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Avoiding the Backdraft of Breaking News

In the onslaught of upsetting news this week I’m discovering things about how I’m managing my relationship with current events overall.

In gaining most of my news from social media first, I’ve become dually removed and immersed in curated current events. Instead of relying on reporting, I’m immersed in fast-cycling breaking news and in commentary about news topics that is one- or two-steps removed. I don’t think I’m alone in this, it’s been the trend for awhile now.

In some ways this is good. Citizens are deeply engaged with participatory journalism. In other ways it’s not, or at least my own version of this dynamic is not. If we aren’t careful, we can become insulated from news that isn’t big enough (or the “right” kind of story) to break through our bubble.

One really interesting side effect of the massive volume of information we consume every day has been that we our brains are capable of managing the onslaught from multiple platforms for sustained period of time. In fact, we have hearty appetites for gargantuan snake meals of media.

Good and bad. When there is breaking news, we become hyper-focused. We only want news about the manhunt, let’s say. But how much news is there to be had? We want it faster than real time because we can process more information than one real-time experience. The disparity between our need for media and the real, available news at that moment pushes the news cycle in weird ways and it creates discord in our brains.

It’s a classic backdraft. The hunger for hot news hits a void of information, causing an explosion.

Our poor brains are wired to learn slowly, around cave campfires, not in the midst of backdraft explosions.

Here’s what often happens to me:

1. When some big story catches fire in my social media streams I get hooked in. My limbic system has a hard time not feeling as though I’m in a real-time experience, and I feel dually amped and focused. The news doesn’t move fast enough for my hunger, though, and I end up clicking on things like a citizen journalist’s personal videos of the Texas explosion which don’t really inform me but certainly upset me.

2. I continue to seek out more information from sources I don’t normally consult, all the while having the oxygen sucked out of me.

3. Hanging out on diverse news channels while hungry for more news about the crisis, I hit the backdraft. I inevitably find that I’ve fallen behind in other news, horrible news from parts of the world where stories haven’t ranked “breaking news” status, or quiet news about alarming governmental issues that haven’t warranted a think piece within my curated bubble, or simply different viewpoints.

4. Now in this amped “this is happening in real time to me” state of mind, I click and click and click, becoming overwhelmed.

I’m not sure what to do about it.

Real backdrafts are avoided when there is ventilation and by being wary of opening a door or window to closed spaces where fire has depleted the oxygen. I think I have to learn to do the same during rapid-fire news cycles: keep the air moving, take care when opening new doors when I’m in that amped state.

Everything is changing in the way we experience the news. We have so much to figure out. I want to be informed and empathic, not reactive and haphazard. I want to be engaged by not overwhelmed. I want to avoid the backdraft of breaking news. But how? Any ideas on what works for you would be greatly appreciated.

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