On the News

In times of apparent crisis, we need less news, not more.

Here is a truth that is incredibly hard to put into practice: the more the world is in apparent crisis, the less benefit you get from the news. In fact, the more you live in a time of apparent crisis, the more you need deep reading — mostly books. Conversely, the more you live in a time of apparent calm, the more you need to be carefully paying attention to “the news.”

I say “apparent” crisis and calm because from a Christian point of view, the world is always in crisis (Greek krisis, “judgment”) — always under God’s judgment and always full of urgent threats to true flourishing. And from a Christian point of view, even in the moments of greatest chaos, we have access to peace that surpasses understanding, such that we never need to live in anxiety or fear.

Nonetheless, we all know that there are moments when the crisis of the world becomes especially clear. It is exactly at these moments — and we certainly are living through such a moment right now — that “the news” is not very helpful, for several reasons.

First and above all, at times like this what we see on “the news” is less truly informative than ever. The infinite scroll will give you one short video after another of people breaking store windows, of various kinds of protest, and various kinds of police response. All these will be selected and edited to capture moments, often extremely brief and isolated, of urgency and, often, violence. Even when such urgency and violence is widespread and representative (though that is often not the case), watching more than one of such videos tells you nothing “new.”

Second, in times of crisis “news” lacks almost all context. Videos, in particular, are shot from a point of view and show a very brief moment of time in a very compressed amount of space. They do not show us what happened before or after the video was taken. They do not show us what was happening outside the frame. In particular, they very rarely give us any information about the video-maker, their history, motives, and actions. At the moment, because of widespread mask wearing, videos may not even give us a clear sense of the emotions and intentions of those portrayed, let alone any clue to their identities and histories.

What we need in moments of general crisis is minimal “news” and maximal context. We need whatever helps us genuinely pray, deeply love, and constructively respond.

Third, violence and violation — the destruction of property, human dignity, and in the worst cases human health and human lives — is especially harmful to watch over and over. Violence by definition violates — and it does not have to be physical to be destructive, since careless words and callous lies can be deeply violating. All violence treats the world, and ultimately persons, as cheap, when in fact the world and everything in it, and above all persons made in God’s image, are of great worth and meant to be treated with the greatest possible reverence. To repeatedly expose ourselves to violence, and above all to mediated depictions of violence to which we are not personally present, is to become party to that cheapening.

There are professions that require repeated exposure to violence and violation — active military service, police, emergency medical technicians, and many kinds of social work, just to name a few. These professions at their best pay extremely close attention to the spiritual and emotional cost of such work and provide support systems for managing it. They also provide a context of purpose for such exposure and pathways to meaningful action in the face of violence, as well as guardrails to human dignity for those involved.

It goes without saying that these professions often are not at their best and often end up bringing out the worst in those who practice them. But it is far worse to routinely expose ourselves, through media, to the degrading of human beings and the world without the training, preparation, and purposefulness that is part of the vocation of first responders and the helping professions.

I am not saying that it is wrong to be informed about what is happening in the world beyond our immediate view, which is what the news can provide. I am saying that we can be informed, in all the ways we need to be, in much less time and with much less damage to our souls than happens when we spend hours a day during a crisis compulsively reloading web pages in search of more “news.”

(If we have reason to be immediately concerned about our own safety, that information is far better obtained from direct conversation and interaction with our real neighbors and hyper-local sources than from what is usually called the news. And even then, what we truly need to know in genuine emergencies can be, and indeed must be, compressed into a very small amount of information, because in a genuine emergency what is needed is just enough information to guide decisive action. If your house is on fire, you do not need five different videos of houses on fire, let alone a looping video of a house on fire. You need one word, “Fire!”, to know that you must act.)

This is also not to say that videos and other reports from the front lines of a crisis do not have value. To the contrary, they can help us put together a more complete picture of a complex world — over time. It is just that their value is almost impossible to realize in the heat of the moment. They will only become truly valuable and useful to us when they are assembled, reflected upon in light of history and subsequent events, and interpreted.

So — what we need in moments of general crisis is minimal “news” and maximal context. We need whatever helps us genuinely pray, deeply love, and constructively respond.

Such context comes from Scripture above all. The Bible does not shrink from telling us the truth about our world, including its violence and violation. But it puts that truth in context of a greater truth. In the morning prayer service that I follow, this morning’s Old Testament reading was from Jeremiah 30. This passage describes acute panic and terror, so acute that men hold their stomachs in pain and grief as if they were women in labor (Jer. 30:5-6). But it also declares God’s promises in the midst of terror and God’s larger purposes in history: “Alas! That day is so great there is none like it; it is a time of distress for Jacob; yet he shall be saved out of it“ (Jer. 30:7).

This kind of truth also comes from books. Any book worth reading, fiction or nonfiction, took skilled persons months or years to produce based on deep reflection on the world. Fiction can show us our human condition, including violence and violation, with far greater redemptive power than any news account, because any fiction worth reading places violence in the context of a full human story. And nonfiction similarly places events of our time in a deeper context — generally speaking, the older the book, the deeper the context. Do you want to understand what is happening in the streets of the United States right now? Books — older ones, like W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and recent ones, like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law or Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns — will give you far more actionable truth than any video or news report.

Some of the most profound help will come from books that do not even seem topical. This week I am reading Haley Goranson Jacob’s brilliant doctoral dissertation, Conformed to the Image of His Son, David W. O. Taylor’s book on the psalms, Open and Unafraid, and Yuval Levin’s book on American institutions, A Time to Build. Each of these has given me wisdom, perspective, hope, and courage that I need to do the work I’ve been given to do in the midst of this crisis.

So, in times of crisis, spend a few minutes a day (which is all you need) learning what is happening so you can pray and act wisely. But mostly, in whatever time you have or can make amidst the demands of your life, read books. Meditate on Scripture. Fast and pray.

And in times of calm, by the way, read the news far more carefully. What are the real patterns and crises under the surface of normal, seemingly trivial times? What are the fault lines unaddressed, the stories left untold? What is really going on when things seem “normal”? Someday — not today, at least not where I am and you are — there will be a day to ask these questions. And then we will be doing the work of “normal” times, which is to discover that the crisis we felt in the moments of acute conflict is in fact the human story at all times.

This day, like every day, is a day of distress. To know that, you need no more news than you can absorb in a few moments. But this day, like every day, is also the day of salvation. And to know that truth, and what it means for us today to act in response, is the real work of our lives.