TV's that insult my focus on thinking or reading.

I'm not embarrassed that I can't talk current events. For that matter I didn't finish reading this article because the content the idea was based on disturbed me. So I move forward outside the influence of the negativity of current events, hoping my choice feeds these active, valued parts of living and learning.

Time will tell.

This calendar year, I took a "newsfast" yes that is indeed correct. For this year I have not read, listened, nor watched the news.

The reasons I did this, were numerous. I find that I am still well informed (You cannot be in this world & not have a sense of what's going on) I am just not informed on a moment to moment basis about all that is happening. Let's face it, in a 24 hrs news cycle, there is very little "new" in news...

The benefits have been numerous, I used to spend at least 1 hour a day "consuming" news, I now invest that 1 hour with people I love and care about, and on far more enriching blogs, articles, magazines & documentaries. My mind has been far more enriched

I personally find that I am far less anxious & stressed. I have discovered through this practise, a more creative way to address solutions to the world that I impact, on a daily basis.

As they say, "Try it,you may like it.." A 1 year sabbatical may not be the right thing for you, why not try a 1 day a week news sabbath.

Alan

Thank you for this piece.Beautifully said and hopeful. Sending along intentions that you may continue to shine your brilliant light on darkness with your succinct words, while also bearing witness to the good in humanity.

I have just recently cancelled my subscriptions to both the Sunday Washington Post and New York Times for the very reasons mentioned above. I still watch PBS News and listen to NPR. I was getting so depressed and angry I couldn't take the bloody details of the print news stories when there was little I could about any of it. I couldn't take the cynicism and the greed of American political scene. So I sign petitions, I vote progressive, and donate what I can afford for causes I think can do some good. We need to be reminded that while there is great evil in the world, really bad people, there is much more good and many more good people.

Exactly. I've struggled with this cunundrum for quite some time. I want the world to go back to the way it used to be. I don't WANT to have to be in the know and to feel the importance of staying involved in that knowing and passing it on so others are aware of just what really is happening around them. But I DO feel obligated. Without the knowledge, we can't possibly speak up or take action to change the script. I have my days where I have to be very conscious of staying away as much as possible or my own soul becomes too overwhelmed, just like your mother. I want to return to being blissfully non-political or interested. But I feel the happiness of my son and future grandchildren are at stake. And I cannot do nothing for their sake.

Thank you. I would love to sit and share a cup of tea with your mother. We are kindred spirits.

I am going to assume that Courtney does not realize why this article is antisemitic. Only in "Palestine" are innocent children murdered or killed and it seems that the only people who die there are children. I will let her try to figure out what is wrong. If she can't, well then...

Marvin, I only just stumbled on this essay and the ensuing dialogue; hence this very belated response.

Scrolling through one comment after another, I began to wonder if anyone had picked up on the references to "Palestine." Thank you for being (apparently)the only person to do so.

I hear you. I hope that Courtney -- clearly a gifted and sensitive writer-- heard you too.

I totally and utterly endorse this piece of writing. I feel just like your mother feels - unable to process so much bad news, and desiring to shield myself from it, yet wracked with guilt for not being able to face it. At the same time I have wondered many times what is the point of facing it - what can I do if I face it? Can I not do more with my day to day responsibilities with less sadness in me? I have many times thought about starting a news channel that focusses entirely on positive news.....

It's been referred to in the past as "desensitization", progressive exposure to dehumanizing information/images actually does dehumanize us. Bless you for providing an opportunity to illuminate new methods of countering this in our world. Perhaps this dialogue could be expanded to the major news realm in an effort to create restorative sensitization?

Thank you so much for this thought-provoking, hopeful piece. I am an immigrant and workers rights organizer recently returned from four years in Central America.I consider myself a citizen journalist because I covered human rights issues while living there and now I am working with the so called unaccompanied minors, the Central American youth who have arrived recently fleeing the terrible violence in their home countries. When the plight of these young people was all in the news, even with all the extremely anti-immigrant, compassion-less news coverage, I thought finally, people are paying attention. But the mainstream news media manipulates even stories like these that have the potential of opening peoples hearts and minds. And now, all of a sudden, these refugee youth are out of the news, replaced by scaremongering Middle East coverage. There is no follow up coverage that is more solutions journalism oriented or about "what can you do" or "how can you help" in the case of these young people.

I agree with all the comments about choosing your own news sources, local, national or international, the ones that inform and inspire you. We cannot shut ourselves off from the world and luckily in this country of immigrants there are sources of international news all around us. I would much rather ask a Latin American immigrant what is happening in their country, than watch Fox News. And in my experience showing compassionate courisity is always well received.

apples