Media consumption fraught in era of instant information

On the afternoon of Feb. 14, a 19-year-old former student of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, shocked the nation by massacring 17 students and staff members, which was the largest death toll in a mass shooting since 2012. Most of us first learned about it through breaking news notifications on our phones or by stumbling across an article on social media. For some unlucky ones, it was a phone call or a text from a loved one involved or close to one of the victims.  For many, it was a horrific tragedy that we read about and then closed the browser or put away as if nothing had happened, and continued about our day.

As per usual, calls for action echoed from both sides of the aisle, citing diverse causes and solutions to an all-too-familiar cycle of violence within the United States. While the communities who have been directly affected by this and other such acts of terror are and should always be at the heart of our deliberation, it is worth considering how the increasing frequency and magnitude of such events have affected those of us more removed from the immediate tragedy.

A year of Donald Trump’s presidency has laid bare how divided our country truly is, and we see this in our everyday lives, in our institutions of government and in the American media. In the era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” most critical consumers of media cull their information from a bloated and establishment-friendly news industry that continues to be polluted by partisanship and sensationalism. Although there is substantial reason to believe that millennials are indeed more informed and engaged than older generations generally care to acknowledge, for many of us, the toxic mixture of existential tragedy and the never-ending news cycle of appalling but preventable events like these has proven exhausting (PBS, “Millennials are more informed than you think,” 09.25.2015). For many more still, it has had a noticeably chilling effect on our engagement with current events.

It is difficult to criticize those individuals who have chosen to disengage, too, for who can blame them for feeling overwhelmed and disillusioned by the news as it is commonly consumed today? The dawn of the smartphone has made information widely accessible. There is no longer any excuse to not be informed when the news is right at your fingertips. This, in turn, creates immense pressure to stay informed. As the world changes in the blink of an eye, we push ourselves to keep up with it. To the extent that many millennials have the time and energy to stay informed about national issues, we take in news largely in the form of electronic headlines and instant updates. Yet these tidbits, while often important, rarely tell the whole story or try to avoid exaggeration. In fact, in the Trump era, our whole news industry has embraced a revitalized sensationalistic approach, and consumers are left to reconstruct the unfiltered truth on their own, if indeed they can.

Furthermore, our priorities, political leanings and personal beliefs have become the primary means of wading through an ever-advancing and ever more exhausting wave of information. Millennials, for all our foibles, understand how to filter out information we don’t want. Unsurprisingly, we tailor our sources to our specific beliefs and interests. If for whatever reason we do not want updates from Fox News or CNN, we simply choose not to receive their updates, counting ourselves none the poorer. By nature, the broad range of news organizations across the American political and cultural spectrum and how we choose to navigate them help to underscore of our individual differences rather than our collective similarities, and this phenomenon contributes to the growing sense of miscommunication and division pervading popular political discourse.

Meanwhile, media outlets increasingly resort to sensationalism in the competition for our attention. Now every headline contains “breaking news,” to the point where the term has adopted a markedly confusing and arbitrary meaning. Almost everyone has been baited by a dazzling and promising headline only to click on it and be disappointed by the content—or lack thereof. Our selective filtering of information has made this competition easier for the media. They can now write headlines that target specific audiences and their interests. This approach to media has made it more difficult for us to discern what is actually important. Too much weight is often given to relatively unimportant topics, which in turn discourages news consumption, for if practically every story is deemed of critical importance, how can we possibly expect to, and be expected to, stay updated?

In some instances, our ability to stay updated and act immediately can save lives.  During the Parkland shooting, victims sent videos, tweets and texts out in real time, alerting the world of the dire situation unfolding before them (WCTV, “Parkland shooting unfolded on social media,” 2.15.2018). In this case, social media became an important tool to alert law enforcement in a safer and more detailed manner than calling 911. Social media has also become a powerful way to immediately mobilize the masses. As students emerged from the shooting angry and frustrated by current gun laws, they immediately took to social media to stage walk-outs and demonstrations. Moreover, there have been many effective social media campaigns, such as #metoo and #notmypresident, demonstrating the power of technological connections on the collective psyche of the Internet generation.

While staying informed and up-to-date is crucial, it is also important to take care of one’s physical and mental health. When the headlines and the bombardment of anxiety-inducing information become too much to handle, the need to take a step back and take a break from the world for a moment is understandable. The news will still be there when you’re ready to come back to it. However, in doing so, it is also important to recognize the intrinsic privilege of being able to step away from these tragedies, and to remain conscious that not everyone can afford to disassociate from current events, or even turn off their phone and go off the grid for a while. Not only are the people involved in the tragedy forced to remain within it, but people who have experienced similar tragedies may be reminded of that as these events transport them back to their own experiences as well.

For most of us, the solution to managing the anxiety in addition to our own well-being is finding a balance, whatever that might be. Nonetheless, as we continue to search for that balance, we must not do so in silence. In an increasingly distant and detached world, it is essential that we remember the benefits of openness and solidarity. Checking in on friends and loved ones can often be the first step toward rebuilding trust between communities, and honest conversation can be remarkably cathartic.

–The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board

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