The horrors of the war in Ukraine, the cost of living crisis, the aftermath of the floods in Pakistan, the mass murder of babies in Thailand. These are just some of the horrible things I’m hiding from today. I’m not completely closed off. I know they’re happening. The me of old would’ve been pouring over every detail, reading articles from different news sources, watching reports on TV and probably even engaging in social media discussions with complete strangers around them.
Rightly or wrongly, and I’m fighting with myself over this, I’ve recently decided to stop consuming the news. Because you see, the news was consuming me.
I would find myself lying awake at night unable to sleep thinking about the mothers in the bomb shelters in Ukraine that I’d seen that evening on TV. Tossing and turning and feeling guilty for not being able to fall asleep in my nice warm double bed, while they huddled on the concrete floor with their children. The smaller news stories sometimes rattled me even more than the big ones. Possibly because they’re the ones that lurk like the bogeyman in your nightmares. The ones that could actually happen to you… The children orphaned by a car crash on some quiet country road, the young man who died as a result of one of those tragic ‘one punch’ scuffles. The traumas of those people in Ukraine feel alien and unlikely, the smaller stories do not.
I used to think people who didn’t keep up to date with the news were ignorant. And of course there are a handful of people who are disengaged with current affairs because they really don’t care about things that don’t directly affect them or their loved ones. In the main however, there seems to be a trend that people are stepping away from the headlines in an attempt to protect their mental health.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism said in it’s annual Digital News Report that 38% of respondents admitted they often purposefully avoid consuming news. That’s an increase of 11% in five years. Around 36%, particularly made up of under 35’s, said that watching or reading the news lowered their mood. The only thing that surprises me with that is that the numbers aren’t higher. There is after all little to grasp onto when it comes to silver linings from most media outlets.
I suspect this downturn in current affairs consumption is less to do with a lack of interest or care, and more to do with the numbing effect of our complete over-consumption during the Covid-19 pandemic. Naturally, at the outset of the pandemic most of us were glued to rolling news bulletins, being as we were, the unsuspecting stars of a huge global horror film. We watched other countries who were ahead of us on the dreaded curve, we saw the numbers of deaths ever increasing regurgitated across all channels and all social media platforms. It was like the car crash on the motorway that you really don’t want to look at, knowing it’ll be gruesome, but nevertheless you turn your head as you slowly pass by.
Not watching the news is tricky for me. I consider myself quite a politically engaged person. As a writer I’m used to having an opinion and sharing it. Now I find myself in the awkward position of having friends ask me what I think about the government U-turn on tax and having to mutter something about a weak fiscal policy whilst making a quick exit. You see even though I’m writing this piece and putting my new ‘ignorance is bliss’ approach out there, it’s hard to own up to that that in person.
Some respondents in the Reuters survey stated that the rise in their selective avoidance was due to being bombarded with misinformation. Who hasn’t lost an argument at a dinner party when their opinion is challenged by someone who is super-hot on fake news?
Whilst it’s perfectly understandable to me that people would grow tired of having to fact-check everything they read on their smartphone, that’s not the reason for my avoidance. Mine is ultimately down to my inability to detach from what I’ve just exposed myself to, especially if I consume news in the evening.
Although empathy is undoubtedly a blessing and I’m glad I have it in spades; it can also be a bit of a curse. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is exhausting, if those shoes are always on a path of grief or war or suffering. It’s a tricky balance, and one I think about a lot when trying to foster an empathetic nature in my children. Am I setting them up for a lifetime of taking on too much of other people’s pain? A pain they have no power to ease.
Earlier this year, my marriage of almost 15 years ended, and I think that’s also played a big part in why I’ve stepped away from the news. I’ve reached my capacity on all the things I can feel, you know? There is no headspace left to take on the woes of the whole world right now, as selfish as that sounds saying it out loud. All my empathy, all my care, needs to be poured into my kids. Any drops left over, I’m going to keep for myself, if that’s ok.
I will return to the news, I’ve no doubt. I’ll come out of this self-protective hibernation and start to educate myself on what’s occurring on this crazy planet of ours. This time however I’ll be prioritising my own mental health (and fragile sanity) above knowing enough to get into Facebook debates with strangers who I couldn’t convince to my side of the argument in a month of Sundays. Lesson learned.