For most people, keeping up with the news over last two and a half years has been the political equivalent of climbing a Stairmaster: It’s exhausting and it never ends. It’s tempting to simply tune out – but given that we are at a crossroads for our democracy, it’s more important than ever that people stay engaged as we approach the 2020 election. As someone who has to follow every twist and turn in the news in order to do my job as a television commentator, I have a few pro tips to help you maintain your mental sanity while doing your civic duty to stay informed:
1. Get the facts
Given the number of different stories to keep track of, as well as the ability for disinformation to go viral in a matter of days or even hours, getting grounded in the facts is essential. This is especially true when the stories involve things that require subject matter or regional expertise, like the impeachment inquiry or the situation in Syria. It’s worth your while to find a good explainer on the subject — an article that does a deep dive by someone who has practical or scholarly knowledge of the topic, and who can translate the landscape into layman’s terms.
When the Ukraine scandal broke, for example, I turned to Just Security, an online publication run by NYU Law School’s Center for National Security, for an explainer on the larger context behind the unfolding drama (full disclosure: I’m on the editorial board). I’m not an expert in Ukraine politics, so the article helped break down the key players and issues involved. Explainers take longer to read (and more focus to digest) than an average news story — but the return on the time spent is that you’ll have solid understanding of the underlying factual context, making it easier for you to follow each smaller, breaking development in the story and to spot disinformation.
2. Don’t mistake opinions for “news”
As a television commentator, I feel a lot of pressure to give a “hot take’ on the latest bombshell news revelations. Hot takes can be great — they can help you interpret the facts, especially if they come from people with knowledge and experience. The problem is that in our social media, “clickbait” environment, your news feed can get filled with more “takes” on the news than actual reporting of the news itself. This can become crazymaking, because not only are some of these analyses completely at odds with each other, in some instances they are presented as though they are facts. Who or what do you believe?
First, reputable news outlets will clearly delineate between news and opinion pieces — if they don’t, that’s a big red flag. (This interactive media bias chart can help you navigate towards outlets that follow best practices). Second, it’s generally better to have a few go-to experts in different areas who provide thoughtful and well-supported analysis and insights on those topics, than to go down every opinion rabbit hole. Once you get a few big-picture takeaways that give you a framework for understanding the issue, save your mental bandwidth (there is always another news dump around the corner!).
3. Avoid rolling news
Today’s 24/7 news coverage ensures that we learn about of breaking developments in the U.S. around the world in real time. The downside to this constant stream of news is that it can become information overload, especially when it becomes a constant fixture in your daily life. Having your social media feed open while you’re at your desk at work or your favorite news channel on in the background while you’re at home has lower marginal returns as time goes on: Past a certain point, your ability to critically evaluate all the content declines and turns your brain into Jell-O.
Pick a few times during the day where you’ll check in and see what’s going on. Maybe it’s your social media on your lunch break or your favorite news show or two in the evening when you get home from work. If something crazy happens in the world, someone you know will tell you — don’t let FOMO with the news get the best of you.
4. Don’t feed the trolls
Social platforms create forums that are both public and anonymous, two ingredients that don’t add up for civil discussion of controversial topics. Here’s the bottom line: No one is going to be “convinced” of an opposing position based on a debate on social media. This is partly because social media doesn’t allow for transmission of social cues like facial expressions, tone of voice and eye contact — all of which are necessary to creating the kind of social trust that makes people open to new ideas.
Online “debates,” then, are just a recipe for high blood pressure, not to mention a time-suck. If someone you know posts a provocative comment you want to respond to — take it offline. And if it’s an anonymous comment, ask yourself if you would bother responding if a stranger made the same comment to your face at, say, a dinner party, and respond with the social media equivalent. If you would respond in real life, go for it online. If you’d walk away or call the police, then mute or block them without a second thought.
Mental health breaks are a must in today’s news environment. Keep in mind that unplugging is not the same as checking out altogether — it’s just a way to get away from the noise temporarily and recharge. I know I need to unplug when I start to feel too distracted in other areas of my life (like if I am compulsively checking Twitter when I’m with my kids), or otherwise feel a low level anxiety and existential dread. If those feelings sound familiar, they’re your cue to delete your social media apps from my phone, read a book, go for a walk, or do whatever gets you grounded in the present moment and your immediate environment. The crazy will still be there when you come back, but you’ll be refreshed and ready to take it on again.
Asha Rangappa is a Senior Lecturer at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs. She is a former FBI Special Agent and currently a legal and national security analyst for CNN.