THIS Lent, is it time to go beyond giving up chocolate, alcohol, biscuits, or fast food — and turn our backs on the news? Is this opposed to the Church’s calling to be informed about the world and seeking to make it a better place? Maybe not.
A manifesto for a “happier, calmer, and wiser life”, published by the Swiss author and businessman Rolf Dobelli, recommends that we should all stop following the headlines.
In Stop Reading the News (Sceptre), Dobelli argues that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body, and prescribes a 30-day plan of “radical abstinence”.
Dobelli argues that the news is irrelevant to our daily lives, wastes time, inhibits thought, produces fake fame, makes us passive, and destroys our peace of mind. The news is short-term, superficial, sensational, and often misses the most important world developments, he argues.
It is also everywhere. In past decades, the news arrived through the letterbox in the morning, and could be accessed in TV and radio bulletins at set times. Now the web, smartphones, and social media give everyone access to the latest news round the clock, and from sources of varying credibility.
“You’ve probably devoured roughly 20,000 news items in the past 12 months — approximately 60 per day at a conservative estimate,” Dobelli writes. “Can you think of a single one that helped you make a better decision about your life, your family, your career, your well-being, or your business?”
AS A news junkie, I found Dobelli’s book challenging. It made me think about my career in corporate communications, and the relationship between the news media and the way in which we worship and pray.
Working in the private sector and for the Church, I lived by the news: examining each day’s headlines; looking out for stories and issues to which we might need to respond; identifying spokespeople and connecting them with interested journalists.
Increasingly, as the web has made news a commodity — mostly freely available — there has been a significant move to opinion-led coverage. The “voice” or stance of the media source, writer, or broadcaster becomes its distinctive feature. The more strident or partisan the view, the more likely it is to gain views or click-throughs. Gentler and more reasoned voices find it hard to get a hearing.
The rise of social media has led to communications professionals having to respond to thousands of “commentators” rather than professional journalists, who in effect acted as gatekeepers. This might have added to a “democratisation” of the news, but it has also led to a drop in credibility and the rise of “fake news”.
What of the relationship between the Church and the news agenda? A bishop summed up the “message” of the news to me in a sentence: “It’s not safe out there — you don’t want to go out.” In that description, he summarised much of the news media’s output: stories about crime, natural disasters, war, terrorism, and global epidemics.
Some members of the clergy say that they always check the news before leading worship. It is important, they say, that they know what issues might be on the minds of their congregation, particularly if this could affect their worship.
In many churches, the intercessions are framed by the news agenda. The person leading has used that morning’s headlines to dictate the congregation’s prayers.
I DO not agree with all of Dobelli’s manifesto: there is value in knowing the topical trends shaping our world. But there are some ideas that resonate and could form part of a strategy to avoid drowning under a deluge of news.
He emphasises the importance of “going deeper”; so, instead of reading news stories about, say, the conflict in Syria, we seek out long-read articles that examine the issue in depth, read books that deal with the underlying causes, and listen to specialist podcasts rather than news bulletins.
I would add to this researching the less-reported stories, such as the conflict in South Sudan or developing-world concerns that seldom make an impact on the Western news media. New trends in “slow journalism” from sources such as the online news website Tortoise — where “think-ins” with subscribers inform their in-depth coverage — are positive moves to broaden the scope of the news agenda. Readers should also be willing to pay for their news, to safeguard quality journalism.
Dobelli argues that we would have the time to invest in this deeper exploration of the world if we had given up reading and scrolling through endless news stories.
As churches are rooted in communities, it is important, too, that ministers and congregations are aware of local news and developments. This includes supporting local radio and newspapers and community social-media groups, and, maybe, hosting online forums.
Go deep, go slow, go local. Three gentle suggestions to respond to a frantic, news-driven world.
The Revd Peter Crumpler is the SSM Officer for St Albans archdeaconry, and a former Director of Communications at Church House, Westminster.