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Five lessons learned from my newspaper days to manage crazy-making media consumption and stay sane

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

03/29/2020

Forty years in the news business taught me this: You’ve got to flatten the curve (to borrow the catch phrase du jour) of the steady flow of man’s inhumanity to man or it will suck your soul dry — not to mention give you indigestion, drive you to drink, leave you snarly and disagreeable and make you eat cold pizza at 2 a.m., while smoking a pack of cigarettes on the couch with a cup of leftover coffee from yesterday’s breakfast.

Because I’ve asked over the years, it’s the same for law enforcement, EMTs, health care professionals (particularly in emergency rooms) and other professions and jobs that require one to work unceasingly with people at their worst or most vulnerable moments. Without exceptional coping skills, too much bad stuff overwhelms our hearts and brains.

I’m a media junkie. I get sucked down the media consumption rabbit hole, happily following link after link, until I can’t remember where I started. I love reading and researching, fact checking and sharing with my social media friends what I find. Back in the old days, which is pretty much four weeks ago, that was OK. It’s not OK today when the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has created millions of media junkies in search of the latest information and the memes that support our political biases.

I’m going to find myself doing that pizza-cigarettes-cold-coffee thing if I don’t get a better handle on my media consumption. So, here’s my list of five lessons I learned from a lifetime in a newsroom:

1. Twice a day is enough. Spend an hour morning and evening; turn it off in between. Few of us remember the analogue days when the newspaper was delivered twice a day. Once in the morning, usually focused on the overnight news from around the state, nation and world; oh and the sports scores and boxes. The afternoon newspaper tended to be local news happening the previous night and during that day. The radio or evening news broadcasts on television brought us “breaking” news, which had to be REALLY important, like a war or something, to be called breaking news. The latest tweet from a president was not breaking news back in the day. For now, however you define now, do that round of media consumption twice a day.

2. Choose your sources carefully. There are trustworthy, professional news and information sources, including mainstream news companies and original source information coming from your city or county officials. Be skeptical of posts and comments in Facebook groups, even those coming from your friends. If the posters or commenters don’t cite original source material and if they’re not in a personal position to know, what you read is likely misleading at best, dead wrong at worst. The copy-and-paste crap starting with “this is from a friend of a friend” is among the untrustworthy. I’m using these as my professional news sources of choice — and I go directly to their websites; I don’t rely on what Facebook feeds me; and, yes, I have paid for subscriptions because I do not believe news is free: Miami Herald (including their Keys coverage), Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, New York Times, Washington Post, and the Citizen. I also take a run at The Guardian out of the UK for international information and for an outside perspective on the United States. I browse Fox News (emphasis on their news coverage, not their opinion stuff.) I’ll add in a news magazine like The Week or The Atlantic when I want more.

3. Skip everything labeled opinion. If you’ve chosen your news sources carefully, the content will be labeled opinion, usually in big letters and in a separate section. Even when the trusted news media are sharing on social media, they label their opinion columns as, well, opinion. Skip that. You’re only going to read opinion that supports your confirmation bias or blow a gasket if it doesn’t. No one makes us read the editorials or columnists. Analysis pieces, the ones I used to call the explanatory thumb sucker, are a different animal from both news and opinion. A well-researched, documented and reported analysis from a credible news source can put events in perspective and help us understand; just be wary of letting your confirmation bias get the best of you.

4. Check the darn date. If you’re not reading (or sharing) today’s news today, you are making yourself crazy or making your friends crazy. So before you read a story you found in your social media feed that sends you into outrage overdrive, check the date-and-time publication information. There’s enough real news out there to scare the pants off us; let’s not destroy our collective mental health by reading old stuff. There is what I call “evergreen” information. That’s the stuff that lists where to go, how to help, what to know. Generally, evergreen information is good for at least a couple days; and often much longer. For instance, the hotline phone numbers, where to donate, how to file for unemployment. The Key West Citizen did a couple of good “evergreen” print wrap ups this last week. While we’re at it, let’s remember, too, that no newsPAPER can cover the constantly changing COVID-19 story well in print. They can do other things in print and they can do news online, but no newsPAPER will have the latest information on the coronavirus.

5. Stop with the rumors and gossip. As the cliche of my newsroom days says: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. If you don’t know, don’t post. If you can’t source it with credible information, don’t share it. If you know in your heart or head that the comment you are about to make or the meme you are about to share are designed to yank a chain, knock it off. People are worried and stressed and we all process things differently. We don’t have to add to the foreboding mix just because it felt good for a second. Leave it alone. We don’t have to have an opinion on everything. Take the time to cull your social media feeds; hide for now (no need to block or unfriend) folks whose posts make you unhappy or irritable. Sort of like excusing oneself politely to go to the bathroom when the conversation at happy hour gets a little too fractious for your head and heart to handle.

Stay well, my friends. Stay sane. Remember, not one of us can absorb the world’s troubles and remain effective. Now turn off the gosh-darn internet until, say, 6 p.m.

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Linda Grist Cunningham

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

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