Feeling a little burned out on bad news?
You’re not alone.
The year 2020 seemed to be a month-to-month challenge to top bad news with worse news, dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. Add to that a contentious election cycle, protests and unrest over social issues, wildfires in Australia and California, and a host of other potential crises – like an invasion of murder hornets and the government’s revelation of UFO photos – and it’s no wonder we’re all feeling a kind of information hangover. Many of us were staying home due to quarantine and social distancing, which naturally led to us watching more news than normal.
Many of us are old enough to remember when news outlets consisted of three TV channels, a daily newspaper, and the radio. When Walter Cronkite told us, “That’s the way it is” at the end of every evening news broadcast, we knew we had the important information and still had some time to digest what was going on. The 24-hour, multi-platform, social media-curated, constant cycle of news that confronts us today, however, allows us no time to process and seems to pile on with information that’s not only continuous, but controversial. It tends to include a lot of conflicting information that leaves us confused and stressed, often with no tangible way to respond other than to offer an opinion. Neil Postman, in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, called this the “loop of impotence,” or the fact that, “The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.”
I read the book while in seminary and, looking back, I can see how incredibly prophetic Postman was. I enjoyed it so much that I recommended it and loaned it and, at some point, never got it back. But I bought it again in the re-issued edition. I would also recommend How the News Makes Us Dumb by C. John Sommerville.
Postman, writing in the days before the internet, was already pointing to the problem of “news fatigue” or a general malaise that leaves us feeling depressed, powerless, and distrustful of news sources that often seem superficial, sensationalist, inaccurate, or hopelessly biased. The result is that the more news we consume the more anxiety we feel or, on the flip side, the more desensitized we become to the news itself. Or, as Sommerville puts it, “… TV newsreaders really do make the news. They create it – a reality that we depend on, a miniature world that we look in on every day to assure ourselves that everything is under control or at least we know the worst.”
One solution to that anxiety is to simply turn off the news, but that becomes increasingly difficult in a world where we are bombarded with news every time we go into public spaces … in person or online. Another solution might be to only focus on the good news, as people like actor John Krasinski tried to help us do during the pandemic through his “Some Good News” videos. But neither ignorance nor selectivity would seem to be the answer in a world anxious for the kind of news that people can actually act upon.
What we need instead is a mindset that puts the current news within the context of an eternal perspective. The bad and good stuff happening now has happened before and will happen again. Rather than fret or foment yet another opinion about it all, the prophet Isaiah calls us to remember that the only news that really matters is that the God who created the world in which all this news happens is still at work and will ultimately set everything right.
Isaiah wrote to a people confronted with the reality of exile – people isolated and distanced far from home in circumstances they did not choose, but that were the result of their sinful choices. In Isaiah 40:1-11, God announces through the prophet that a return from exile is on the horizon: a new exodus in which God’s people would be set free and restored. God Himself would dwell with them and He would feed them and protect them as a shepherd feeds and protects his flock.
This is the news that God’s people needed to hear, and it’s the news that puts all other news into perspective. While we worry over news about the forces of nature threatening to overwhelm us, God reminds us that He is the Creator who has “measured the waters in the hollow of his hand” (v. 12). While the daily news focuses on the intrigue between nations, God reminds His people that, to Him, “the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales” (v. 15). Before Him “all the nations are as nothing they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing” (v. 17).
While the news needs us to be constantly concerned about our material safety and wealth, God reminds His people to be careful what they worship and to be mindful of the things over which they fret. These things become “idols” for human beings, but they cannot be compared to the surpassing glory of the God who created all things (vv. 18-20).
The glory and character of God provides us with the best news we could possibly hear. “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?” Ask the Creator God, the one who “sits enthroned above the circle of the earth” and rules over it (vv. 21-22). The natural and human-caused calamities that dominate the news cycle are not news to God. God puts them all into perspective by taking the long view. Those rulers and newsmakers who crowd our screens today are “as nothing” to God, who sees them like withered plants that are here today and gone tomorrow (vv. 23-24). No one who makes the news will ever be God’s equal; he is the one who creates them all (vv. 25-26).
These are powerful reminders for the people of God who, like Israel, often got caught up in the news of the day and began to despair or, worse, began to be sucked into the world’s idolatry, fear and intrigue. The resultant news fatigue made them believe their plight was “hidden from the Lord” and that they had been “disregarded” by God (v. 27). But that’s when God comes shouting through once again with the news that should dominate the attention of all God’s people regardless of their circumstances.
“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (v. 28). Notice the repeat of verse 12, which is a way of bringing home the point that the God who created the “ends of the earth” allows nothing to escape His notice and will allow nothing to defeat His purposes for His good creation. No matter how bad the news seems to be, God’s purposes will win out.
That’s the reason God Himself does not suffer from “news fatigue.” As Isaiah puts it, “He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (vv. 28-29). Not only does God know the long view of His purposes in history, He offers power and strength to those who feel the fatigue of bad news in the present. Human beings tend to busy themselves trying to either come up with solutions to every problem or offering their opinions to those who “should” be doing something to fix them. But as the pandemic has taught us, there are limits to human knowledge and ability. If we trust only in ourselves, we are bound to experience the fatigue of despair when we fail or reach the end of our ability. The energy and idealism of youth can lead to disappointment and exhaustion when the reality sets in that we cannot “fix” the news no matter how hard we try (v. 30).
Rather than fret, fixate, or forego the news, Isaiah invites us to deal with our fatigue in light of the larger reality the Creator God has once again declared to His people. Instead of “waiting” on the news by constantly refreshing our screens or scrolling through a social media feed, Isaiah instead invites us to “wait for the Lord” (v. 31). That “waiting” doesn’t mean we simply sit around and do nothing, allowing the news to continue to wash over us. To “wait” means to look to God to provide us with perspective, hope, and purpose through prayer and through being immersed in God’s Word.
How much might our “news fatigue” be mitigated, for example, if we committed to spending at least as much time in prayer as we do scrolling through the news and social media? Many of our phones and devices now tell us precisely how much time we spend online every day. Spending an equivalent amount of time (or more) listening to God and bringing our fatigue and worries to Him would allow us the opportunity to put those things in perspective while renewing our strength to deal with the things we can actually do something about. The rest? Well, we simply put the rest in God’s hands, knowing that His purposes win out in the end.
Countering the news with a daily discipline of time spent in the presence of God will enable us to pick up a different pace of life. Do you grab your phone to check the news first thing in the morning? That’s a recipe for starting the day with anxiety, rather than mounting up for the day “with wings like eagles” (v. 31). Instead, try beginning the day with Scripture and prayer before you even touch that phone or the TV remote. Allow God’s Word to nourish you and strengthen you for the day ahead, to prepare you to run the gauntlet of the day without growing weary or discouraged, and to walk steadily forward without fainting under a load of bad news.
The cure for news fatigue, in other words, is to begin with the good news first!