I am often so bummed out by the news cycle that I stop following contemporary issues altogether. Even though I feel that this avoidance safeguards my well-being, I also recognize that I quickly become ill-informed about noteworthy events. How do you stay informed without being disillusioned by the world?
The news cycle these days is scary and disheartening and exhausting and it’s quite understandable to feel overwhelmed or to want to avoid it altogether. But, like you said, it’s also vital to stay informed and engaged if you want to make the world a better place. I often find myself struggling with this tension. There are great articles out there for people who are experiencing news overload, or who need advice on dealing with traumatic or gruesome coverage, or who just feel deflated and overwhelmed with what’s happening in the world.
As far as a personal strategy goes, one thing I do that helps me cope with the news is to separate what I’m hearing about on a daily basis from what statistics and research show are general trends. It’s kind of analogous to the difference between the weather and the climate. We can’t track large-scale climate variation simply by looking out our window and assessing the weather. To do that is akin to a Republican ‘disproving’ global warming by bringing a snowball into the Senate. If we want to know what the climate is up to, we have to look at the bigger picture, at large-scale trends over long periods of time. Similarly, when it comes to the news, it’s important to balance-out the heartache and misery of the day-to-day news cycle with the solace that comes from knowing we currently live in the least violent era of human history, that there have been steady declines in war, genocide, terrorism, and homicide. In all cases, ‘the long-term historical trend, though there are ups and downs and wiggles and spikes, is absolutely downward.’ As Steven Pinker writes in his Two-Minute Case for Optimism:
The only way to appreciate that state of the world is to count. How many incidents of violence, or starvation, or disease are there as a proportion of the number of people in the world? And the only way to know whether things are getting better or worse is to compare those numbers at different times: over the centuries and decades, do the trend lines go up or down?
As it happens, the numbers tell a surprisingly happy story. Violent crime has fallen by half since 1992, and fifty-fold since the Middle Ages. Over the past 60 years the number of wars and number of people killed in wars have plummeted. Worldwide, fewer babies die, more children go to school, more people live in democracies, more can afford simple luxuries, fewer get sick, and more live to old age.
Knowing that, on the largest of scales, there’s some reason for hope and brightness allows me to take in the horror of the day-to-day, to stay informed and motivated to work for change and progress, while also maintaining a healthy perspective. This is not easy, of course, and sometimes it does a whole lotta nothin’ to counteract my despair at the suffering in the world—but that’s okay too. Much of the world is shitty, but much of it is beautiful and lovely and worth fighting for. To quote Pinker once again,
Too many people still live in misery and die prematurely, and new challenges, such as climate change, confront us. But measuring the progress we’ve made in the past emboldens us to strive for more in the future. Problems that look hopeless may not be; human ingenuity can chip away at them. We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.