Disconnecting to connect: Thoughts on the 24-hr news cycle

Tuesday, November 19, 2019 - 1:04pm

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Design by Kate Glad and Casey Tin

We left the farm to begin our weekly climb up the hill to the chapel. The cell reception was better toward the top of the slope, so we often went there before dusk to call family and friends thousands of miles away. The dogs barked ahead of us in excitement as we used the sturdy walking sticks to support our weight. Despite the fading colors and chipped paint on its walls, the church’s green columns and blue structure shined in the setting sun’s gaze.

We entered the shadows under the balcony to catch our breath and shield ourselves from the intense sunlight. I pulled out my phone to call my parents as usual. After updating them with what I had been doing that week, I swiped down to scan through hundreds of push notifications, pausing to glance at the headlines about the Democratic presidential primary and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony. I continued to peruse through weeks of news until an email with the words “Shootings” and “Kashmir” caught my attention. I felt an ache in my chest as I read the evening news briefing from the New York Times.

Two mass shootings had occurred in Dayton and El Paso two days before the Aug. 5 briefing, which I was reading on the ninth — almost a week after the violence had occurred. I didn’t have time to process that information since I also read the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and sent in its forces to occupy the region.

I was silent on the walk back to the farm, distressed by how much had happened without me learning about it. What else did I miss? What other events happened in the world that just slipped right by me?

***

This past summer, I interned with a small, family-run organization in La Bolivarense, a rural sector in northwest Ecuador. We came to document the history of the region since many of the original founders still live there, offering a unique opportunity to foster community engagement. 

Though it was no doubt a rewarding experience to work within a community and to cultivate a greater understanding of its origins, there was a certain irony in my being there. For, while I was in Ecuador, I couldn’t help but lament the sacrifice I had made in losing access to news on global and domestic events.

It should come as no surprise, coming from a student journalist, I’m an avid consumer of news. As a New York Times subscriber, I check the newspaper’s online front page a few times a day. Whenever a big event happens, I read an article about the subject from every news outlet I can, and I watch at least two or three videos of political analysis, too. Following the news has essentially taken up the mantle that television and movies once held. Being caught in the 24-hour news cycle means it’s hard to step back and slow down.

Going to a remote location in Ecuador with essentially no access to the internet meant I would have to put reading news on hold. My discovery at the chapel highlighted the anxiety I experienced from distancing myself from a 24-hour news cycle. I was so accustomed to the rapid consumption and constant access to information that its absence left me a wide-eyed addict desperate for longform profiles and breaking news pieces. 

The absence of news in my life changed my behavior while living with my host family. I repeatedly swiped down to refresh my email, even when I knew I’d be met with a “No connection” message at the bottom of my screen. It was equally frustrating when I did have a connection and email briefings still wouldn’t load properly. I even resorted to crouching in the bathroom and peering at the newspapers written in Spanish along the floor, only to find that they were three years old. I read them anyway.

My hysteria subsided with time, and as I focused on our project, I began to see what kind of life I’d live if national and global news wasn’t always at my fingertips. We woke up at seven every morning to help feed the guinea pigs and chickens on the farm and clean their cages. We walked for hours in direct sunlight to meet with founders from the community. The interviews themselves ranged from 30-minute to hour-long conversations. The work was grueling, yet there was a greater intimacy in the moment-to-moment routine of the days. We were engaged without the opportunity for digital distractions or pings from CNN to hijack our attention. 

While I still talked about news with the other interns and the host family, our conversations were intimate as we weaved personal narratives into our discussions and talked about how natural disasters, politics and significant events impacted our lives. The internship gave me the opportunity to see how reading the news nonstop with the intent of being aware actually made me more distant from issues that mattered to those around me. Our history project was a work of news, yes, but unlike national news, it was, in a sense, a work of community journalism made by and for La Bolivarense. It enhanced connections within the town rather than detracting from them as a national news story might.

When I came back to Chicago in August, I initially regressed back into my constant digestion of domestic and international news. So much continues to happen, and being an informed citizen demands that we engage with journalism. But every now and then, when I get especially busy, I’m able to take a step back from the news cycle and take it in piecemeal through briefings rather than my daily binge reading. I’m more attentive in my own life and in the global news world when I can take it slower. Now, I recognize how some of the greatest “news stories” in my life might appear right in front of me rather than on a front page.