Can you be a good person if you don’t read the news?

Ethics in news consumption.

Can you be a good person if you don’t read the news?

Ethics in news consumption.

Until recently, my religion had always been that of information. The most important thing was knowledge. Knowing about things. Having all the facts. Bearing witness and then communicating what was witnessed. I liked to wake up at 5 a.m. and read the wires. I liked reading books about past catastrophes so I could predict, somehow, if they were poised to repeat. I valued being knowledgeable about what was going on. I felt being informed made me a better person.

But more and more I am questioning the news cycle and my relationship to it. There is so much news, and almost none of it is important, but you would not know that from a visit to social media, the grotesque excuse for a piazza where we are supposed to connect with people who are yelling at us, or any of the 24-hour websites that provide us with an overwhelming deluge of inanity. The news cycle — something that was once perhaps part of someone’s morning routine or nightly commute — has become an ugly, corrosive, all-encompassing force, not because more things are happening but because of how technology has expedited the pace of news. But more than that, the way in which knowing so much and all the time has taken on a kind of moral obligation — democracy dies in the darkness that YOU create by not subscribing to The Washington Post — is not only enervating and misery-inducing, but completely unsustainable.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to keep going is to step back. News outlets are not going to stop covering idiotic things because they must do so in order to survive, or so they’ve convinced themselves, so the burden of sanity lies with the consumer. But… does this make me a bad person? Callous? Uncaring? A silent bystander of America’s decay into a fully white-supremacist nation? Moreover, is there any way to be an ethical news consumer and still be a mentally functioning person? Are there even any truly ethical news sources? Do I have any answers? Will you have to read the rest of this essay to find out? Yes :).

There are many rules and guidelines for how to do journalism, but few when it comes to consuming it. News consumption then becomes an activity tinged with morality and emotion — those who consume news (and only the right news) are good, those who don’t are bad, and those who express their feelings about the news in a public forum such as Twitter or the grocery-store line are closer to the heartbeat of society. It also becomes a measure of class; to subscribe to news sites and to have the time to read and react to the news are luxuries typically afforded to those less affected by it.

Since Trump was elected, it’s become fashionable to hold up the Holocaust as an extreme example of what can happen when a populace isn’t “paying attention” to the news or “asking the right questions” of it, leading us to the erroneous conclusion that a mass genocide is a possible result of citizen ignorance, intellectual laziness, and lack of empathy instead of things like widespread famine and and a government unified in its desire to commit mass murder. Unfortunately, the helplessness we may feel as individual news consumers subjected to a torrent of terrible bits of news typically expresses itself in an unproductive spiral that is both mentally damaging to the spiraler and those watching him.

As such, I have come to believe that an essential form of self-care is consuming as little national news as possible, and I will argue that this is an ethical choice.

Now, self-care has become a very trendy concept. With roots in radical black and feminist circles, it has become a catchall for the things one does to escape from the terror of everyday life, that terror being a very wide spectrum encompassing everything from the musings of Andrew Sullivan to the emotional toll that reading about sexual assault in the news each day might have on a sexual-assault victim.

The general idea that Joe Citizen can and must do something about a horror that is being perpetrated beyond his control — and can be successful in halting that horror — is not just psychically harmful but logically backward. It makes sense only in the context of a society that values individual contributions (GoFundMes) over government support (universal health care). Even the idea that journalists can stanch injustice is highly problematic (please see an article I wrote about this when I was much younger but still mostly correct).

In order to buffer my opinion with academic bonafides I talked to some professional ethicists and ethics-adjacent professionals. The first was Meira Levinson, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the co-director of the Graduate Fellowship Program at Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. “Everybody has a finite amount of cognitive and emotional capacity,” she told me. “And if we spend it on things like ‘Horseface’ instead of climate change … that’s actually an unethical use of our cognitive and emotional capacity.”

Brookes Brown, an assistant professor of philosophy at Clemson University, echoed Levinson. “So say for example the president sends out yet another crazy tweet, or Melania wears a jacket that says ‘I hate everyone’ — that is the kind of thing that can be covered in the news that tells us about the moral character of the president and first lady,” she said. But since Melania’s jacket, while dumb and ugly, is not a “morally significant thing happening to another person,” it is not news necessarily deserving of citizen attention.

So what is our moral responsibility when it comes to news consumption, if we have a pass to ignore Horseface and Melania’s jacket? Amy Berg, an assistant professor of philosophy at Rhode Island College, said that one has duty to read the news “because of other people.” “When people are suffering or dying or doing worse than they should be, we have to pay attention to that,” she said. However, one must determine which types of news will help them accomplish important moral goals and which types can be avoided. And because important moral goals are most likely to be accomplished locally, this really puts us in a bind — with the dearth of local news outlets doing original reporting, there are fewer ways to be informed about the things on which we might actually have an impact.

An interlude. Earlier this year I witnessed the aftermath of a terrible car accident in my neighborhood that I only saw because I happened to step out of my house to get a cup of coffee. The street was covered in blood and brain matter; a woman nearby wailed that children had been killed by a hit-and-run driver.

My immediate urge — the bearing-witness urge, so to speak — was to document it, so I tweeted a few pictures of the scene and what I thought had happened, according to bystanders who were there. Soon my tweets began to spread. My replies became a nightmare in which strangers had hostile arguments about the merits of Vision Zero and others pleaded with me for more information. When it turned out that a woman hurt in the accident was a well-known Broadway actress, I got messages from news outlets from around the world asking if they could use the photos I took.

This was nothing more than the mercenary spread of information. When you work in news long enough, you become inured to asking someone if you can use their photo of a site where someone died for free. And maybe in the past I would have argued that of course the information I disseminated that day should have been widely available to media organizations, and that it is the strange beauty of information that one completely loses control of it the minute they send it out into the universe, but that day I mostly felt sick that I had contributed to publicizing the absolute worst moment of the survivors’ lives. I felt sick that my tweets had spurred discussions that were tasteless, heartless, and completely missing the point, that this information was almost immediately being twisted for political gain.

I deleted the tweets. Not too long after I ceded control of my Twitter account to a friend, who is the only one who knows the password to it. Now if I want to tweet something I have to ask her to do it. I have not once missed looking at a timeline, or felt that I was less of a citizen or a journalist for not having tweeted about something.

When I decided to write this piece a few days ago, I emailed my friend Paul, who has a very strong moral compass and is also very funny, a combination that basically never happens. I asked him if he thought we had an ethical obligation to read the news. With his permission, I am quoting his reply here at length.

Journalists like to think they’re feeding global ethical discussions but I think that’s self-congratulatory very often. “News” exists within a framework of short time spans and fast reactions. In a lot of ways it’s self-consciously non-ethical, which it dresses up as “objectivity” and that whole issue is larger than this email but ultimately if journalism is the first draft of history, then journalism is also like the post-it notes pre-brainstorming version of philosophy.

Ethics is in it for the long haul. An ethical principle today (“all humans deserve respect”) SHOULD be valid as long as there are humans left on earth (three to five weeks). That’s the goal. That’s not the goal of the news.

I have an actual subscription [meaning a recurring donation each month] to Planned Parenthood, so that I don’t forget how important reproductive health is to me. Then when something bad happens in the news I remind myself that I am operating ethically and steadily. My framework around abortion is well-informed and has not changed in 25 years. This is also true of my sister-in-law who is Catholic and intensely opposed to abortion. She is a nurse who volunteers with ill and abandoned children.

The news doesn’t really enable those sorts of ethical decisions. It presents arguments and facts and guidelines. If the news allows me to make ethical distinctions that I couldn’t previously make, and those are relevant to living a moral life today, then sure. No one wants that in the paper though. They want drama, fighting, large breasts above the fold, terrible presidential gaffes, racial violence, gun violence, and threats. Then they want to know how to succeed. But none of that has much to do with ethics. If we wanted to minimize human suffering we’d behave pretty differently, at least most of us would need to.

For due diligence, I also emailed a slightly different version of the question to my friend Alex. “Do you think we have a moral obligation to read the newspaper?” I wrote. He replied: “I think there’s a newspaper we have an obligation to read but it’s not any of the ones currently on offer.”

I asked each of my interviewees if they thought any news outlets were doing a better job than others catering to ethical consumption. Paul said Vox, with which I disagree, and Wikipedia, with which I agree. Amy Berg said ProPublica. Alex, obviously, said nothing.

The good news, I think, is that self-care in ethical media consumption works in concert with the public good. If one is able to distill their media diet to consist of information that is of actual societal import, like the suffering of those we can or should be helping and the local efforts on which we can have a direct impact, perhaps one will be more inclined to act in response to that information in a constructive way. But that moral challenge is much more difficult to live up to.

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Leah Finnegan is the Features Director at The Outline.