Discussing the News

The news can be stressful, anxiety-inducing, tribalism-reinforcing, and littered with misleading, misinformed, heavily biased takes.

There are things we can do to make our news-consumption habits more productive, including (for instance) avoiding most TV news, avoiding editorial/opinion content, and sticking with journalistic entities with the right economic incentives (and reputations for generally non-polemical coverage) like Reuters and The Associated Press.

Exposure to solid news coverage is only one component of the world-understanding equation, though: it’s great to be plugged-in to what’s happening, but even better to be able to discuss those happenings with other human beings, further fleshing-out our comprehension with a range of insights and interpretations.

Unfortunately, it can be just really difficult to have unheated discussions about certain topics, many of which have been politicized (and thus, weaponized), which can turn conversations about the news into unintentional throw-downs.

This problem isn’t universal, as not all people have emotional entanglements with topics like abortion or climate change or social safety nets, and not all nations and cultures suffer from the antagonistic forces that can bifurcate people into vehemently (and at times violently) oppositional camps.

But the human desire to be on the winning team, and modern variables like the influence of (and incentives inherent in) social media platforms, are spreading these issues to more communities by the day.

As a consequence, many of us avoid the news entirely, not wanting to deal with all those stressful, outrage-inducing stories unilaterally, but also not wanting to discuss them with others.

Who, after all, wants to fight with their friends or family members all the time? Who wants to taint their relationships with the realization that someone they care about is “on the other team”?

Something I’ve found useful in this regard—in addition to the above notes about curating a more sustainable, less-anxious news diet—is approaching conversations about potentially touchy topics more intentionally.

It can help, for instance, to have a meta-discussion about the conversation when such topics arise.

What that means in practice is stepping back and pointing at the fact that people in the conversation may have have differing opinions about the discussion topic, and may thus be tempted to shout party-approved bumper-sticker slogans at each other until everyone feels they’ve “won.”

To temper that possibility, it can help to remind everyone involved that different people have different collections of data at their disposal, and different worldviews through which they perceive that data.

Also, different groups of people use the same words in different ways, with distinct definitions and valences, and their news sources (if they, like most people, derive most of their news from politically slanted sources) probably cover different (bias-serving) stories, and the same stories from different (bias-serving) angles.

It can also be useful, when taking this step back and establishing context, to remind everyone that changing one’s mind is a virtue, not a weakness or indication of a “loss,” that there are no losers in discussions of this kind to begin with, and that ad hominem arguments (attacks on people rather than ideas) are not okay and should be avoided.

Further, it can be helpful for everyone to agree that if things get too heated, it’s time to take a break and everyone will step back from the conversation, hug (if appropriate), and talk about other things for a while.

You could argue that this seems like a lot of conversational scaffolding for what should be a normal, casual chat between friends/family/coworkers, but because of the intense feelings we sometimes invest in our beliefs—including those we’ve been trained to wave around as our most important, defining personal traits—it’s easy to accidentally offend and reflexively reframe people we like and care about as “the enemy.”

Which is not ideal!

And this not-ideal-ness is true of any topic we might avoid because of its volatility, but I would argue that lacking the capacity to discuss the news, we become less capable of productively participating in the systems that keep our societies churning along (generally) smoothly, which leaves us prone to all sorts of issues, while also narrowing our individual worldviews, leaving us to make decisions and judgements from positions of unnecessary ignorance.

Engaging with the news, then, ideally involves rounding-out our perception of what’s happening by hearing how other people respond to (and understand) the things we’re learning and thinking about.

This is one of the best ways to grok the big-picture and to break free of the highly filtered, pre-packaged worldviews we’re handed by political organizations and other entities that want us to view things through exactly the same narrow lens as they do.

If you found value in this essay, consider buying me a coffee :)

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