A Three-Step Process for Deciding Which News Stories To Give a Shit About

And I am sure that I never read any memorable news in a newspaper. If we read of one man robbed, or murdered, or killed by accident, or one house burned, or one vessel wrecked, or one steamboat blown up, or one cow run over on the Western Railroad, or one mad dog killed, or one lot of grasshoppers in the winter—we never need read of another.

To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip.

Henry David Thoreau – Walden

Give me poison, and I will feel sick.

I used to feel that I had a duty to worry about all the problems in the news. That I had to know about all of the world’s problems—from who was winning the most recent game to whatever the biggest tragedy was going on around me. That somehow all the for-profit news sources knew what I needed to know. That I had to know about those problems and then form an opinion about them.

I don’t think that anymore. After nearly 40 years on this earth, I have yet to find much good to come from my worrying about the biggest dramas going on around me. That I was better off setting my own agenda, and not letting the most miserable, deviant, and power hungry people on earth dictate my moods.

So now I try to let almost all news stories go without letting them enter into my consciousness. Whether it’s scandal or death, I try to let it go.

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, try to care about the world’s problems. But I aspire to be pickier about which ones.

With that in mind, here is my totally personal, unscientific, and subjective theory of when to care and when not to care about the news:

Step 1: Does this news story pertain to actual suffering?[1]

A lot of the news is manufactured, symbolic, culture-war drama that fails to meet this basic test of significance. Regardless of how you feel about the issue or what becomes of it, no matter what happens, no one’s really getting hurt.

By spending a few seconds thinking about the degree to which the story is close to or attenuated from real suffering, you can give yourself a good filter on what matters and what does not.

A few recent stories measured against up this test:

The NFL national-anthem-kneeling-scandal: Pure manufactured drama. It’s a series of symbolic gestures designed to protest another series of other symbolic gestures. Clear fail.

The whole MSESPN drama: It’s one person’s opinion that got a lot of other people super riled up. Meh.

The Catalan-secession story: It’s not obvious that the movement is meant to alleviate real human suffering. It’s a story about political, nationalist, and social preferences.

All of the President’s tweets: So much hot air.

Potentially offensive speech: I know that this deeply bothers some people, but it’s at the bottom of my give-a-shit list. Unless the offensive speech is coupled with some sort of tangible action that results in real suffering, such as intimidation, violence, or discrimination that causes a worse outcome for another person, this is too attenuated from real suffering to ruffle my feathers of righteous indignation. And other peoples’ righteous indignation is not suffering in the same way that not having access to clean water or watching your child die from malaria is real suffering.[2]

The aftermath of the Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico: Perhaps hundreds of thousands without shelter or clean water. That’s real suffering.

Threats of violence, harassment, or actual violence: Suffering that potentially worthy of our attention.

War in Syria: Horrible suffering.

Of course, how I interpret human suffering might be different from the way you do. But this is a good place to start.

Step 2: Is there anything I can do about it?

If a single massive typhoon strikes an island and kills all it inhabits, that event might be very sad and tragic, and it might have caused massive human suffering, but that suffering probably cannot be remedied. And so in my view there is a limit to the value in obsessing over or worrying about that tragedy after the fact.

Perhaps that tragedy warrants a moment of reflection, to pause and think about its victims. But with so many ongoing tragedies, and with so many people who could use our help, it’s unclear that there is a benefit to worrying about done tragedies.

So, too, with isolated crime stories, reported in local, national, or international news. Most of the time, it’s not helpful to worry about past tragedies that cannot be undone.

Handwringing and righteous indignation are largely useless emotions. If you’re going to dedicate your time and energy to reading and thinking about tragedy and suffering, you might as well put what you learn about trying to alleviate some of that suffering. 

Step 3: Is caring about this situation the most efficient use of energy and resources?

These folks are the experts on this topic, so if you want more information on this question, please do click on that link or read Will MacAskill’s book, Doing Good Better.

Whatever the tragedy or suffering, if we’re going to bother to care, I say we should always try to channel our efforts to alleviate suffering in a way that may actually be capable of effectively achieving that goal. From the massive amount of blood that was donated and wasted after September 11th to the huge amounts of money wasted by the Red Cross after the earthquake in Haiti, often the knee-jerk, well-intentioned action is not the most effective one.

Donating to the victims of the biggest and most recent news story is probably not the most efficient use of resources. Usually, by focusing on less-publicized forms of suffering, we can make a difference more effectively. If you’re going to make a sacrifice and give, why not try to make the biggest impact you can? Under-the-radar tragedies almost never reach a choke point caused by massive influxes of donations at the same time, and so the impact of a donation for such a less-publicized form of suffering might be more immediate and make a bigger difference than for one that’s currently in the news.

Again, there’s not one easy answer to how to effectively react to suffering. And even inefficient forms of giving may do some good. But to me, the very act of thinking about this step may be enough to make a difference in alleviating real suffering. So, unlike the news, I think it’s worth the time.

So I try to give a shit about suffering. And I think I should try to do something to alleviate suffering when I can. And I try to learn lessons about how to do that better however I can.

But my ultimate conclusion when reading the news is almost always the same: that I’m better off thinking about things that aren’t in the news. That perhaps the best way to care about suffering is to focus on suffering that isn’t sold to me for profit.

[1] I partially borrowed this step from Yuval Noah Harari.

[2] I would distinguish generic offensive speech with personalized attacks, which can often cause real suffering.