BLOG – The Dogged Daze of News

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.

Episode 27: Chase It Down: A How-To Guide

You’ve asked “How?”, so we’re answering your questions about specific practical steps to help you sort through the news everyday. We describe a 4-step process — an internal checklist — to guide you as scan and consume news from social and mainstream media sources: Headline, Source, Report, Cross-check.

BLOG: A News Martini Chaser: The Accident Chain

Understanding – and we mean really understanding – the news does not happen by accident. But it can happen because of accidents.

To set the stage here, we’re thinking about the United 3411 fiasco and our advice to “mix a news martini” and “wait for it.” The United event was not an accident in the usual sense of the word. But thinking of it in similar terms may help us understand how and why it happened.

Who’s To Blame?

With most stories that trigger a strong reaction there’s a natural tendency to assign blame. It’s easier to understand something that went wrong if somebody did something wrong.

A lot of major news stories end up that way. After the coverage has faded the story often is reduced to who was to blame. But we probably have not gained much understanding. We usually just move on to something else. That may happen with the United 3411 event.

“The Cause Of the Accident Was Pilot Error”

Accidents happen, as they say, but they usually don’t just happen. Sure, there can be bad luck or weird circumstances but accidents rarely happen in isolation. They occur at the end of what investigators call an “accident chain.” If you remove or alter a single link in the chain the accident would not have happened or happened the way it did.

For example, after an airplane crash we’ll see and react to the news story about it. Investigators will look at everything related to the accident or what’s sometimes called “man, machine and environment.” When investigators release their report many months later news stories often will state the cause as “pilot error.” Then you’ll think “bad pilot” and know whom to blame. As an aside, there are legal and regulatory reasons why the term “pilot error” often appears but we won’t cover that here.

It’s usually more complicated than that. In fact, the purpose of the investigation is not to assign blame but to determine cause. When you know the cause you can learn how to prevent similar accidents in the future. That’s understanding.

We’re Looking For Four Volunteers…

There was the equivalent of an accident chain with the United 3411 event. A week after the event The Wall Street Journal (paywall) published its analysis of the sequence of events, actions and policies that led to it. It’s more complex than the common perception that rude employees of a greedy, uncaring corporation coldheartedly mistreated a paying passenger who ended up injured. As the WSJ story states:

“The recipe for the disastrous decision by United Airlines’ employees to call for police to remove a passenger from a fully booked flight was years in the making.”

The story covers many other aspects of the event most of which stem from United’s “rules-based culture where its 85,000 employees are reluctant to make choices not in the ‘book,’ according to former airline executives, current employees and people close to United.”

“People close to the company said it could have been avoided. At least some decisions that led to the crisis were fueled by employees following rules, which are endemic to big, long-lived airlines and amount to giant manuals.”

The story also notes that the flight crew who needed to board were delayed by a mechanical problem on an earlier flight and arrived at the gate after the passengers had boarded. There were other factors including corporate changes from United’s merger with Continental Airlines seven years earlier. If any of those preceding events had not occurred or happened differently the incident on flight 3411 might never have happened.

The WSJ story neither assigned nor removed blame. Like an accident report it examined cause and factors led to the event.

Like Mixing a Martini

It’s easy and natural to look for villains. We all tend to do that and there’s usually plenty of blame to go around. But if we stick with that in our news consumption we don’t gain any understanding. We merely just hang out with it until the next trending story grabs our attention.

The idea of the accident chain can guide you to look for cause and not just blame on your way to understanding the news. Like the news martini we blogged about earlier, it sounds easy enough to do but it’s hard to get right. It takes practice, effort and occasionally an actual martini.

BLOG: Mixing A News Martini

One of our earliest and best pieces of advice for news users reminds me of something a bartender told me about mixing a martini. He said the drink is “the easiest to make and the hardest to get right.”

Our advice to “wait for it” always applies as we try to get and understand the facts especially on big news. It sounds simple enough. But it can be exceedingly difficult to do especially with the emotion/engagement and echo chamber effects of social media. It’s enough to get you to drink a few martinis. Two recent news stories show that clearly.

Right of Boom

The US cruise missile strike on a Syrian airbase in early April instantly generated emotion and concern. The strike, in response to the Assad regime’s use of banned sarin gas in the country’s civil war, swiftly followed shocking images of civilian deaths from the gas. The breaking news was covered live on cable news stations and via frequent Twitter and news website updates.

There was an underlying – if unsettled – gratification that the US could take action quickly to punish reprehensible behavior. Some media coverage was nearly rapturous in praising President Trump’s decision as presidential and in admiration of the power of US forces.

But within 24 hours reports emerged that the airbase, the one used to launch the gas attack, was still in operation. Slowly and over several days the unsettled part of the reaction began to come forward as people considered the geopolitical and practical implications. Members of Congress questioned the president’s use of military action without consultation or approval, and asked what the larger plan and goal was. The story and its resulting effects are still evolving. But many of the important questions were forgotten in the immediate excited reporting of and reactions to the attack.

United 3411

Videos of the forcible removal of a passenger from a United flight from Chicago to Louisville touched off furious and still-expanding mainstream and social media outrage following the weekend event. Coverage touched on third-rail social issues including racism, victim shaming, corporate greed and police use of force. Other subjects such as airline deregulation, ticket policies, flight crew logistics and passenger rights also appeared in the coverage. There was a widespread call for a boycott of United Airlines.

The ferocity of the reaction was understandable based on the videos alone. But four days after the event there was still no full accounting of what occurred. Reports were – and in many cases remain – inaccurate, contradictory, changing, confused, and shifted to raise broader issues. The fury of public and media reaction grew in the partial presentation of facts or the absence of them.

Two facts seemed certain: A passenger was dragged forcefully from the plane by police and injured, and United’s response – its second public incident in a month — was slow, tone-deaf and laden with corporate-speak for two days after the event. People were upset.

The issue of victim shaming came up because the passenger’s local newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal, reported his 2004 criminal conviction in a case that had been widely covered there when it happened. The paper’s editors explained that they would have been remiss not to acknowledge the connection with the man now a subject of international attention. But it had not adequately accounted for the possibility that other media outlets and internet readers outside the area would not know the broader local history and context. Critics called the newspaper’s story a “hatchet job.”

Time For a Drink?

Emotions run high in both stories, especially in case of United Airlines. It’s human nature to react strongly to the suffering of others. At the same time we all want to know the facts of stories with that type of emotional impact. But those stories show how difficult it can be to wait for the facts to emerge, even for journalists. It might even seem that you need to be heartlessly removed from your own humanity to follow our advice to “wait for it.” Obviously you cannot do that.

What helps though is to keep a few things in mind:

— First, you’re going to react. No question. Acknowledge and own that. When and how is up to you.

— Second, social media is intentionally designed to trigger emotional responses. It also fosters echo chambers and bubbles of perceptions so be very careful about how much you rely on reports carried there. You could say that social media is a great way to get headlines but a terrible way to get informed.

— Third, in most cases the story is not what it seems to be at first or even in a short time. The story may be better, worse, simpler, more complex or entirely different than what you first thought it was. Be careful about cementing any initial perceptions in your mind. The best you can do is to consider the facts as best as you know them right now while remaining open to changes and updates. Your understanding of the story may be affirmed or challenged.

Fourth, actively seek out information from several different reliable mainstream sources. As reporters say, “chase it down.” The mainstream media is trained to pursue and find facts. As with all professionals they’re not always right and some are better than others, but they are better at it then most of us.

Finally, take a minute, an hour, a day or a week to let the story develop, or as we’ve said in our podcasts, “let it cook” and wait for more information before reacting.

If it helps, mix up a martini. But remember, like getting your news, it’s simple to do but hard to get right.