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When the news is just too awful to handle

The other day I put down my iPhone after reading a quite sad story about the latest mass shooting, one that once again took vibrant young American lives, and I turned on the radio – only to hear from a brave NPR reporter witnessing the terrible earthquake devastation in Syria, who told us about children who had been both orphaned and dismembered. And that brought to mind the misery in war-torn Ukraine – and, suddenly, I couldn’t bear any more news. True confession: I switched my car radio over to classical music.

Look, I spent more than 40 years as a journalist, so you know that I place great value in knowing the truth of what’s going on in the world beyond our own view. Presenting that to people was the mission of my career. But sometimes reality is just too tough to handle. Maybe that’s why my wife and I have lately been watching reruns of “Friday Night Lights,” with a storyline about a high school football team in Texas – which originally aired on NBC from 2006 to 2011. The drama of Dillon High School: that, I can handle.

In fact, we often practice that sort of escapism, and I hear that we’re not alone. We have binged on “The Great British Baking Show,” which offers televised blows no more brutal than Paul Hollywood’s icy blue-eyed stares, and tough words like, “Rather soggy, the sponge” – which makes you sad for the baker whose cake is drawing criticism but, you know, it’s just baking.

It gets worse: Last year we couldn’t watch the end of Steven Spielberg’s great new production of “West Side Story,” because we know how it ends. Spoiler alert: Tony and Maria do not get to move into a nice bungalow in the suburbs. As Shakespeare wrote about the original version, where Tony and Maria were known as Romeo and Juliet, “Never was a story of more woe.”

This real world is unsettling to a lot of us, and the work that we journalists do brings us that reality, and its accompanying distress. It’s not a new phenomenon. Experts for years have warned that people who consume a lot of bad news are at risk of mental stress.

A 2013 study found symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder a dozen years after 9/11 among people who had watched at least four hours of TV news coverage each day in the week after that event. Another study of people who watched six hours of coverage of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing found that they showed more stress than people who were present at the finish line had felt.

This old newspaper editor isn’t going to tell you to put on blinders and ignore the news – not at all. But here’s what we might consider: More than tracking every development of a crisis, we need to engage in an appropriate response to it. Maybe that’s donating to a charity, or maybe it’s taking time away from the news to engage in some political activism supporting those who stand for what we believe in.

You know, I was one of those many viewers who were addicted to Rachel Maddow’s nightly MSNBC show during the Trump administration. But watching Rachel didn’t do anything to combat the worst abuses of democracy during that presidency. No, it was those who worked and voted for alternatives to that benighted and corrupt regime who made a difference. If watching Rachel yielded activism, well, bravo to all – but we ought not to confuse observation, which is passive, with effort, which is active.

So when you consider the horror of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey, and the chaos in the war zone in Ukraine, and the anguish on the latest campus shot up by a gun-wielding malevolent – well, think about the difference between feeling something and doing something — the latter being a healthier response for ourselves as well as for those who need our help.

We don’t need to feel guilty for wanting to veg out in front of reruns of “Seinfeld” or “The Sopranos” at the end of the day. Maybe we are doing ourselves a favor. We just can’t let that be our only response to the crises of our day.

And someday, you know, I will get back to the sad conclusion of the fight between the Jets and the Sharks, as rendered by the genius of Spielberg. For now, I’ll settle for something more comforting, while doing what little I can for the earthquake and war victims, and for those touched by gun violence in our country. As Shakespeare might have put it, rare has there been a reality of more woe.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Rex Smith, the co-host of The Media Project on WAMC, is the former editor of the Times Union of Albany and The Record in Troy. His weekly digital report, The Upstate American, is published by Substack."
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