You don’t have to be terribly empathetic to get upset by watching the news. If you are very empathetic, though, the news become a real trial. We get upset by all the awful things that are happening in the world, depressed about the lack of compassion, overwhelmed by the feelings of despair which the people in those stories must have experienced – because we share them. I have struggled with this for a long time and still sometimes do. But there are some strategies that help a lot, which I’m going to share today.
It’s tempting to just stop watching the news altogether. After all, there’s nothing we can do – we just get really bummed out everytime. However, it’s also a fact that a democracy cannot work with uninformed citizens. And people look at you strangely when they mention a story that has been all over the news lately and you go “Uh, what was that?”. And finally, maybe there is something you can do, sometimes – like with the current wave of refugees all over Europe, which can only begin to be handled because plenty of normal people volunteer to help -, but you have to know about that first. So I’d like to make a case here for keeping up with the news, even when it’s hard… who am I kidding – even when it’s terrifying. Here’s what helps me cope with staying informed.
For starters, keep it short
Many news stations these days offer an extremely condensed version of the daily news. 100 seconds is a popular format, for example. I think it’s actually intended for people who are just too busy to spend more time on the news, but it suits our purposes equally well. Watch such a very short recap and you’ll have a solid basis of information for day-to-day business.
Having such a first overview will also let you know which stories are so gruesome that you’d rather not read an entire article about them, and you’ll know which things you’d actually like to follow up on, say, changes of laws or policies. (Or referendums… ahem.) Resist the temptation to google every awful thing that happens, or to watch in-depth documentaries unless you really want to know more specifically about this topic. Make that a conscious decision. If you want or need more information, go ahead. But if you don’t feel like more information will do anything other than terrify you (Animals of Australia documentaties, I’m looking at you!), maybe just go read a novel instead.
Read, don’t watch
When you’ve noticed something in the short news that you would like more information on, read an article (or several) about it. But don’t watch a tv report. Not only do written texts let you choose for yourself at which speed you want to absorb the information – you can skim the article or pause when you need it – but also, film as a medium is designed, these days, to push people’s buttons, and it’s got all the tools for that. Loud noises, shaky camera and fast cuts deliver a sense of urgency and immediacy that usually isn’t very helpful if you’re sensitive; music and the tone of the speaker can be used to manipulate your emotional response. By reading an article instead of watching a film clip, you cut out most of these distractions and possible causes of emotional distress.
Stay away from personal stories
We all want to connect to our fellow human beings. We tend to be much more interested in what Annie, 17, from Somalia, with a cute smile and a quirky braid, two sisters and a baby brother, has to say about violence in her country, than in some dry, statistics-based report. However, Annie’s story obviously also has the greater potential for heart-break, for empathising with a specific individual in a way you never would with a pie chart.
Personal stories are amazing for raising awareness and mobilising the support of huge numbers of people for fighting the wrongs that are happening in the world every day. But if you do not need to be mobilised, if you do already care and are perfectly willing to help, then stick to the dry facts. Or if you are going to watch a personal story, at least make a conscious decision. Know what you’re getting yourself into and plan for some time and measures to deal with the emotional fallout. (Also a good strategy if someone insists you should watch a Tarantino movie together, but that’s a different story.)
Finish on a positive note
One of the big problems for sensitive people is that the news aren’t a balanced report of what has recently happend in the world – it’s mostly the things you should worry about. Doom and gloom. Terrible things happen every day, but you know what? Amazing, ingenious, wonderful things happen every day, too. Make a habit of catching up on some of these wonderful things after reading or watching the news. Several cool, smart people out there have realised that there is a demand – a need – for some more uplifting news, so you can easily get a little boost of happiness from Positive.News, the Good News Network, Happy News, Sunny Skyz, or the Huffington Post’s Good News Section, to name just a few.
How about you?
These are my strategies for dealing with the news, and staying a responsible citizen who can make a decently-informed decision when elections roll around. How about you? Do you have any special strategies for coping with the news? What is your favourite format – tv, newspapers, radio, online? I’d love to hear from you!