A close friend has a bad habit of reading comments on news sites, especially on articles which provoke him enough on their own. One of the things I love about him is that he’s passionate about the things that matter, but during the last two years or so I have regularly reminded him that there’s a fine line between being educated on the issues, engaging in important debate, and raising one’s blood pressure unnecessarily. It’s advice I haven’t always been the best at following myself.
A few months ago, when my mental health took an abrupt and unexpectedly frightening turn, I realised I really had to review how I read and engage with the news and, to a lesser extent, with people on social media. It wasn’t just puff pieces on celebrities and trashy magazines, or the endless regurgitation of the same five ‘women’s issues’ that fill certain publications and various blogs, it was the articles from esteemed news organisations and publications that were also taking up too much emotional space and causing me pain. I was already very fragile by mid-December, but when news hit about the massacre in Newton, Connecticut, I just lost it. The news in the aftermath of that tragedy just solidified some things in my mind I had known for a while, and finally made me act to change how I approached my reading of news, current affairs and silly crap on the internet.
So here are the rules. I don’t always obey them to the letter, but following them has made a significant change in how I feel on a day to day basis. It can only help, right?
1) No hate reading. This has meant deleting blogs that once were excellent and now only serve to piss me off (none of you on the blog roll, obviously), not buying or reading any magazines except for the excellent Frankie and The Monthly, and barring anything written by conservative pundits.
2) No reading anything that I instinctively feel will lower my IQ. You know those articles that you can actually feel are making you more stupid as you read them? No more of those. This also means not reading really dense pieces about celebrities or feuds between media personalities and commentators. In a time when opinion now passes for journalism, among both conservatives and liberals, I also stopped reading almost every regular columnist for major newspapers, both here and abroad. I make an exception for the wonderful Waleed Aly at The Age, and I occasionally read Anne Summers or Annabel Crabb if I think the topic is interesting, but op eds are now only up for grabs if the topic and the writer is completely unknown or very talented, if the subject at hand is something I SHOULD read about in the interests of being educated and up to date with issues that matter, or is really unexpected. The writer also needs to be someone who is actually learned in the field at hand – for example, today I read a column written by one of my heroes, Geoffrey Robertson, about human rights and international law. Because this is something he knows about and has built a career around.
3) No reading stuff that is a trigger for me. I deliberately avoid reading much of anything about sexual violence (the young woman gang raped in Sydney this week) or tragic events that are just too awful to contemplate but are isolated incidents (like the baby who was initially saved after his parents were killed in a car accident and then later died). There’s a way to know about the world without actually absorbing the specifics, and after some of the stuff in my own life and that of people I care about, I have no morbid curiosity about other people’s trauma. A close friend astutely pointed out to me last winter that if you’ve experienced trauma yourself you generally lose any interest in others’ tragic pain. She is absolutely right. The title for the link is usually quite enough – you know it’s happening, you can make a donation if it’s something that needs attention, but you don’t need to know just how bad it is.
4) No reading the comments. EVER. No, seriously. I’ve said for some time now that we need an internet equivalent for the old adage that you shouldn’t pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel. The internet equivalent is surely proven by the people who comment on news sites and have long fights there, even the people I agree with.
5) Following funny or especially witty tumblrs and blogs is quite OK. Also feel free to indulge in cute animal pictures or funny threads on buzzfeed. No reddit. reddit is the Bermuda Triangle of the internet.
6) I don’t care how lauded a particular post or article is, if it’s by someone you despise chances are you will just hate it and then hate yourself for reading it. (Please don’t see today’s viral column from The Observer by Russell Brand.)
I'm not perfect and I’ve broken these rules from time to time, but mostly following them has made a big difference. I am an idealist when it comes to participating in the political process, even mired in an uncharacteristically long and stupid election campaign here in Australia right now between a party in power that’s morally bankrupt and an opposition poised for a win that will result in catastrophe for the weak and vulnerable among us. I need to stay engaged and educated, but I don’t need to get bogged down in the idiocy that passes for ‘good’ journalism and debate right now. I need to see the woods for the trees, and in the interests of my precarious mental health, removing myself slightly from the incessant chatter of the news game was a very wise decision. How these people who participate in it are able to sleep at night and wake up to it every single day is beyond me, it is very close to my idea of hell. It’s hard because I’m someone who likes to read and know EVERYTHING, but seriously – my (very little) sanity is at stake. I have to do what I can to keep it.
How do you stay informed but still retain some semblance of sense?