Down the rabbit hole: redeeming the news, part 2

Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland

In the last post, I noted how I’ve been falling into the rabbit hole of online news. To switch metaphors, it is like a bug-zapper. Something about it keeps drawing me in, even though I know that getting too close can be perilous. The endless stream of novel stories just waiting to be read beckons me on. How shall we be sensible and faithful in engaging with the world of digital news (or TV news, for that matter)?

Fitting the rabbit hole into life

Orienting principle: there is nothing wrong with reading the news. There can be great benefit in it. But if you find yourself in a place like me where turning to the news becomes a burden, a time-sucking draw, it may be time to climb a little out of the rabbit hole. Here are a couple things to consider for engaging with the news in a faithful way.

The limits of your time

It should go without saying, but needs to be said anyways, that our time is limited. Whether that be my time at work while preparing sermons and prepping other things for church, or our time with our families, or your time doing whatever it is you like to do. We all have limits.

An ever-present threat from online news, or TV news (or any sort of online activity) is that there is no end. There is no natural disengagement point. Movies end. Games end. But you never reach an end with online news, so you never need to stop.

Since the news never runs out, we must be careful of what amounts of time we allow ourselves to spend in engaging with it. Ask yourself how much time you can beneficially spend perusing news stories, then set some way to enforce that time limit.

I'm trying out a browser extension (LeechBlock) on my computer at work to limit the amount of time on different news sites the 10 minutes per every two hours. That's enough time to browse through, find some worthwhile stories, and get back to work.

The goal is to make engaging with the news a part of a broader strategy of preparing for ministry each week, rather than a way to escape from preparing.

It’s worthwhile for all of us to consider the limits of our time and how we engage with the news and other digital media.

Consider the limits of your circle of care

The global scope of online news makes it easy to forget that we have limited circles of care. What is a circle of care? There are only so many people, so many groups, and so many institutions which we can be involved in and meaningfully care about. There are only so many topics about which we can even be marginally informed, and a very tiny amount that we can be an expert on. It should be humbling to consider the vast number of topics about which each of us knows absolutely nothing.

The news provides a smorgasbord of information that far exceeds any individual’s circle of care.

It’s easy to think that my circle of care is far bigger than it really is. But at some point, you have to wonder how much should I really care about the pink dolphins in the Amazon river and how the global environmental situation affects them? While my heart goes out to people protesting in Iran over the recent death of Mahsa Amini, how much do I really care? Better yet, how much time and effort should I spend in caring about it? How relevant is it to my life and the lives of people I live with?

There are no easy answers to this question, but it is a question that we need to ask ourselves periodically.

A practical way to deal with the limits of your circle of care is to come up with a few areas of the news you want to be informed on. Then go find websites which address those areas. Avoid news aggregating sites; they will always bring you things outside of your circle of care. You’ll never hit the bottom of the rabbit hole you’re falling down.

Some news sources I frequent: WIRED, Christianity Today, and Spiegel (a major German news outlet)

The limits of your mental/emotional care

Related, it is important to consider the limits of our mental and/or emotional care. We all have a finite amount of love, concern, and care that we can give. There are more things in the world to care about (and that are worthy of caring about) than we can possibly care about in any meaningful way. Where we use up our care impacts every part of life.

If I have 10 units of emotional care that I can give in a day, and I spend five of them reading different news stories that have very little direct impact on my life, what effect might that have on the people who I go home to live with after work? I have to wonder, how much of my emotional and mental capacity am I spending trying to find and understand crises here there and everywhere around the world, and what sort of state is this leaving me in for when I go home and one of my children is having actual crisis that requires my mental and emotional attention?

Too much attention to the news can burn up our capacity to care for the people in our lives.

You are only human

In summing up these considerations, the main point is that I need to take a little time and remember that I am only human. And I mean that in the best possible sense that one can mean it. Being only human is not a bad thing; It is a glorious thing. But if we try to live as demigods, while only having the capacities of a human, we end up short-serving everyone we really live with.

One of the fascinating and wonderful things about being only human is that our abilities are well-suited for caring for and helping people who are connected to where we actually live in life. There are good and appropriate ways we can learn about and be concerned about things happening on the other side of the world. But the chief measure of loving your neighbor is not how much care you have for people on the other side of the world, but how much care you have for people on the other side of the street.

Pulling out of the rabbit hole

Over the course of this week, I’ve been doing some thinking and planning to engage with the online news in a more limited and focused way. I doubt I have the answer, but I want to engage in a searching for better practices in how to use online news in life and ministry. The rabbit hole is there, it is bottomless, and it has an endless draw for those who look to peek their head into it. I’m working on doing better at standing on my own two feet and not falling in.

Down the Rabbit Hole: redeeming the news, part 1

Alice falling down the rabbit hole into wonderland

The news cycle is shorter than ever. That is commonly accepted wisdom (though it is debatable whether there is anything more worthwhile to say in the endlessly shortening news cycle or not). One easily gets the impression that the news is a track of sad music on endless repeat. Recently, I am reminded that the news is an endless rabbit hole that you can fall into and never come back out from.

The news

I used to not really watch the news. In addition to occasional online browsing, I would catch a few minutes of NPR here and there while driving the kids somewhere or commuting back and forth between my house and school.

But recently, I’ve felt myself falling down the rabbit hole of online news.

Online news

Since starting into pastoral ministry in January, I have tried to be more aware of what’s going on in the world. The stuff in the world and community weighs upon the lives of the people who live in the community, so it makes sense to engage with the news. But there is also a danger, which is what I have been noticing recently.

I have started to fall down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole

In the last couple weeks, I find myself with a nagging urge to go check the news. Have a couple minutes? Pull up the news tab. Need a break from thinking about the sermon? Go scan the news. And so forth. After finishing a chunk of work, rather than taking a couple minutes to stand up, walk around, and stretch, I find myself browsing news headlines.

Note, browsing headlines is not a very good way to engage with the news to begin with.

Since the headlines change by the minute—even when very little of substance changes that quickly—there is always something new to look at, read, be interested in. Sometimes there are stories that are worth reading. Sometimes there are stories which promise a juicy tidbit. For someone who has not watched an NFL game in I’m not sure how many years now, so far this season I’ve seen all sorts of headlines about Tom Brady’s life both on and off the field.

How does the rabbit hole draw us in?

The pull

I suspect the draw to go and check the news is much like the well-known and studied way that social media apps work. In short, social media platforms use algorithms. All that means is that they use complex mathematical rules describing how data relates to each other.

Check out here for a brief explanation of how algorithms work on various social media platforms.

Combining these rules, and the scads of information the social media company has about you, its user, results in you receiving a continuous stream of content directed your way that you should like to look at.

 “Like” simply means content that the social media company believes you will take the time to look at, not whether you will find it pleasant, happy, or uplifting.

This all works on a pretty simple premise: our brains crave novelty. Said differently, we notice new things and tune out things that aren’t changing. Just think of the last time you walked into your favorite restaurant. When you first step in the wall of aromas envelopes you. Your nose is going wild as you soak up the delicious scents.

Within a couple minutes, you don’t even notice the smells anymore. But if you got up and walked into another restaurant, your nose would go crazy again. Why is this? Our brains prioritize paying attention to things that are new and changing, not to things that are staying the same. New stimuli—smells, sounds, images, touches—get high priority, but if the stimuli don’t change, in a short time they get downgraded and we no longer pay conscious attention.

Back to the digital world of social media and news. Online companies face one simple problem: the main way they make money is by selling adds, not by charging their users. In the online economy, you are the product. More pointedly, your attention is the product being sold by the tech company to an advertiser. It is in the tech company’s financial interest to keep you browsing as much as possible and coming back as often as possible.

The novelty-seeking brain is key. I want novel content. The news sites give endless novel content. Constantly changing headlines. The endless promise of something good.

Is falling into the rabbit hole good?

The dilemma

I‘ve been noticing that this increased intake of online news is complicated. On the one hand, I know much more about “what is going on in the world” than I have for quite some time. On the other hand, I’m not really sure that is a good thing. And I am not alone on this hunch.

It turns out, many studies note that watching the news can be deleterious to your health. Beyond the very real possibility that my stress (and yours, too) is heightened by watching the news, I wonder how all this casual news consumption relates to my ability to live well with the people I live with.

Staying out of the rabbit hole

In the next post, I reflect on some different things I am trying in order to put better boundaries around the news in my life. After all, as neat as it is to know things about what is going on all over the world, loving my neighbor as myself certainly should begin with my actual neighbors, not my digital ones.