How to battle media addiction in the Age of Trump

Philadelphia newsboy  Michael McNelis, 8, was photographed by Lewis Hines in 1910.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The news cycle on Tuesday began in the frenetic manner we’ve become accustomed to in the Age of Trump. No sooner had I finished my snowbound perusal of newspaper websites than the president took to Twitter and announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was out. My phone began buzzing with breaking-news alerts. Twitter filled up with quick hits, some serious and some snarky, as to what it all meant. And, at least for a little while, our collective attention was diverted from Stormy Daniels, Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, and the rest of the Trumpian mishegas that has preoccupied us for the past 14 months.

Many of us sense that we’ve become overwhelmed by the rush of news and that we don’t know what to do about it. The quantity if not the quality of news has been growing exponentially in the decades since we relied mainly on the morning newspapers and the evening newscasts. But we seem to have reached a tipping point with the endless obsession over Trump, especially on cable news and social media.

Which is why, I think, New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo struck such a chord last week. Manjoo wrote that he had conducted an experiment: for almost two months, he had relied almost entirely on print for his news, unplugging from cable and from the constant stream of electronic updates that come our way. He put it this way:

Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed (though there are some blind spots). And I’m embarrassed about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.

As Dan Mitchell found in the Columbia Journalism Review, Manjoo’s Twitter stream during his alleged digital exile remained as prolific as those of all but the most addicted (who, me?) users. So yes, there was a bit of Henry David Thoreau’s bringing his laundry to his mother’s house in Manjoo’s manifesto. But imperfect though Manjoo’s experiment may have been, it spoke deeply to the need to filter out all the flotsam and jetsam of our continuous news cycle so that we can concentrate on what’s really important. What better way to do that than to rely on a few trustworthy sources of information while trying to ignore everything else?

I’m not saying that we should seek to emulate Erik Hagerman, “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” who was the subject of a long profile in the Times over the weekend. As described by reporter Sam Dolnick, Hagerman, who lives in rural Ohio, has aggressively ignored the news — all news — since the 2016 election, to the point where he listens to white noise through headphones at his local coffee shop to make sure that no dispatches from the outside world penetrate his increasingly empty head.

Instead, to put it in New Age terms, we should seek to be conscious and mindful about our news-consumption habits. Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, reacting to Manjoo, stressed the importance of looking at the headlines of a newspaper’s front page, turning off breaking-news alerts at least occasionally, and taking hours-long breaks from social media. Most important, she wrote, “find two or three sources of serious news — a well-curated newsletter, an evening news broadcast, a top-of-the-hour briefing on public radio, or the news app of a respected newspaper — and make it a daily habit, preferably consumed at a regular time and then set aside.” She added: “The alternative is downright dangerous to your mental and emotional well-being.”

My own education in how to be a better news consumer began a couple of years ago when I read Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book “The Shallows.” Carr argues that digital technology has changed not just the way that we interact with text but that it has rewired our brains, favoring the rapid perusal of disjointed tidbits over long, sustained concentration. (And consider that Carr was writing before Facebook and Twitter were as ubiquitous as they are now.) In an essay for Nieman Reports, Carr issued a challenge to news organizations:

If serious journalism is going to survive as something more than a product for a small and shrinking elite, news organizations will need to do more than simply adapt to the Net. They’re going to have to be a counterweight to the Net. They’re going to have to find creative ways to encourage and reward readers for slowing down and engaging in deep, undistracted modes of reading and thinking. They’re going to have to teach people to pay attention again.

I’m not going back to print. It’s too expensive, and my miserable eyesight is better suited to reading on a screen with its own illumination than to dealing with tiny type under less than optimum lighting conditions. But ever since reading Carr, I try to remind myself to slow down, to engage with my preferred digital news sources as I would a print newspaper, scanning their home pages not just for news I’m looking for but for news I’m not looking for as well. Still, skimming and tweeting are behaviors that quickly become ingrained, and I have as hard a time breaking away as anyone.

Thus Farhad Manjoo’s column is a good reminder of what it means to be a responsible news consumer. He cites the food writer Michael Pollan’s famous advice— “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” — and repurposes it for our jittery relationship with digital media: “Get news. Not too quickly. Avoid social.”

And if you can get someone else to do your laundry for you, so much the better.

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