I hear it all the time, from doctors, teachers, lawyers, hairdressers, accountants, you name it: “I don’t follow the news. It’s too depressing.” While I understand the sentiment, I find its consequences far more depressing than even the gloomiest of newscasts.
Recognizing much of the public’s shared distaste for real news, editors, producers and studio executives respond accordingly. Not wanting to lose readers or viewers by offending their delicate sensibilities, news outlets run more stories about pandas, celebrities, sex scandals and beauty tips. And I don’t blame them. Without an audience, shows get canceled, networks fail and newspapers, blogs and magazines perish. It’s a matter of survival.
When we pay more attention to frivolous stories that make us feel good than to what is happening socially, politically, economically and ecologically in the world around us, we surrender our power to affect positive change. We carelessly forfeit it to corporate, political and religious leaders perpetually on the lookout for opportunities to exploit our ignorance for their own personal profit. These individuals are not only paying attention, but they’re counting on the rest of us not to.
In the end, we’re left with harsh penalties: lost rainforests, war, genocide, the Kardashians. It’s easy to blame all of these atrocities on outright evil, but the true culprit here isn’t evil. It’s indifference.
The perception that what happens in Syria or the Central African Republic doesn’t affect those of us safe in the so-called West or that we are powerless in the face of global conflicts and environmental devastation is more than wrong. It’s dangerous and yes, depressing.
Finding oneself saddened by all the senseless death and destruction that plagues our planet is evidence of compassion and a conscience, both of which are powerful forces that can and do affect meaningful change. Once compassionate and conscience-driven people start noticing what’s happening in the world, they begin to turn it around.
Consider the case of Austin Gutwein, who, after watching a video about AIDS orphans in Africa at the age of nine, founded Hoops of Hope. Some ten years later, his organization has now raised over $3 million to provide food, medical supplies, bikes and clean drinking water for orphans half a world away.
Many adults might have considered Austin too young to learn about the global AIDS crisis. Many might have “protected” him, not to mention themselves, from the disturbing images and information on that video. But by giving Austin the benefit of the doubt and not underestimating his capacity for empathy or ingenuity, his parents and teachers helped save the lives of countless children in need. And not so incidentally, they helped enrich Austin’s life immeasurably in the process.
It’s those of us who are pained and moved to tears by the suffering of strangers who need to be paying the most attention to what’s happening on our planet. By “protecting” ourselves and our children from depressing news, we ensure that the news remains depressing.
As consumers of media, we have the power to make real news less unsettling, not by following only the fluffiest stories, but by following the hardest ones to witness and being moved to action as a result — whether it’s by starting our own charities or running for office or just by voting differently or more often. Happiness doesn’t come from from burying our heads in the sand. It comes from shaking the sand out of our ears, paying close attention to the world around us and letting our hearts react.