Monday, October 26, 2009

Effects of a News Media Fast

Since most news media nowadays are electronic in either their production, distribution, or delivery, and this blog is about engineering ethics, which relates to the right use of technology, including news media, I think the following personal reflection on a recent experience of mine falls within the greater ambit of what I'm trying to do here.

Recently I had been feeling more than the usual amount of hassle and anxiety. Ever since I began teaching, fall semesters have always been more stressful than spring semesters, and for various reasons this one has been worse than usual. Of late I had fallen into the habit of taking in the following news media daily, if not more often: National Public Radio news once or twice a day (at least half an hour total), the Austin American-Statesman newspaper, a well-known biweekly conservative magazine, and the magazine's daily set of blogs online as well which I read during lunch. The health-care debate was the nominal reason for such newshound behavior, but beyond a certain point the desire to hear or read news becomes its own justification—in other words, a habit.

Among the spiritual disciplines of both Christianity and other religions is the discipline of simplicity—of doing without things that are not necessarily harmful in themselves, but can distract us from more important matters if not placed under conscious control. Muslim believers around the world recently wrapped up the large-scale spiritual discipline called Ramadan, which involves a total dawn-to-dusk fast that runs for several weeks. The 19th-century author and preacher George MacDonald said something which I cannot find the exact quote for, but the sense was, "A man is diminished by anything outside himself which he thinks he cannot do without"—other than God, that is.
With these thoughts as background, I decided at the beginning of last week to go a whole week without listening to, watching, or reading any news media.

Of course I was immediately faced with the question of what constitutes "news media." I think my closest brush with breaking the fast happened in a doctor's office when I picked up a trade journal on radiology, and read about some recent advances in medical imaging technology. I suppose technically that was news media, but not the kind I was trying to avoid. For the most part, I succeeded in avoiding the thing I had sworn off from.

The point of any fast is not to see how many gold stars you can get by following the rules, but to practice the discipline of resisting one's desires, ordering them instead to a vision of the good. My vision of the good involves Christianity, but I recognize that other people follow other visions of the good as well.

So much for the reasons; what were the results?

Well, obviously I had more time to devote to other things, although frankly I didn't notice it that much. One consequence was that I hauled out an old portable CD player and instead of listening to NPR during a half-hour of exercise, I listened to the sound-track album of the Coen brothers film "O Brother Where Art Thou?" I don't know much about the art of sound recording (as opposed to the science), but that CD is one of the clearest and most fun-to-listen-to music recordings I have. The film itself was a rare combination of comedy, tragedy, and history (being based on Homer's Odyssey), and I found my ability simply to enjoy the music was greater than I have experienced for many months. I can liken it to what former smokers say about being able to smell flowers for the first time in years, soon after they quit smoking. I don't know how far we can take the analogy between cigarette smoke and news media, but there seems to be some subtle connection there.

I can't say my whole life turned into a tranquil drifting on calm seas. There were plenty of minor troubles (for instance, in a moment of haste I broke my wife's favorite coffee cup, a promotional item from Hewlett-Packard I received years ago with a liquid-crystal coffee thermometer on the side and Maxwell's Equations printed inside), but I perceived an overall lowering of an annoying kind of background tension or angst that had been bothering me for many months—really, ever since the health-care debate geared up in earnest last summer.

I have now stepped off the no-news-media wagon, deliberately, commencing with the Sunday paper yesterday. But I'm seriously considering making a news media fast a part of my routine. Much news these days is repetitive anyway, since it consists of recycling or tweaking the same things to fill the 24-hour cycles of a growing number of media outlets. So if you ignore the whole mess for a week, you're not likely to be seriously behind unless we have another 9/11 tragedy or something equally earthshaking during your fast.

One of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis, was a professor of English at Oxford and Cambridge University, and famously ignored newspapers and radio most of his life. He used to say that if anything really important happened, someone would tell him about it sooner or later. It wasn't his job to keep up with the latest developments, and if your job does require you to do that, a media fast wouldn't be practical. But unless you'd be endangering your livelihood by doing so, I recommend trying it for a week or so. You may be surprised at the results.

1 comment:

  1. My roommate and I have been on a "media fast" for 5 years now. I get the headlines when I'm at work (there's always yesterday's paper lying around) and I check out "oddly enough" news on yahoo and livescience semi-regularly, and my roommate listens to local radio (not the news or talk stations) when she's driving and I'm not in the car. Recently I checked out the outcome of a local hostage-taking on Jenni's behalf (because she had seen a part of it in person); but that was easily researched online 3 days after the event, when there was some kind of outcome to check out.

    Other than that we've been pretty "clean," and we don't miss it. Our reason for doing this in the first place was because we both suffer from anxiety disorders (particularly Jenni). One definition of stress that makes it simpler to identify sources is "having responsibility for something over which you have no authority or control." News media is stressful because it comes into your personal life and makes you feel responsible for people and events all over the world. It's sort of the opposite of gossip: gossip as entertainment does not help the person listening to it and may harm the ones being gossiped about, where "news" does not help the people that it's about and may harm the people that are listening to it. If it isn't entertainment, if it is something you can and should do something about, you will hear about it, even if you're living in a cave.