We have global news at our finger tips, constant updates on social media and 24-hour services, meaning we can find out what is happening in the world, all day, every day. The continuous news cycle and the loss of many community news sources news means that war, natural disaster and political turmoil have become constant presences on the newsreel, and in our lives. While there is no doubt that some knowledge of current affairs is valuable, and even a responsibility of those who live in first world countries like Australia, how much news is too much and is there a healthier way of consuming information about global affairs and human realities?
In the New Yorker Magazine, a researcher into the connection between media consumption and stress, Mary McNaughton-Cassill, said that the continuous news cycle affected audiences in different ways. Often, rather than making people more generous or empathetic, it made them feel a sense of helplessness in the face of international affairs, and reluctant to do anything at all.
It also wired the brain to believe that things are worse than they were. While McNaughton-Cassill’s research indicated most people, regardless of their circumstances, had a positive outlook on their immediate environment, in the absence of any in-depth knowledge about the wider world, people relied what they see happening on the news to determine their world view. As a result, they have a sense that the outside world is a malevolent place, regardless of the broader reality. This in turn tended to impact on people’s decision-making, as they felt under threat, from the comfort and safety of their own living rooms.
So, how do we counteract this effect, and find a healthier way of absorbing the reality of our world? For me, books are an obvious and attractive alternative. Like the slow food movement in the culinary world, literature offers a slower method of digesting global and human realities. While they might not inform us of the latest act of terrorism or natural disaster half a world away, they do provide insights into the world in which we live, often presented with extensive thought and in great depth.
It is the skill of writers to zero in on the essential truths of the human condition – the information of meaning and significance – and present it to readers in an accessible form. Ideas and events are explored at length, rather than being thrown at the reader indiscriminately in the form of distressing images and footage and urgent voice overs.
Instead of heightening our fear about the world we live in, books deepen our understanding of it and its people. Their characters are not just soldiers or victims, but individuals with complex histories, circumstances and inner worlds. Unlike in the news, books offer solace and calm, insight and understanding.
Literature can also offer an escape from the anxieties that the daily news might ignite, providing the opportunity for us to leave our own lives and visit other places or times. They distract us from the fast news cycles and everyday concerns and help us see a bigger picture.
I am not the only one who prefers fiction to copious news. In an interview with Vanity Fair, actor Paul Bettany said that he consciously turned to books to drown out some of the noise made by the media.
“To distract from the relentless news cycle, he is currently reading Homo Deus, the sequel to Yuval Noah Harari’s cult best-seller Sapiens.”
It is a far cry from Bianca Jagger’s claim in the same magazine that her morning routine involves listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today program, reading the Financial Times, The Guardian, The New York Times, and doing social media. All this before heading to work.
While it might be admirable to display such an interest in world affairs, I wonder how healthy it is.
In an appearance at The School of Life, writer and blogger Mark Manson said that the abundance of information on the internet made it very difficult to determine what was important, or even real.
He advised media consumers to ensure their choices were made consciously, so they weren’t becoming immersed in everything put in front of them, regardless of its value, relevance or reliability.
Unfortunately, making these choices or switching off the constant noise of the news is no easy feat. After all, it comes at us from so many angles, emerging unbidden from Facebook and Twitter, flashing from city buildings and interrupting our favourite television programs.
The best thing we can do is pick up a book that will offer us an alternative vision of our world, whether we want a chance to escape our anxieties or more deeply explore our realities and that of the people we live among.