Peter Laufer, James Wallace Chair Professor in Journalism at the University of Oregon, is the author of Dreaming in Turtle and Up Against the Wall: The Case for Opening the Mexican-U.S. Border.
Four weeks into my radical news detox, I am thrilled to report that it is a screaming success.
It is Sunday. I have just brewed a strong cup of coffee. I go out to the street and pick up The New York Times and the Eugene Register-Guard from the driveway and bring them into the house for a leisurely read.
My personal news detox’s self-imposed rules mandate no newspapers, no radio or TV news, no internet-delivered news and I’ve asked my wife, Sheila, not to talk with me about the news. Except on Sundays.
I figure it would be foolish to sentence myself to ignorance – especially since I teach in a journalism school. What I’m trying to accomplish is in the best of Slow News traditions. I want to know what I need to know when I need to know it. Here’s a metaphor for my news detox goals to which we Oregonians can easily relate: I want to savour sips of a fine Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, not get stumbling-down drunk on bottle after bottle of a three-dollar generic red.
A decade ago, I wrote the book Slow News: A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer. The concept was simple: Society was addicted to new news – even when that new stuff was meritless. I knew I was a victim of that addiction, as I confessed in the dedication to Sheila, “who questioned my priorities whenever I drove our old Chevy pickup 17 miles across the Nevada desert just to buy the latest edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.”
But as 2020 became crisis-ridden, from the Trump presidency to the COVID-19 pandemic to the collapsing economy, I found myself in a non-stop news hell. I was not practising what I was preaching. I started each day reading the Times and the Register-Guard cover to cover while drinking coffee after coffee. As I was turning the pages, my laptop was open and I toggled between CNN updates and detailed Guardian stories. When I went upstairs to bathe and dress, I tuned the radio to Oregon Public Broadcasting and its non-stop news. And it was more radio news – or, worse, yelling talk-show news commentators – when I got into the car to drive to my University of Oregon office. I even found myself taking hikes in the woods with iPhone earbuds in, news noise drowning out birdsongs.
There is no question, especially looking at my recent routine in retrospect, that I was stressed out by news overdose. Creative thought and peaceful daydreams were replaced by what a journalist friend of mine calls “the dismal details of the daily downer.”
At this point of counterproductive overload, another journalist friend recommended the remedy he calls a “news detox.” I dismissed his enthusiasm as crazy talk. Who could possibly consider ignoring the news – especially at this fraught time? We need to know everything immediately! Otherwise: Trump wins! COVID-19 kills! We’re penniless!
But the more time I spent with all the bad news, the more it dominated dinner-table talk and the more I found myself thinking of little else, the more intriguing I found the news detox concept. So, at the beginning of August, with one long Sunday spent reading most every word of the fat New York Times, I decided to take the cure.
Mondays through Saturdays, I am free of those assaults of despair and tragedy, fear and fear-mongering that echo and echo and echo. Sundays, I catch up.
It is important to know what is happening in the world, but I’m learning I can get most of what I need by spending just one day a week immersed in the news. And I’m finding some bizarre satisfaction watching newspapers yellowing all week out on the driveway.
Of course, there are exceptions. When searing temperatures, raging fires and apocalyptic smoke assaulted my California hometown, I kept in touch during my news detox time. It was imperative to know if friends and family were okay and if they needed my help. But I made surgical strikes into the body of news. I sought what I specifically needed to know from credible sources, and I checked back only a few times each day. I didn’t allow incoming non-stop news to overwhelm me with repetitive details that provided nothing of value regarding my specific worries.
What fills my days now that I am free of what some news radio stations in the pre-internet days called “all news, all the time”? I go for long hikes in the woods listening to those songbirds. I collect wild blackberries, bringing home big bags of them to make into jam with Sheila. We’ve been tending our vegetable garden together (the tomatoes are prolific and delicious). We’ve been cooking and experimenting in the kitchen (gado gado tonight with tempeh). I’ve been tinkering on the piano and drawing pictures. I’ve been reading novels and non-fiction too long put aside because of the demands made on my time by non-stop news. And I approach my work feeling energized instead of facing the apocalypse.
So what does this mean for journalism? If a lifelong news addict such as myself can kick the habit in a couple of weeks and not miss it, is that the death knell for the profession? I don’t think so, despite the existential disruptions buffeting the business models.
In this era of seeming transparency, consequential reporting is more important and valuable than ever. Sources are “media-trained,” corporate headquarters hide on websites with no street addresses, so-called citizen journalists pose opinion as fact. Overloaded news reporters too often find themselves reduced to stenographers rewriting press releases.
Hoards of reporters descend on the Big Story, leaving fascinating and critical news left unreported. Critics of journalists call us “enemies of the people” peddling “fake news.” Such distractions from high-quality journalism call for more watchdogging, for more of our profession’s tradition to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” as the saying goes. Plus a sustainable new financial strategy.
But news reporting will never disappear: it’s human nature. “Let me tell you something” was undoubtedly one of the first things we humans said when we figured out that we could speak. One of the next things we said probably was the request, “Tell me a story.” We all love stories, and reporting news stories is a grand human tradition.
There always will be news reporters and we will always want to know what’s happening – especially if it’s of intimate personal concern, such as my worry about the California wildfires. But what we don’t need is news as an unending assault.
Please pass the Pinot Noir.
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