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Essays and posts exploring the state of journalism, teaching and nonfiction storytelling.

  • Writer's pictureTracy Dahlby

Surviving Our Information Frenzy: A New Year's Guide

Distrust of the media is up, conspiracies theories are in, but giving up on wresting meaning from the news isn't the answer.

Finding a quiet mental space may help us to construct our meaning. Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

In normal times, before COVID put the kibosh on casual conversations at the gym, a public event or an eatery, I’d be approached by people, not to give me the business about teaching journalism for a living (“Aha, one of those news fakers!”), but to voice a bewildered plea:

So much information flooding in, so many outlets to choose from, they’d say. How am I supposed to make sense of the news?

COVID isolation has only added to the angst, it seems, by confining us to our digital foxholes. As such, I get the sense that politically left, right or center, many of us yearn to tame the tsunami of random information and outright propaganda roaring at us through our smartphones, laptops and tablets, even if we disagree on how to go about it.

Call me a starry-eyed optimist.

It’s also true, of course, that growing numbers of Americans harbor deep misgivings about the press, have given up on the news altogether or plunged down rabbit holes chasing the fake certainty of conspiracy theories.

For those of us clinging to faith in the Fourth Estate’s potential to protect America’s democratic experiment from the harmful hidden, giving up isn’t an option — just a surefire way to the open door to more charlatans and demagogues, and encourage a further drift toward tribalism.

Yet the question remains: How do we wrest a reasonably functional picture of our world from today’s information frenzy?

Finding answers isn’t easy. It’s complicated by a great migration in our news-consuming habits — from newsprint to electronic media, mainly TV, in the last half of the last century to breakneck changes today’s ever-more muscular digital technology have wrought. The result is a proliferation of news and news-like products often so marbled with entertainment that discerning what constitutes the news is a haphazard chore at best.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s good fun to graze broadly among the riches and diversions tossed up by the internet and social media. I’m as clickbait-prone as anybody. And yet, it’s also pays to anchor our explorations in a fact-based method, one that relies on news outlets with proven records for in-depth reporting and accuracy, in spite of their missteps and routine flaws.

My list of go-to sources includes digital subscriptions to the editoially left-of-center New York Times and right-of-center Wall Street Journal, as well as cost-free options: BBC World News and Associated Press apps with the “smart brevity” news site Axios tossed in for good measure.

Based on the not-so-wild assumption the news of our world isn’t going to make itself any easier to parse in 2021, here are a few things I’ll be keeping in mind to maintain some semblance of epistemological well-being:

Strive for news fitness: Deriving value from the news doesn’t mean investing inordinate amounts of time we don’t have in consuming it. I like what the fitness gurus preach: Engage in the right kinds of exercise a few times a week, be consistent, and watch your muscles and endurance grow. The trick is not to take on too much all at once. Start by monitoring quality news outlets, one left, one right, one center, in addition to your mainstay local or regional newspaper or website, and build from there.

Ruthlessly exploit the nut graf: The “nut” is that paragraph, give or take, toward the top of a news story that signals its point and purpose. If well crafted, it addresses what I consider four key questions: Why this story? Why now? Why is it important beyond its timeliness? What’s at stake? In short, it’s the intellectual motor of the story; if you can’t find a nut graf, look for a story that has one. By prioritizing the nut graf we can cover more territory, faster, and then invest time saved in reading more fully stories that spark our deeper curiosity.

Triangulate: We’ve all noticed that different publications define news differently, and so comparing coverage of the same event in more than one outlet diversifies our perspective. Yes, we’ll run into ideas that challenge our beliefs, sometimes uncomfortably. But as good reporters know, when all your news sources tell you the same thing, your story may be a dutiful gem but it’s also likely to be dead on arrival; it’s the live contradictions between and among accounts that force us to suspend judgment until we’ve considered the questions they pose.

Fight boredom with context: When a news story bores me, it’s usually a sign I don’t know enough about the topic at hand. When I force myself to read an “important” story in which I have absolutely no interest, however, something borderline miraculous can happen. As curiosity replaces willful ignorance, I find myself getting hooked as I follow the story through successive news cycles in different outlets to see how things turn out. When I immerse myself in context, the soil out of which news stories grow, I deepen my understanding, often in spite of myself.

Cultivate your garden: Nicholas Carr once famously lamented what the internet’s quick-twitch demands had done to his brain: “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words,” he wrote. “Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.” That’s all the more reason for us to set aside a quiet mental space where we can unplug, “hear ourselves think,” as an earlier generation of Americans used to say, and own our meaning by stitching it together from our various sources. On many days, I’m that guy on the Jet Ski, but that’s okay; I’m still in the water and I can visit the private island in my head tomorrow.

News is a force of nature; treat it with humility: Most things I find worth trying to understand tend to sit in my consciousness iceberg-like, much of the meaning hidden below the waterline. As Madame Laoutaro, a character in a Robertson Davies’ novel The Rebel Angels says: “Every big thing is a secret, even when you know it, because you can never know all of it.” What better incentive for using the news to crack the everyday conundrums of our world?

Give politics a breather: Theologian Russell Moore reminds us “we have put more weight upon [our] political identities than they can bear.” The result is “a soft of vacuum in American life … of meaning and of connection.” It’s no longer a question of how we solve our disagreements, says Moore, “but who’s stupid and evil and who’s not. And that really just completely cuts off the conversation.” Hard to solve problems that way; hard to see the forest for the trees.

Luckily, we all have within us the power to see the news not as a zero-sum search for one true source that will shed perfect light (spoiler alert: it doesn’t exist), but as a set of garden tools that help us unearth the truth, however incrementally, and come closer to getting a feel for our world as it really is.

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