I just wrote way too much about how breaking news can actually be a good thing, even as it threatens to be overwhelming, but I think the larger idea about what is good for us versus what’s noise comes down to a simple idea: Sometimes we want to be distracted, and sometimes we want to be engaged. And that isn’t a bad thing, as long as we understand why we want what we want.
I’m thinking about this primarily in terms of a Big News Story (e.g. the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt), but I think it might work in a larger context, as well. But for simplicity we’ll focus here on breaking news.
First to define our terms. By distracted I mean that we are thinking only about the newest information coming in, not thinking about putting events in a larger context, and not thinking about the implication of the information we’re receiving. By engaged I mean nearly the opposite: That we’re trying to understand not just the event, but it’s larger causes, implications and where it fits in our conception of the world. If that sounds like an idea way of processing events, maybe it is, but I would argue we can’t get to engaged at first, especially when information is brand new to us. There is a reason that most news organizations now put up liveblogs that collect information from many different places as a story starts to break, and then only hours, days, or weeks later are able to put together a coherent narrative. We need information before we can draw conclusions.
But if you’re not a journalist, you don’t necessarily need to see all of the information as it comes in, so why would it be helpful when, since you can’t put it into context, but only consume it as it comes, thereby distracting you?
I would argue that the distraction is a manifestation of a cognitive shutdown. You could easily turn off the TV, ignore Twitter, and go about your life, but in some ways, you feel more connected with the world around you by experiencing an event in real time (or at least nearly so). That distraction soothes you and keeps you from thinking too deeply about the tragedy when your mind isn’t ready to process it. It’s a tool or a survival technique that our brains use to keep us from processing difficult information until we’re ready to do so. We seek out an information overload so we don’t have to think about the larger implications, which seems counter-intuitive, but is self-evident even from the way we talk about the stream of news that breaks over us. Once we are, we can become engaged again, and start thinking about putting the events into context.
All of this is good—or at least OK—as long as we’re aware of what’s happening. The problems start when we confuse distraction with engagement. That is to say, when we take all of the information presented to us and regurgitate it without regard to its usefulness, context, or provenance. Let’s call that “Cable News Talking Head Syndrome.” When fool ourselves into thinking we’re engaged with an event when in fact we’re just amplifying our distractions is a dangerous time.