The 2016 US presidential election has left many Americans worn out. It was the most bizarre election in modern American history, and it laid bare the polarization that currently affects national politics, both in the US and in other countries around the world. To this we have to add the overwhelming amount of information—fake and true—that the news media, facilitated by the internet, makes available to us on a minute-by-minute basis. How can one absorb it all and manage to stay sane? Everybody seems to have an opinion worthy of consideration, so how do we separate the chaff from the wheat?
Studies suggest that people tend to consume information that confirms their ideological biases and pays little attention to oppositional arguments. This lack of democratic dialogue makes politics more confrontational and bitter. In the face of this unsettling reality, viral articles have argued that more people should think about “disengaging” and withdrawing from it all: No news watching anymore, no caring about politics in general.
But this is a mistaken approach.
It’s certainly true that many of us are deeply dissatisfied with the mainstream media. Too much talk, too little serious reporting, and a constant appeal to fear and clickbait journalism. seem to be increasingly the norm. But quitting the news all together is not the answer: There are other alternatives to profit-driven, mega-corporate news-media products.
For example, public news sources such as PBS, NPR, and international sites like the BBC—just to name a few—are reliable and sanity-preserving providers of information. Public-media sources generally also tend to include multiple opinions on controversial issues and strive for nuance. These outlets are not perfect, but their reason for existing is to educate the public, not to make huge financial gains. Although they need to be financially healthy to exist, this original mission makes a difference as to how they present the facts.
Other people argue that the issues at play are so complex that reading the news isn’t actually very helpful; that in order to stay truly informed, you must pick up books and take classes in economics, political science, and earth science. This point of view suggests that we can only understand the world once we have become verified experts.
But of course most of us do not have time for an academic career on the side. And that’s OK. Quality news media can provide the basic knowledge we need to be minimally informed on what matters. For example, a recent discussion that aired on my local NPR station about the Electoral College and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Paper 68 was very instructive—even for listeners who didn’t have a degree in constitutional design.
Political scientists that study voter behavior refer to such information-gathering mechanisms as “cognitive shortcuts,” because they offer us valuable political knowledge without overwhelming us. Listening to different views on the news about issues such as trade, the powers of the president, and poverty can be enlightening and informative—you just need to seek out the outlets who offer this type of analysis.
Even Aristotle, a fervent proponent of the idea that citizenship requires patriotic sacrifice, argued that political knowledge is not “expert knowledge.” He believed that regular citizens can and should acquire this type of knowledge. Aristotle believed that politics is an art form where the product is judged by the consumer and not simply the skilled artist. We may not think of modern politicians as artists, but quality news can help us acquire the tools we need to assess the quality of politicians’ work. In this context, being informed is a civic duty.
Perhaps most importantly, if we disengage from politics—if we stop reading the news and retreat into happy, carefree bubbles filled with puppy videos and food blogs—who will watch the politicians? Who will make sure that government and public officials are doing their job, and if not, attempt to hold them accountable?
Even great thinkers who weren’t big proponents of liberal democracy believed that total removal from the political system is futile. Benjamin Constant, an influential Swiss-French political thinker of the 19th century, was a vocal opponent of active, participatory democracy. He thought that participating in and caring too much about politics took away from our freedom as private individuals and our precious right to do whatever we want with our time. He was also a fierce critic of the ancient Athenian model of democracy that consisted of people voting on all laws proposed in an extensive popular assembly. This imposed an oppressive sense of civic duty on citizens. And yet, despite his dislike of participation, Constant cautioned the public not to completely give up on politics:
“The danger for modern liberty is that we, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence and the pursuit of our particular interests, might surrender too easy our right to share in political power. The holders of authority encourage us to do just that. They are so ready to spare us every sort of trouble except the trouble of obeying and paying. But we must not leave it to them and we should ask the authorities to stay within their limits.”
Disengaging from the news guarantees nothing good. We certainly need to be as discerning as possible when we pick our news sources, and sensationalist and inaccurate new organizations should be abandoned. But by the same token, there are both practical and ethical reasons why we cannot simply bury our heads in the sand, even if it may seem like a way to provide some emotional relief in the short term.
Mainstream news is not held in high regard today. As Rolf Dobelli argued a few years ago, too much consumption of mainstream media can contribute to a needless increase in everyday stress, perpetuate self-indulgent biases, and infuse life with a fearfulness that is more unhealthy than it is informative. But much of this low opinion of the press springs from how pervasive certain types of journalism are. We don’t have to spread fake news; we don’t have to become a part of the problem.
It is true that sensational, inaccurate, and profit-driven reporting seems to invade our lives in ways that are difficult to control. However, advocating for a news-free existence for the sake of good health and tranquillity is simplistic and frankly irresponsible in the 21st century.
Staying informed is one of the big ways citizens are able to maintain at least some of their power in a democracy, especially when it comes to our democratically elected leaders. Citizens today have the power to influence policy and vote public officials in and out of office, but in order to do that, we need to know which policies are helping and which are hurting, and who is doing their job and who is not. By all means, give yourself a break when it feels like you’re becoming burnt out. But giving up on the news is tantamount to giving up on being a citizen. And what would Aristotle think about that?