How to Watch Breaking News

Advice from a (Former) Television Director

Back in my 20s I worked at the FOX station in Kansas City. Glamorous job of getting up early and helping to feed a major metropolitan area their fill of weather, traffic and morning news.

We had our share of “Breaking News” moments in those days: usually the more mundane water main breaks or apartment building fires. These were the salad days of pre-9/11 when the most wild thing that happened to Americans was a low-speed L.A. interstate chase, followed by the even more arduous “if-it-doesn’t-fit-you-must-acquit” OJ trial.

It should have been a dream job. I worked with lots of young people, my friends. It was prestigious and if I stayed on track and stayed ambitious, I could have gone on to work in news or sports at CNN, ESPN, NBC, or who knows where.

And I have friends who went on to do that. I am proud of their accomplishments and know how hard they worked to get where they are.

I didn’t. I absolutely despised the job. I left after a couple years.

Here’s why:

Turn off the TV and tune in.The news of Boston is not our news. It’s a fallacy. I am not speaking about the sloppiness of 24-hour TV news coverage in this case (or many others).

I am talking about the impact of the coverage of these events on our psyches.

The way news anchors talk to us: it is personal. They look into your eyes. They use pictures and words that frighten us and seem to belong only to ourselves.

But that feeling of personal-ness is a lie. What is personal is happening right now, this moment, in your immediate life.

This is why I left TV news. Because the fire across town wasn’t my fire. The accident on I-35 didn’t have any meaning to me.

It wasn’t my tragedy. And I realized with growing anxiety that most news media producers, editors, and news directors had no idea how to filter that information appropriately: they didn’t know how (or feel it was necessary) to tell the story differently to the people who were nearby, rather than to those who were faraway and completely distant and out of control.

Learning the bad and horrible news of a faraway place in such immediate and grisly detail changes us. It stops us in the middle of our own days and slaps us with horror: “Look at this. This is a possibility for you!” — even if the event has no context to our own lives.

It creates the fear that has stopped us from sending our children outside to play.

By and large, the event in Boston has almost no impact on the majority of Americans. Most of us did not know anyone injured in the blast. We do not know either of the bombers. We may not even know a single person living in the Boston area. We have no way of controlling whether this can and will happen again, closer to home.

All we can do is be afraid, anxious, and unhappy.

If we choose to turn away, what could we do instead? Give our attention to our own friends and families, our own communities right in front of us. To the things that really DO need our attention.

Small (yes this is very small) events like this get BLOWN UP and out of proportion on our TVs and computer screens — in every version of itself, from video, to articles, to photos, to banners on  Yankee stadium. When that happens, they become another injurious nail firing from the pressure cooker.

Remember when we said, after 9-11, that we wouldn’t let it change us? That we wouldn’t let the terrorists win, or take away our freedoms?

Well, we all know that they did. We now live in a completely terror-obsessed society, in which the media — and the NEW media, ourselves on Facebook and Twitter — spend every second of our day poring over the details of events, sharing photos of suspects, sending condolences, stating our private prayers in public.

We are that frightened child going into a dark room, banging and making loud noises, to make sure all the imaginary monsters have gone away.

Having worked for many years in a business of feeding you sensationalized bad news in order to up our ratings, I have some advice to share. Here it is:

Shut up. Just be quiet. Try it, really. Sit still and look out the window. Feel free to observe the news if you need to, but stop talking about.

After all, that’s the advice we give to mothers, right? If a child falls and cries out, we tell a mother “don’t react.” The mother looks at the child in a heap underneath the monkey bars and she holds all her terrors inside, still and smiling but watchful. It’s the hardest choice but it is necessary. Because there is child, watching.

No reaction and up the child jumps, and off to something else.

Let’s stop reacting. With each reaction — from the media, from Twitter, from our ridiculous wasted time on Facebook — we heighten the power of those violent people who started out very small. We make them big with our noises.

So be quiet. Send your donations anonymously. Say your prayers in private. If prayers can be heard, they are heard without your shouting them onto Twitter.

And meanwhile, turn off the TV and RSS feed.

Have a good look out the window. It’s spring; the first robin has visited, your friends love you, the buds on the trees are ready to burst, and all the death of winter is behind us.

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