A View from the Hill: No news is good news

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This is weird. I’m about to write a column in this newspaper suggesting that people limit their exposure to news. Take a break. Develop a healthy news diet.

What a hypocrite. I spent my entire career throwing news in peoples’ faces. First I wrote it, then I edited it, then I taught it. Car crashes, fires, elections, storms, murders, meetings. I thought it was pretty damned important.

Now I think it can be crushing. At least my newspaper only came out once a day. Today the barrage goes on without cease. We can tap into it whenever we want, wherever we are. I see the effects of the assault in myself, my friends, my family: fear, worry, grief, hopelessness, depression.

I’m not suggesting a full-scale retreat, although that probably wouldn’t hurt. When you give up sugar, you don’t stop eating altogether. You just avoid the really bad stuff.

In The Guardian, Rolf Dobelli calls the bad news stuff “panicky stories.” You know, the ones that speculate on a civil war that will arise from a messy election next month. Like sugar, he writes, panicky news “is toxic to your body” because it releases an abundance of cortisol, throwing your immune system and hormones into chaos.

“In other words,” he writes, “your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress.”

That’s not a good thing ever, but especially during a pandemic.

Once my wife and I took a sabbatical during which we floated around the Caribbean on a boat for a year. We were in a news drought, and it was wonderful. We only worried when a storm appeared on the horizon or something on the boat broke, because such events had great relevance to us. 

We never stressed out over something we’d read or heard or seen on the news because there wasn’t any.

We never worried about campaigns, or federal spending, or zoning, or droughts in the West. We were of necessity deaf to them. Discussions never riffed off the latest news reports because there were none.

It may have just been the sun and sea, but we achieved a level of serenity on that trip never experienced before or since.

When we returned home and resumed old news habits, I realized we had missed absolutely nothing important by having no access to news for a year. There had been millions, billions, of news stories during that time that editors and reporters thought were essential. 

We missed them, and yet we missed nothing.

It was as if we’d stepped off one of those rolling people movers in airports and then stepped back on a year later. Yes, all the people were different, but they were still just people with suitcases on a conveyor belt rushing to catch a plane.

News is cyclical. Like the people on the conveyer at the airport, the facts and characters in the stories change, but the issues don’t. The conveyor rolls on.

I don’t like stress. These days, it’s the news that is fed to me in little bites that most stresses me out, like the story of the militia group arrested in a scheme to kidnap Michigan’s governor and put her on trial for what they saw as a heavy-handed coronavirus response.

As an editor, of course, I would run the story. It’s big news. But I’m not going to read about it anymore because there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Therefore, it is irrelevant to me. 

Perhaps that will be the new standard of my news diet. 

Polling stories are out because they are irrelevant to my life. But I do have the power of my vote, so I will read stories about the safety of my ballot. 

The Guardian suggests we think about the thousands of stories we have read over the last year and see how many “allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business.” In other words, which had any relevance to your life?

(Aside: Perhaps you think this column is irrelevant. That’s fine; go read something else. But you’re almost done.)

I will read good journalism, and despite troubles in the news industry, there is lots of fine journalism going on right now. But not all news is good journalism. I will eschew streaming news services like CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, or anything on social media.

And of course, I’ll continue to read the Phoenix because I know the people here and what they stand for: Good journalism, hold the sugar.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.