Lift Your Head Out of the River

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 4 min read

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is how to best consume the news. We live in a time of excess when it comes to news sources and while this is great in many ways, it’s also undeniably dangerous. False news stories crop up all the time, and any idiot with a login can post a thread to Twitter that will get tons of retweets, not because it’s true, but because it validate’s people’s worldview.

The last 4 years have been exhausting because it feels like news is happening all the time. Our Idiot in Chief thrives on this constant news cycle and we can’t look away, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem. Many of us wake up and the first thing we do is go to Twitter to see what bad things happened while we were sleeping. We listen to daily podcasts that tell us what’s going on over breakfast. We load our favorite news site throughout the day to see what’s happening as we work. We watch cable news at night to get the spin on the day’s news we want to hear.

We have our heads submerged in the river of news all day long. What I am trying to do better at, and I hope you consider too, is to lift your head out of the river.

This metaphor isn’t perfect, so bear with me, but I worry that spending all your time in the constant stream of news and opinion pieces makes you lose sight of the bigger picture. You can learn a lot about a river by being inside it, but you can’t know everything. Sure, you can see each little fish in there and get some micro-level details on what’s going on, but you can’t see where it’s going, what other things could impact it downstream, or the simple beauty of the river. And if the take the metaphor more literally, you’ll literally drown if you never come up for air.

So what do I mean by lifting your head out of the river? Ignore the news entirely?

I don’t think ignoring the news is the right thing to do. We need to be informed, of course, but we don’t need to pay attention to every single detail of what’s happening all the time. Instead of being obsessed with learning things as they happen and then of course taking to social media to give your hot take that you definitely will never regret, maybe only consume the news once per day. Hell, maybe go a couple days without taking in any real time news!

News is not ephemeral, it will be there when you come back. And real news will stand the test of time, while conspiracy theories, faked videos, and inaccurate tweets will not. If you give the news literally a day to shake itself out, you’ll be consuming better news.

Here are my tips that I’m trying to follow to help get my head out of the river, and only dunk it back in sometimes.

  1. You have to get off Twitter and Facebook. I don’t use Facebook, but Twitter is where I talk to a wonderful community to tech enthusiasts like myself and I don’t want to give that up. Instead, I’ve muted certain words to make my timeline less political. Things still get through, but with words like Trump, Democrat, Republican, fake news, Clinton, etc, I’ve been able to clean up a lot of it and focus more on the fun parts of Twitter.
  2. Turn off breaking news alerts. I got these from the New York Times until a few days ago, and while they were useful, they were also exhausting. In Hey, I’ve simply toggled those to The Feed and then I check them whenever I want to, but I don’t get notified and they don’t appear in my inbox. Most news apps have an option like this, so turn it off if you can.
  3. Don’t watch cable news. Without getting too political here, cable news is not a good way to get your news, especially if you watch an overtly partisan network. This gets you not only hot takes on the day’s news for hours every night, it also gets you talking heads who are only there to get a good sound bite in, not actually discuss the news. If there is any disagreement, you can be sure it won’t be a productive conversation or that anyone will change their minds.
  4. Most of all, you need to spend a little time on the news and then move on to other stuff in your life. You can check the news on Twitter, you can read those news alerts, and you can listen to that daily news podcast, but I would really encourage you to time box your news intake and favor news that’s written after the dust settles rather than things that were said in the moment and may not stand up to scrutiny. Also, favor experts, not bloggers/YouTubers with a platform but no subject matter expertise. Once you’ve caught up, go on with your life.

I don’t want your takeaway to be that I think being less informed is good for you or that it’s good for our world. I’m saying that by trying to be hyper-informed, we’re actually less informed, are more likely to consume and amplify bad reporting, are less able to make good judgements about what’s happening, and slip into a depression as we feel helpless to do anything about things except tweet our anger at the world.

I also don’t suggest this is a cure for our partisanship or that this will make it so that you change political ideologies, I’m just saying that whatever your political leanings, taking a break from the constant news intake is almost certainly going to make you happier.