Like “losing the forest for the trees,” we run the risk of missing news about genuinely important developments when we’re swimming in a sea of memes about orbs, handslaps and other ephemera. We have some tips on how not to miss the bigger picture.
We’ve said, “It’s OK To Take A News Break!” We’re going to revise that here and say, “You’ve GOT To Take A News Break!”
By any measure the past two (and counting) weeks of news have been crazy, nuts, exhausting or any other adjectives you care to apply. It’s overwhelming even for us, an experienced journalist and a veteran communications professional who are lifetime news junkies with very high capacities and tolerances.
We used to think of slow days as something bland to be dealt with, sort of “the dog days” of news. But lately we find ourselves in a shell-shocked “dogged daze” of news wishing for a few days or even a day, a single day, where only regular or “normal” things happened. We’re not trying to figure out how to fill the time but instead how to un-fill it.
It takes work and willpower. It just does. It involves a combination of selectively turning off parts of your mind and shifting your attention to something that’s still engaging and adds perspective and energy. It doesn’t always work but it’s all we’ve got. We can’t tell you how to do it but we can offer a few suggestions:
- Be a little less social: Nothing at all against social media but it can be more of a hindrance than help when you’re on news overload. Twitter and Facebook pull at you to tap or click on that icon addictively hoping to get another hit of information that might ease your anxiety or lead to some sensible outcome. This rarely, if ever, works. Reduce the time you spend on them or set aside specific times of day to check your feeds. Instagram can actually be a pleasant respite from the noise. Try checking that instead of Twitter when you first wake up.
- Be a little less buzzy: You could turn your news app notifications off for a day (or two) or turn off lock screen notifications and sounds on those apps to help you take a break. Given the recent end-of-day news bombshell trend you could wait until then to turn them back on or wait until the next morning. Either way, you won’t really miss anything. Your stress level may decrease while your ability to focus increases.
- Stop the presses: Skip past the email news alerts in your inbox or only read what’s in the subject line and preview. Chances are the story will continue to be updated during the day and you’ll get a more complete version if you read it later. If something seems worth your immediate attention you can read the message content but don’t click through to the story. But be very, very picky or you’ll be down the news rabbit hole faster than you can say, “Oh my god, what now?!”
- Go retro: Try the old-school way of getting your news and let your morning newspaper – the real, printed paper — be your filter for a day or two. Or, listen to the radio news at the top of the hour and hold off for one of the evening network newscasts or the more in-depth PBS Newshour. Note what kind of stories you get and note how differently you consume the news from those media. That may be the most important information you’ll get from the effort.
- Go deep: If you’re an incurable and irrecoverable news junkie like us, there is still hope. If you can be less moth-like and fly away from the irresistible flame of news then take the opportunity to read, listen to or watch longer-form journalism. Read news features and opinion pieces on current events including reputable ones from outside your comfy news/opinion bubble. It still engages you but leaves brain space to think and get other perspectives. There are a huge number of great podcasts out there like RadioLab or Death, Sex & Money for varied interviews and general topics. National Review and Commentary Magazine discussions on the right or Pod Save America and Rachel Maddow on the left among others dive into political analysis. If you need to step further away do some research on the Presidential impeachment process or read about the origins of the never-been-used 25th Amendment. They’ve been in the news a LOT and people throw the terms around without really understanding what they’re about or how complex and wrenching they could be. Use your video streaming services to watch documentaries on recent American history like “OJ: Made in America” on Hulu or CNN’s series “The “Sixties,” “The Seventies” or “The Eighties” on Netflix. You’ll learn some stuff, brush up on forgotten knowledge and put current events into a broader perspective.
Not only is it OK to take a break, it’s almost a requirement. We do what works for us but we may be poor role models. For example, Jim works in a national broadcast newsroom and reads and listens to news constantly. And Rich follows close to two dozen daily, weekly monthly or web-only news sources, plus a number of podcasts and a smattering of video news clips. But if we’re that engaged (or obsessed depending on your POV) and can still find ways to do it you probably have a decent chance of succeeding.
Please let us know what you do and what works. Really. We’re interested. We need all the help we can get.
Readers and listeners have told us that they appreciate our bits of advice including “be your own editor” and “wait for it.” But they also have asked us, “Ok, but can you tell me how to do that?”
Here’s a four-step, mental checklist to place you actively and efficiently in control of your own news consumption. We call it “Chase It Down.” It’s as much a series of looping steps as it is a way of thinking about how you interact with the news. Those steps are: Headline, Source, Report and Cross-check.
The wording of a headline will tell you what the story is about and whether or not you should spend your time on it. This is especially true for social media which often is worded to get you to react. Keeping this in mind will help you avoid wasting time on stories that are not very important, accurate or informative.
Also watch for differences between headlines on news stories and those on opinion or editorial pieces. If you’re not sure then look to see if the article is labeled as opinion or appearing in a news or opinion section.
If a headline seems worth checking you next look to see which media organization is publishing the story. Checking the media source before you click helps you identify the ones that deserve your attention first. Use the mainstream media first. They’re not always right and some are better than others, but they are better at it then most of us. Advocacy and other sites are good for getting different perspectives on the news but your first and main job as a news user is to determine the facts as well as you can.
You might prefer some mainstream sources over others but avoid dismissing any just because you don’t like their editorial pages. Go by the quality of the reporting (and go buy the quality of the reporting if you like it and subscribe!).
Now it’s time to report. Start by giving the news site a quick once-over to set your reading, viewing or listening priorities. A good rule of thumb is to scan the first few paragraphs of a story to determine if you want to read the whole thing now, later or not at all. Also note the reporter’s byline. You’ll develop familiarity with and confidence in a specific beat reporter’s work. That’s important on major national and local news coverage.
Look to see which officials or individual sources are cited in the story as well as their credentials and background. Make a mental note to see if statements in the story are supported with more detail.
Pay attention to the questions that naturally arise in your head as you go through a story and make sure they’ve been answered by the end. That sets up the fourth step of the Chase It Down process.
Continue to “Chase It Down” by reading stories about the same subjects in other media sources. The idea is to get a broader sense of what’s going on and become more resistant to news bubbles and to the inherent distorting effects of social media.
For example, do the facts of a New York Times story on the federal budget, a tax proposal or another issue align with what and how the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Reuters, Fox News or others have? If there are differences what are they? Are specific elements of a story factually in agreement but placed in a different context? Who is quoted in those stories? This is fundamental cross-checking. You can do it with as few as two media sources. But you can’t do it if you’re only getting your news from one source.
The internet makes that very easy. You can at least look at a few articles on another site in any part of the country before hitting a paywall if there is one.
You’re In Charge
Use the four steps as shortcuts to help you figure out what news to consume and how to do it efficiently. You’ll naturally develop more fluency the more you do it and can modify the process to suit your needs and preferences. But however you do it you start with the mindset and intention to “Chase It Down.”
Let us know how “Chase It Down” works for you. We’d love to get your feedback and suggestions.
The continuing turmoil over President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey presents a practical opportunity to put the 4-step “Chase It Down” process to work for you. We walk you through tips for using it as reporting of the story continues.