There’s a Beatles song called, “A Day in the Life.” It begins with the line, “I read the news today, oh boy.” Well, today I didn’t. In fact, I have taken a break from the news for a while now. I guess you could say, I’m doing a news fast for a bit.
Before this, I had been checking my news pages quite a bit. First thing in the morning, I would pick up my phone and check the various headlines. It’s not the best way to begin the day if one is wanting to start out in a positive way. More often than not, I would see various stories that filled me with some anxiety or dread. More violence, more impending catastrophes, and what always seemed the main event, politics, with the threat to all democracy.
The morning highlights would often consume my thoughts and, many times, impact my attitude. For me, it can be difficult to keep a smile when I begin my day with such doom and gloom. How can one be happy when every headline is telling us to be angry and afraid?
The day wouldn’t go too long without feeling the need to check the news stories again. And then again and again. When the news looks so dire in the morning, one must check in throughout the day to see how things have progressed. Had the political party overtaken democracy? Could the crime that happened there, really happen here? Had the world stopped turning?
News of the world never seemed this devastating when I was younger. It didn’t seem so world-ending even a short while ago. When I look back on stories throughout history, I see that there were some big stories happening. There were violent acts, political fights, and natural disasters. Just looking through events of the 1960s leaves one wondering how we ever survived that decade.
But there have been other decades that have had plenty of things going on. The early 1900s had the first world war, the ’40s had the second. Throughout history, political leaders have been assassinated, severe weather has decimated communities, and freedom has been both taken away and taken advantage of. Jumble some of these stories together, and one would have difficulty knowing what generation they came from. Remove the dates, and one may have trouble discerning between past and current events.
Regardless of what time one lived, there was enough going on in the world to make the headlines. There was enough turmoil to question often, how humanity made it through. But they did.
And yet, things seem different today. So many people seem convinced we will not make it through this period. A Recent Pew study shows, in the United States, 39% of adults say they believe “we are living in the end times.” The percentage seems high. What makes this time seem so much more shattering than times before? During WWII, there seemed to be a momentum of positivity. People were willing to sacrifice a lot for the “war effort,” and most Americans felt the US and Allied forces would be victorious. Less were thinking it was the end of times.
WWII was devastating in so many ways and there are devastating things happening today. But why do more and more people think things are so much worse today than they were then? Why do a growing number of people think we can no longer survive?
I do have a thought.
While terrible things have happened throughout history, we were never able to have it consume our lives like we do now. In even the recent past, most would get their news in periodic occurrences. There would be the morning paper. One would look things over, and then there would be a break before the next news update. For most, it would be the evening paper or the nightly news.
We took our news in smaller increments. For the most part, bureaus and networks only had a typed column or a thirty-minute broadcast to give the facts for each news item of the day. There were few opportunities to give opinions or projections.
But today, much news is less about facts and more about profit. Executives know the more you tune in for the news, the more money they can make. And now technology has allowed them to reach you whenever and wherever you are. They do not want you to have your news in increments. They want you to feel the need to click their channels and sites as often as they can throughout the day and night. They want you to think you cannot miss a moment without checking in with them.
I remember, in the 1970’s there was an advertising campaign for the upcoming Superman movie, starring a young Christopher Reeve. Believe it or not, executives were a bit nervous as to whether they could get people to pay to see a movie about a man in tights. But the publicity department came up with a phrase that people could not resist. “You’ll believe a man can fly!”
They put it on all the ads and posters. The goal was to make people so enticed and curious; they would have to see the movie. And it worked. The movie was a hit.
Back then, it was called a “tag line” or “slogan” or “catchphrase.” Advertisers have used them since the first days someone had something to sell. Today, much of it is called “clickbait.” A word or phrase that makes clicking on their link or channel irresistible. And companies selling news have mastered it.
In the late 90’s I worked as a producer for one of the local news stations. In addition to producing the news broadcasts, I also wrote many stories, and I wrote most of, what we called, “teasers.” These were the things coming up that we wanted viewers to stay tuned in for. It was a quick advertisement to keep people from turning the channel during the commercial break. The trick was to say just enough to get one curious, so they felt they had to keep watching.
Often it would begin with a question like, “Are your children’s playgrounds safe? Find out when we return!” Or “Violent gangs are on the rise in Florida; will they make their way here? We’ll let you know, after the break.” How could you turn away without hearing more?
It was around this time that the 24-hour news stations were starting to grow. It was also the time one would hear the phrases, “Breaking News!” and “This just in!” nearly every hour. What used to be a phrase only uttered when something immediate and disastrous happened, was now being heard when a politician was having an ice cream cone, or the band Hansen was announcing a new US tour. The new idea was to make every story seem extra large and important. The news was now 24 hours, and you could not afford to miss one minute of it.
This was also the time that panels were taking over. Instead of giving you just a news story, news stations would now inform you on how you should feel about the story. What should I think about the politician having ice cream? Does it matter what flavor it was? How fast did it take them to get to the cone? Before one could even ponder such matters, there would be a panel of people, telling you what it all means.
And it wasn’t long before news agencies realized they could keep you viewing even longer if they said things, you wanted them to say. A quick look at the ratings results would give stations an idea as to who their audience was. Were they older? Younger? Democrat? Republican? When they found they could increase the ratings by leaning more toward a specific demography, they knew they could increase viewership and most importantly, revenue.
And now the programming, stories, and teasers are easy. Just talk badly about the people on the opposite side of your viewers. It was working for late-night AM Radio talk shows, why wouldn’t it work for the News? Just give them a story on why the other side is bad and follow it with a panel of people talking about why the other side is bad, then repeat the formula for 24 hours.
And now, your news is like a sport. During the game, we want our team cheered while the other team gets trashed. But in this case, we don’t want the game to end. If it ends, people turn the channel. We must convince them that the game is ongoing and every play, every minute, matters.
It didn’t take long before more executives wanted to make money and more news stations began to arrive. Soon there was quite a competitive field of news and advertisers had to think of better ways to get people to tune in and click. Actually, they just ramped up, what had been working before. Don’t just make people feel they cannot miss out. Make them afraid to miss out. More of that, “Are the gangs coming here?” stuff.
If one can make people think that their very lives depended on tuning into the news, listening to the panels, and following whatever is said, the profits will just grow and grow. And time has shown, they have and have.
The clickbait has now turned to fear bait. Now with every breaking story, we are told the world is spiraling to the abyss and all will be lost. We’re told who our villains are and that we should fear and fight anyone that disagrees with us. The opposing side is going to kill everything you hold dear! All will soon be lost! But wait! There is one solution! One way back to bliss! What is it? Just keep tuning in to this station to find out. And now, we are not only afraid of everything, but we are also making the news our idol. We now follow it more than anything else. We are now addicted.
With so many people pledging allegiance to their news stations, it’s no wonder there is so much negativity and pessimism. When we look at the doom and gloom all day, how can we even find the energy to seek out signs of hope?
That’s why I’ve taken a break. I no longer check the headlines in the morning or throughout the day. It’s been a while since I have clicked on any news channel or site. And there have been things I have noticed.
The first one is, if something really big has happened, I still find out about it. Either someone tells me about something, or it finds a way to show up on a random Google page or I stumble on it some other way. It’s nearly impossible to be uninformed on important things, even when giving up the news clicks. But the good part is, I learn what I need to without drowning myself in it.
The second thing I’ve noticed is how much of the news, isn’t of dire importance. There are newsworthy things happening in our world, but not everything covered by the news is newsworthy. Why does it matter if the politician has an ice cream cone?
I also do not need a panel to tell me what and who I should fear and how I should think about people and things. Throughout my life I have shared community with people that do not always agree with me. I have great friendships with people of differing opinions. The person on another side of a debate is not my villain. They are quite often my friend.
I am also reminded of the many wonderful things happening in our world right now. So many people are working hard to make this world a better place. Organizations helping people in need. People volunteer their time to help improve their quality of life. People who, regardless of politics, are helping people because they feel called to do so. Instead of focusing on the negative, people are making a positive impact in this world. And they show no signs of giving up.
Many news stations want us to hate and fear. It helps them sell stuff. But we can feel so much more than that. We can feel happy, joyful, and cheerful. We can feel blessed, faithful, and hopeful. We can even share these feelings with others.
If you find yourself pinned down by the constant news barrage of hate and fear, I pray you will allow yourself the time to take a break and focus on the many beautiful things going on. The big stories of the day are not all negative. In fact, I think you will find that the things that make the biggest impact in life are the opposite.
Jesus did not save us through hatred. And we are not to live our lives that way.
Love is still the big story of the day.
I pray we all spend more of our time with that.
Pastor Trever Rook