Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Newsphere Changed My Brain

In a story I’m writing there is a character named Catalyst. Catalyst is an ambassador. Ambassadors negotiate peace and foment discord, as required by the political body they serve; specifically, the agenda of the power brokers who influence that political body.

Catalyst is a cynical character.

Are our news sources cynical as well? I don’t know. I do know that I became a cynical news consumer, and an aggravated commenter. Read the comments beneath any news piece on the internet and feel the itch to log in and rejoin. En garde! Claim your space, bash the other side. Anonymously. Because who wants to be attacked for an opinion?

To be clear, news is not opinion. Journalism is not opinion. What we read today is primarily not news. What we find is an endless loop of links to opinion pieces that conform to our gut take on a news story, and we choose what we consume based on confirmation bias. Guests on TV nonfiction (can't call these news) shows are well-known for which side they’re on. News has become a virus-its sole mission to replicate itself.

Why do I see weekly Rush Limbaugh video on MSNBC shows except Rachel Maddow’s and Chris Hayes’? Because MSNBC is confirming our political bias, while whining that Fox News does the same thing. Why does Dee Dee Myers wish the Anthony Weiner story would go away, while agreeing to discuss the Anthony Weiner story on a Sunday nonfiction show?

Famine, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, is a character in Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman’s book Good Omens. Famine in this modern dark comedy owns a chain of fast food restaurants. The more you eat, the sooner you die of malnutrition.

A friend had been attending a mindfulness class. I asked what mindfulness meant. She gave me an example: pain is pain. It happens and then it abates. When one revisits the pain, that is suffering. Suffering is memory of pain, rather than pain itself.

I was starving for news and could not stop consuming. The news was making me suffer. I was lucky to regain my mental health because of Dr. Christine Tracy and her book, The Newsphere.

News addiction, in an era when news is mixed with opinion like a drug masked in a cocktail, has to be cured by avoidance. Dr. Tracy calls it going on a news diet. She changed my brain. I read the sites and the columnists I had bookmarked, only as Dr. Tracy suggested, I listened to my gut reaction. Was I angry? Did the news story make me think or just make me triumphant because I agreed, or furious because I did not?

One by one I offloaded the bookmarks. Inch by column inch, I quit reading the loudest side-takers. Then the more subtle nudgers. Any news that made my insides holler I stopped reading. In the newsphere, I trained my brain to read those writers/observers who advance my knowledge base, point me willingly to the writers who are thoughtful and can debate the other side, and give me facts I crave. Real news, real reporters. There are rules in journalism, and our world has abandoned too many. Where and when the rules are abandoned, I abandon those sources.

News can instigate dialogue and action. We must be aware and active participants in our news consumption. When I comment today, I point out where the piece went awry in actually being news.

I commented on an inflammatory headline on a major news site, and the headline was changed that day. I commented on an NPR story headline that misrepresented the report of a medical paper, and NPR changed the tagline. Was it me? I don’t know. I feel neither triumph nor anger. I did the thing it was appropriate to do.

Participation in news - in keeping news honest and informative - is healing, not damaging, both to the news cycle and the person consuming. Not reacting when reaction is the goal is a gift. What I learned from The Newsphere applies to life as well. I am calm. And grateful.

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