How Much News Is Good News?

I’m not sure if the timing of last month’s “news free zone” assignment could have been worse or better. Coming just two days after the devastating tsunami hit Asia, how could I realistically expect you to take a two-day break from the news? I wonder if it seemed a bit callous of me to suggest such a thing. But here’s the interesting part: when I sent out the newsletter, I was in the middle of a weeklong news strike and had not yet heard about the disaster. While the rest of the world was watching the tragedy unfold, I was engaged in the act of hibernation.

When I did hear about it, I pondered the implications of “missing” this huge event. As much as I’d like to imagine that my knowledge of the event might have had some positive effect on the region, I’m fairly certain that the people affected by the tsunami did not notice my ignorance.

On a more personal level, if I had learned about the tsunami when it first struck, the information junky part of me would have pushed for an aggressive campaign of information gathering. I only have to look back to the last Gulf war for an example. During the height of that war, I was logging over an hour each day of online newsgathering. Calculating it out, over the course of that war I spent over forty hours gathering information that is of limited (or no) use.

I’ll stop short of calling that time wasted for it provided me with a wonderful opportunity to reevaluate my priorities. And that experience has informed my actions regarding the tsunami. Instead of diving into the photographs, videos, stories and discussions of the event, I have limited my newsgathering to brief updates.

My pondering also led me to the question of value: what is the value of newsgathering? What benefit does it provide? How does it serve me, my family, my community, the people affected by a news event? Again, I asked myself of what use is the time I spend watching, reading, or listening to the news? As with my Gulf War newsgathering experience, it is difficult for me to come up with ways in which the gathering of information is of much use.

In this age of instant information access we have the capacity to become passive observers of events anywhere in the world literally within seconds. With that ability comes a risk and a challenge.

The risk is that observing geographically inaccessible events – especially tragic events -can create a sense of helplessness within us. My personal experience shows that the act of newsgathering sets up a self-perpetuating cycle of disempowerment: we watch the news, get upset by it, feel there is nothing we can do to help, get more upset, watch more news in the hope that it will get better. . . but it never does.

The challenge then, is to find a way to break that cycle of disempowerment and balance our desire to be informed with our desire to be present in our own lives and actively contribute to the improvement of our world.

How can we do that? Here are some suggestions.

The most important step is to limit newsgathering time. If you currently watch the morning and evening news on TV, try to skip one. If you listen to news radio on your commute to and from work, switch to music or books on tape for one direction. If your Internet homepage displays news headlines, switch to a news-less homepage and choose your newsgathering time.

The next step is to re-empower yourself, to shift from a place of helplessness to an awareness that you have the power to provide valuable support and assistance. You have specific skills and resources you can apply to places and people in need. Here are just a few ways to turn your talents into tangible support.

Send positive thoughts and prayers:

While this may not seem to be a “tangible” action, it is. You’ve heard of the power of positive thinking related to your own beliefs and goals, but that power extends to everyone in the world. Everything on this Earth is connected in ways that we are only just beginning to comprehend. When you consciously take time during the day to “beam” your positive thoughts and prayers to the people affected by tragedy, those thoughts and prayers are definitely received. You may not see the results of your actions, but you are providing a wonderful gift to those people.

Donate money:

While the life costs can never be fully measured, the financial estimate for the healing, cleanup, and rebuilding in the aftermath of this disaster is well into the billions of dollars. What you can give may seem insignificant compared to the total amount needed, but it is through the power of collective giving that significant help is provided. Many of our local stores have set up collection funds. When I add a $5.00 contribution to an $85.00 grocery bill, the effect on me is hardly noticed, but when Whole Foods combines the contributions from all of their customers, the impact on the lives of those in Asia will be considerable.

Volunteer locally:

By cutting down on your newsgathering time you will create a chunk of extra time. If you devote some of this “extra” time to local organizations, you begin to actively break out of the cycle of helplessness. When you serve food at a local homeless shelter, or feed an injured bird at a wildlife rescue center, or provide after-school tutoring to children in underserved neighborhoods, you are able to witness the immediate, tangible and powerful effect that you can have on the world.

Come up with your own ways of breaking the cycle. How can you empower yourself? What skills, talents or resources can you contribute to people and places in need?

Envision and create your ideal balance between newsgathering and active engagement. In the quote above T.S. Eliot asks, “Where is the life lost in the living?” Stop losing your life to the news and start living in the way that feels right to you.