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OPINION

Is it ever ethical to turn off the news?

The news in 2016 has been bleak, causing most of us to despair. But do we have a moral obligation to keep watching and reading, asks Hattie Crisell  

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By Hattie Crisell on

Every year has its fair share of bad news, but we all seem to be in agreement that 2016 has felt particularly brutal. It’s very tempting, then, to switch off the headlines, to block out the latest developments in Syria and the White House.

Is it even psychologically wise to go cold turkey on current affairs, turning temporarily away from global doom and gloom? Or do we have a moral responsibility to keep listening and watching, regardless of our stress levels? We asked a charity worker, a professor of journalism, a politician, a columnist and a psychotherapist for their views.

Harriet Garland, media manager at Amnesty International UK

“As you might expect of someone who works for Amnesty International, and particularly in the media team, I am something of a news junkie and find it very hard to tune out completely, even in the Christmas holidays. We are always ready to react to unfolding events and there are sometimes attempts to sneak out verdicts, arrests or executions when countries think the world isn’t watching, so it’s all the more vital we don’t have a complete blackout.

“I think it’s very tempting to have a holiday from the news, which has been a real parade of misery this year, with the carnage in Aleppo, the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks. I can completely understand why people might feel exhausted – but just because you’re not listening, watching or reading about it doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

If you start addictively checking news feeds and reading the news every hour, actually that’s not necessarily so helpful to anyone

“Amnesty provides some good catharsis. If you don’t like the news, then do something about it. There is still time to get involved in our Christmas Write For Rights campaign, which involves writing to prisoners all over the world. It is a nice, simple way to make a bit of an inroad against feeling hopeless. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British woman who spent her Christmas in an Iranian prison separated from her two-year-old daughter and husband – I sent her a card to let her know she’s not alone, even if she’s not front-page news at the moment.”

Hugo Rifkind, columnist at The Times

“I’m trying to take a break from the news over Christmas, but I’m not being terribly successful. I get quite anxious when I’m not reading the news – or indeed writing about the news. I’d rather be concentrating on other things though, because I’ve got a family who deserve more of my attention – and also I spend the rest of the year completely saturated in it.

“I guess you should always try and have that separation between your real life and the news anyway; I’ve got little kids and I don’t particularly want them to be feeling all my anxieties about the world. Whether that means it’s better to ignore it or check it in secret, I’m not sure.

“If there’s a dreadful earthquake somewhere over the Christmas break, how much would we be helping by knowing about it? It’s almost an ego thing that goes, ‘I must be involved in this.’ If there’s terrible stuff going on, then yes, there’s a moral duty to be aware of it, I suppose. But I think when people are checking the news obsessively, they’re doing it in much the same way as you’d check Facebook or Twitter. It’s sort of conversation, rather than a moral obligation.”

Angela Phillips, professor of journalism studies, Goldsmiths, University of London

“People do switch off – increasingly so. But bad stuff won't stop happening just because we aren't looking. Natural disasters will still occur even if politicians are taking a few days off. Wars will be waged and people will still be hurt. There will always be people who have to pay attention because they are in the middle of events they cannot control. The least the rest of us can do is to bear witness.”

Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party

"I haven't turned off the news for 20 years; I'm not sure I'd know how. I worked for so long as a journalist that it's in my DNA, and now that I'm working for the Women's Equality Party, it's just as much my job to know what's happening and what WE need to be doing in response. I like to feel connected to the world. I want to hear people's stories. It's how we understand and learn about each other, and that feels more important now than ever, given the current political turbulence and divides.

“Reading and watching the news doesn't feel like a chore; although it is painful to see the devastation in areas of conflict and hard to hear hateful stuff coming from some quarters in response to global migration and economic challenges, it is important to bear witness in order to counter rising racism and misogyny. And reading the news via social media also shows so much determined positivity out there among ordinary people who are doing great things to mobilise for change. It's challenging, yes, but it's also invigorating."

Charlotte Fox Weber, head of psychotherapy at the School of Life

“This question is something that’s come up in almost all of my therapeutic relationships, especially since Brexit and Trump winning the election. The news can evoke a feeling of powerlessness, feeling responsible, feeling anxious about the future. I think that if it’s making people unbelievably overwhelmed and depressed, then at a certain point they’re allowed to look after themselves – and if tuning out is what works, then so be it.

“There can be a compulsive news-checking thing that goes on, especially when people are feeling helpless in their own lives, I think. If you start addictively checking news feeds and reading the news every hour, actually that’s not necessarily so helpful to anyone.

@hattiehattie

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