In today’s hyperconnected society we have access to incredible amounts of information about what’s going on all over the world. How can we sort through the flood of data and decide what is reliable, what is relevant, and how to respond?
What’s really happening?
We expect to hear breaking news instantly. This doesn’t allow time for fact-checking. Even reputable news sources tend to get important facts wrong in their initial description of any traumatic and unexpected event. We get one narrative firmly into our minds, respond emotionally, write letters or make donations…and then the story changes.
Different media outlets tell very different stories. Some disagree on basic facts. Who released the sarin gas that killed so many civilians in Syria? Is human activity actually driving climate change? How do the homicide rates in the US compare with those in highly developed countries that regulate firearms more stringently?
News sources also make very different decisions about which stories to tell. Some focus on the economic benefits of hydraulic fracturing and the degree to which atmospheric pollution can be reduced by burning natural gas instead of coal. Others focus on the cases in which the extraction process has contaminated drinking water and released large quantities of methane and other greenhouse gases.
These differences complicate our attempts to discuss current events with people of differing ideologies. Before jumping a heated argument we may want to step back and ask what stories the other person has heard.
Ben Hecht once said “Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of the clock.” The same could be said of TV, radio and web news. Much ‘news’ time is devoted to celebrity gossip and movie reviews. Serious stories tend to focus on spectacular, immediate events. Wars and elections get a lot of coverage, focused more on moment-by-moment tactical shifts than on the larger issues involved. Climate change generates less news because it’s gradual and constant and we’re seldom able to definitively blame it for any particular devastating storm. We hear much more about the immediate fluctuations of the market than about the basic assumptions, strengths and drawbacks of our economic systems. Sometimes it helps to step back from the flow of news for a little while and read up on those background issues that interest us most.
How much can we process? How do we respond?
Knowing about injustice can motivate us to work for social change, and knowing about the suffering of refugees and disaster victims can inspire us to offer help. Such knowledge can also alienate us. Journalist Susan Moeller has written extensively about ‘compassion fatigue’, in which a constant flow of images of trauma and suffering leaves us feeling helpless and wanting to tune out. We may be able to cope better when we have some sense of context and of the ways in which we can help to remedy the damage that’s being described. Taking time to do that in some areas may mean allowing ourselves not to follow breaking stories in other areas.