Staying on top of the news (without letting it weigh you down)

As journalists, we are expected to stay informed. We ignore the news at our peril.

But if we give it our full attention it bums us out.

I know when I first realized that being bummed out all the time was an occupational hazard of journalism. I was working at a newspaper in south Florida in the ’80s, and there was a lot of scary stuff happening. The CDC was in nearby Belle Glade, investigating the possibility that the virus that causes AIDS was being transmitted by mosquitoes (yes, this was very early days).

Meanwhile in Miami, the drug cartels were shooting down innocent bystanders in gunfights at shopping malls. And a crazy man beheaded his girlfriend then threw her head at the police who were pursuing him. Twice.

The first thing I did when I decided to quit that job and change directions was to stop reading the news for a few weeks. It was too much.

Indirectly, that’s the subject of this blog post that Annie Rees shared with me this morning.

One thing that very good bit of writing doesn’t address, though, is how to deal with knowing a lot about what’s going on. As a reporter for the Missourian or Vox, you’re expected to read local news thoroughly. Most of it won’t disturb your dreams, though occasionally you will have to report on or be informed about something very sad or disturbing.

What that piece addresses is world news and the horror of it, especially lately. The slaying of two journalists recently feels like a very direct hit to some of us in journalism. But it’s the kind of story that might well upset anyone who really stops to think about it.

What to do about this? Here’s my approach: I ask myself if I really need to know about something. Am I reading reflexively or reflectively? If, after I read a headline, I decide the story isn’t directly related to the things I must know about, I stop myself. Because sometimes we are attracted by morbid fascination.

Be careful about that. I believe it can result in numbing, and that’s not good for a reporter or, let’s face it, a human being.


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4 Responses to Staying on top of the news (without letting it weigh you down)

  1. Phillip Sitter says:

    I absolutely agree with everything that you say, Professor Reed. However, my response in short is that while not everyone can or should be a war or crime correspondent, (I’m definitely NOT saying that I’m the right material for it.), I also believe that there are stories out there that I “want” to haunt me for the rest of my life, to an extent*. I like the quote from the linked blog: “They will feel the desperation that surrounds us all, but also the potential for transformation.” Actually, I don’t just like it, I want to live by it. I “want” to experience some horrors, in fact I already have, (NOT all, most, or even many, by any means), not because of a morbid fascination, but because as a witness bearing testament to them, when perhaps no one else is, and being an avenue to collective moral consciousness and action – that is power. But, here’s where *to an extent comes in. There has to be a balance, the ability to see and effectively communicate “the potential for transformation.” Not just in esoteric media or societal terms, but on a personal level. As much as there is power in defining a national or global conversation on a horrible injustice, there is a greater power in letting the goodness of a story, of a life, of life itself, define us. As much as I want to know about some of the skeletons in figurative or literal dark corners, I’m much more interested in using that “in” as a gateway into exploring whatever goodness and dignity there was in those lives and even in the lives of the perpetrators…and using that as transformative leverage against those same responsible parties for ending those lives (insofar as my capacity as a journalist)…and enriching my own life and the lives of those around me with that goodness and dignity, by promoting it and more of it. So maybe haunt isn’t the right word. Perhaps define. I guess the key question then is “Is this an ‘us’ story?” Because if it becomes a story about ‘them’ or ‘me,’ then it’s no longer worth pursuing in whatever manner it was being pursued because it’s either going to unnecessarily hurt one’s self or it’s going to disrespect the subjects. Also, before diving down the dark rabbit hole, I think we should always ask what resources are available to us as journalists to effectively do our jobs but also maintain our own health and well-being.

    • reedkath says:

      Excellent perspective, Phillip. And I especially agree with your last sentence. Don’t ever forget how important it is to take care of yourself if you do the hard work of bearing witness to horror.

  2. Lisa Conley says:

    I really enjoyed this blog post. I’ve often wondered how we as journalists can avoid become desensitized. I’d also like to hear thoughts on how we can stay on top of the news without letting it weigh us down just in terms of the AMOUNT of news. With so many voices saying so many different things, how can we keep up and figure out what’s important and who we should be listening to?

  3. This is something that I have struggled with as I have fully immersed in journalism for the first time as a graduate student. What I also notice is that I don’t react to news like a human being anymore it seems, I’m constantly analyzing it from a journalistic perspective. It is very easy to become numb to bad things happening because we have to cover it, I struggle with maintaining my humanity even as I pay attention to the news because its my job.

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