I recently spent time thinking through some of the unexpected sources of stress in modern life, resolving to put them in their place. One notable factor has been the influence of news media on my peace of mind and concentration. The pervasiveness and intrusiveness of current affairs can be a driver for anxiety and intellectual clutter. It burdens me with a general sense of malaise about the world.
The news flash is now the norm. It is hard to imagine old news broadcasts with their respect for boundaries and steady punctuality at specific hours of the day. Part of my late dad’s after-work ritual was watching the six o’clock news, catching up with a digest of what had been happening in the world.
Occasionally news would break the barriers, intruding with a special bulletin – the death of a royal, a natural disaster – but such events were rare. Our approach to news updates was very much ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’.
How different is 2020! We live in a perpetual state of emergency, with multiple briefings per day on the main news items. News insists on being part of the fabric of our day so that Donald Trump, Brexit, and Covid-19 are as much a part of our thought-world as the lives of our friends and family.
We allow smart phones to sound a constant air raid siren in our lives. We carry about with us a personal ops-room where we are called upon to make judgments, or to emote, according to what is happening right now.
Small wonder that such an environment increases stress. Much of our current news carries existential weight – the spread of a virus, the complexities of race, the nature of nationhood – and we have chosen to bear the burden of such things almost 24/7.
My phone offers headline banners and badges, bleeps and barrages of ‘latest developments’ which fragment my concentration and my emotions. The decision to tune out from the news (so that I can tune in to it at will) is one way to deal with the issue.
I recently stepped away from Twitter and rolling news, and unsurprisingly the sky hasn’t fallen in. I update myself only at key points during the day and have found greater peace of mind in doing so.
There are significant problems with the ubiquity of news updates. We are exposed to what is often just raw data and unfolding events – moments and snatches which will take time to properly coalesce into a story. This means that narratives are constantly changing as to what has actually happened, and what significance it carries. This can be deeply disconcerting to a consumer.
Organisations like ‘The Slow Journalism Company’ are seeking to counter this side-effect of constant news by publishing their coverage well after the event, with carefully conceived analysis and extrapolation of what has transpired.
For me, this discipline of delaying conclusions, of privileging those agencies who seek to be accurate in their portrayal of an event rather than simply being first to break it, will reduce some of the discombobulation of being a media follower.
When I am exposed to breaking stories I have determined to remind myself that the media are in the middle, that their interim conclusions are nothing better than mere hypotheses, and that it will take time to unpack what has really happened and how important it is. This should effectively mute the crying ‘Wolf!’ that many headlines represent.
Ironically, the internet can give me too much depth: the sheer volume of data can make it almost impossible to put stories in their true perspective. An atrocity is carried out in a European city, a serial killer is brought to justice, the economics of constitutional change rise to the top story yet again, and immediately I have deep resources into which I can dive to recover further details of what has happened.
This is an area which needs careful and balanced management. I want to understand my world in a deeper way, but only at an emotional price I can afford. I need to counter-balance much of the horror behind the headlines with the wholesome and beneficial truths which are my true bedrock.
David Murray has said, ‘Many of us live as if Philippians 4:8 says, ‘Whatever things are false, whatever things are sordid, whatever things are wrong, whatever things are filthy, whatever things are ugly, whatever things are terrible, if there is any vice and if there is anything worthy of criticism –meditate on these things.’
God is sovereign immediately and ultimately: in all of this, I need to remind myself that he controls all current affairs in real time. Even when the tidal wave of genuinely important news legitimately breaks my emotional and cognitive levee, I need to constantly guard against falling in line with the panic-button politics which are on offer.
Things might be politically and socially precarious; we might be vulnerable to all kinds of threats and evils and the course of history may seem to be flowing into all the wrong channels, but God is sovereign there and then, immediately, unfailingly.
God is presently establishing his kingdom and fulfilling his purposes – building his church amid the cultural and political rubble so prominently on display.
Our approach to news should be that of the church in Acts 4: believers viewed current events in light of Psalm 2, reorienting their focus upon God’s sovereign laughter rather than the ways of the wicked. Otherwise, we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
Andrew Roycroft is Pastor of Millisle Baptist Church, Northern Ireland, and blogs at thinkingpastorally.com