For a long time I have embraced the idea that reading the news and keeping up with current events is inherently virtuous. Beyond virtuous, it’s practically a citizenship responsibility – to stay informed; to ensure that humanity doesn’t collectively repeat itself every 100 years.
I know all the reasons why everyone should stay abreast of world happenings: to stay informed on issues that affect your everyday life, to understand how to vote or take action regarding current events, to be able to carry on an intelligent conversation on important issues, and to gain a broader view of the world.
But here’s the problem: despite my grandiose ideals about the value of news consumption, I’ve spent most of my life failing to actually live up to them. I’ve found myself among the growing percentage of young people reluctantly reporting that they get most of their news from Facebook or Twitter, if they’re getting any news information at all. News is overwhelming, and it’s hard work to go beyond consumption to real understanding.
Maybe I’m just lazy. Maybe I don’t really understand just what it means to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself. Maybe I’m apathetic.
Or maybe all my reasons for keeping up with the news fall short of actually giving me a really good reason.
The problem with all my reasons for reading the news is that, while they sound noble, they fall apart without one key ingredient. Without this ingredient, these reasons offer me an ‘out’ – a way of shirking my duty, and feeling justified.
Wanting to stay informed on issues that affect my everyday life can quickly justify not reading up on anything that goes beyond the borders of my own little world (be that my neighbourhood, city, or country). Reading the news so that I can take action can justify ignoring problems about which I feel powerless. Fear of being embarrassed if I can’t carry on an intelligent conversation about current events fades fairly quickly, and isn’t a motivator for long-term behaviour.
I want to clarify that I don’t think any of these ‘outs’ are justified – but I would argue that they make sense without the key ingredient – the one good reason. The reason I’m talking about doesn’t offer us any ‘outs’ or chances to explain away our responsibility. And this reason underpins all other virtues of reading the news.
What’s the one good reason to read the news? Simply: so that you care.
When more than 1,000 human beings die in Gaza, we should care. When a deadly virus ravages West Africa, we should care. When planes crash and hundreds of families lose brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers, we should care. When a single civilian is killed by a drone, we should care. When little girls are kidnapped in Nigeria, we should care. When humanity anywhere is suffering – we should care.
Caring is an end unto itself. If people are hurting, then I should care – we should care. If there is injustice in the world, we should care.*
But we’ve taught ourselves not to care unless we can act on it. If I can’t fix the problem, why should I even know? Why let my heart be burdened day after day when there isn’t anything I can do to help? Maybe it’s better just to turn a blind eye. If you can’t do anything – don’t bother caring.
This thinking has dangerous implications: we won’t consider it worth our time to care unless we think we can do something. This gives powerful people even more impetus to disempower us, because disempowered people won’t challenge them. We also become motivated to relinquish what ability we do have to act. Caring is hard – so we get comfortable feeling powerless so that we don’t have to care.
A beautiful thing happens when we do care, though.
We cling to the inherent value of human life and dignity by saying that they are worth caring for, celebrating, and weeping over, even if those lives are thousands of miles away, belonging to people we’ve never met. We fight for our ability to act (even if we can’t solve all the world’s problems), our intellectual discussions gain a deeper meaning, and we become motivated to know what’s going on beyond our personal bubble.
It’s a courageous thing to decide to care, because when you do, there are no easy ‘outs’. But let’s choose the courageous option lest we experience its alternative: a world where atrocities can be committed anywhere – be it the neighbouring street, or the neighbouring continent – only to be met by blind eyes and shrugged shoulders.
*I’d argue this also extends to news about government policy, and other more mundane news items that are less explicitly linked to the welfare of humankind. These are often the most important things to keep abreast of, because they’re easier to ignore, but will inevitably have implications for the well-being of real people.