#29. Being informed

You’d think that a person with as many opinions as I have would be better informed. I’m not. Really. On balance, I know almost nothing about what’s going on in the world, except what I pick up skimming headlines throughout the day or what seeps into my brain from having NPR on in the background while I cook dinner or drive from hither to yon. This seems wrong to me. I consider myself a moderately intelligent person, a citizen of the world, if you will. And, as that great philosopher GI Joe said, “Knowledge is power.” I concur, Mr. Joe! And why wouldn’t I? I grew up in a household with parents who listened to NPR in the morning, pored over the New York Times on the weekend, religiously watched the evening news at night.

So what happened to me?

In my current life, I’m surrounded by journalists. I’m married to one. Some of my best friends are journalists. No, really! My family-tree-in-law is lousy with journalists. So it’s particularly embarrassing that I seem to only know the bare bones of what’s going on in the world. Unless, of course, you have questions about TV shows and celebrity gossip, in which case I am so well informed, I’m surprised I’m not called on to be an expert. Or a pundit. I could be a sitcom pundit. Is there such a thing? There should be.

In fairness – to myself, that is – I’m not woefully uninformed. I do know people who are more ignorant than I am, and if that statement isn’t a pathetic reach for validity, I don’t know what is. I know the basics about current events. Major disasters do not escape my notice.

I have my own morning routine of information gathering, which will clearly demonstrate where my priorities lie. First, I check Facebook to see what my friends are up to and, more importantly, what they think of what I’m up to. This is about all my brain can handle first thing in the morning.

After that, I check my Google home page, which allows me to skim the headlines of the big hitters: BBC, NPR, NYT, CNN, MSNBC and other jumbles of letters. I click through to CNN and read the headlines there, maybe following through on a few stories that seem important. And it all feels like a chore to me, I have to say. An obligation. Must. Be. Informed.

Then? My reward: I get to head over to my RSS aggregator and read up on all my blogs. This is where I dive in with relish. Design sites, celebrity gossip, crafting sites, cooking, etc. etc. My brain gets filled with pretty, lascivious things. There’s only so much room. Pretty soon it’s: yeah, yeah, Chilean mine disaster and all, but look at this beautiful bathroom remodel!

So. How to start a week spent dedicated to being better informed? I could plead that it’s tricky considering I live, somewhat embarrassingly, in one of the biggest metropolitan areas that no longer has a daily newspaper. We also don’t have our own local TV stations. But I think I’m probably on the right track with my current approach. It’s just that it’s entirely superficial, skimming the icing on the proverbial cake. The information I feel I “need” is there. I just need to dig a little deeper.

Rather than changing up my whole routine, I determined to actually read the stories on the websites of the BBC and CNN, rather than skimming the handy bullet points made just for “busy” (read: bored) people like me. Well. Maybe not all of them, but some of them. The important ones. The ones, I guess, with the biggest pictures.

What else? How about shaking it up a little? A lot of people get their news from the television, right? I mean, they watch CNN and MSNBC and, God forbid, FOX News. I could do that. I could sit myself down and watch that box for something other than Law & Order reruns while I wait for the new TV season to start.

Done and did.

For seven days, I immersed myself as I haven’t in years. I read more news stories from a variety of different sources. I watched hours and hours of droning TV coverage of this and that. And the result? Did I feel more informed? More sophisticated, more worldly?

Not particularly.

In fact, I felt mostly overwhelmed and confused. The more news I read or heard, the more I become aware of the fact that I really don’t know anything. I found myself frequently stuck: “Who is that person they’re talking about? Is that the name of a real country? Wait. That’s still happening?” The news, in short, is not good for my self esteem.

It is not good for my mood, either, for the most part. I feel things deeply. I don’t meant to imply what a sensitive soul I am (and, by implication, that you’re not). I mean to say that I stupidly take on stuff to an inadvisably deep level. I feel an inexplicable level of personal responsibility for terrible things that happen. I find myself immovable on the couch because surely I could have done something about those Chilean miners. Why didn’t I see it coming?!? And Pakistan? My God! How am I supposed to fix dinner when all those people are dead?

I can’t shake some of this stuff. I do not need to be reminded that the housing market is the worst in a million jillion years. I am reminded of this every time I write a mortgage check on the house we still can’t sell in St. Louis. Is there any comfort to be had in knowing my poor fortune is part of a national trend? Maybe. But comfort ain’t payin’ the bills, friends.

The other thing I finally noticed, once I set my ego and confusion aside, is that watching and reading more news doesn’t necessarily provide me with much more information than I had before this experiment started. That’s to say, there isn’t a lot of news is some of the news. It often didn’t help explain to me the background of the situation at hand. For example, a CNN.com article didn’t even bother to say how the Chilean mine disaster happened in the first place. That seems important.

And the TV news? Forget it. It’s intolerable. A bunch of slimy fancy heads just talking, talking, talking with such conviction and volume that it takes you literally hours to figure out that they’re not actually saying anything. I mean it. I’m not sure I learned a single new thing. I’m not sure my understanding of any situation was enhanced or enriched in any way. I just know that the things I was outraged about, I became more outraged about because people were yelling at me about them! And I’m not sure I need to have my reactions intensified. I’m already pretty effing dramatic.

So what’s the take away on a week of ramped up information-seeking? Hard to say. To announce that it was exhausting and annoying seems pat and, frankly, makes me sound like an idiot. Maybe it’s just that it confirmed something I knew: it’s hard to be informed in a way that doesn’t feel useless or leave me feeling manipulated.

Also, and this will shock some of my news-gathering friends, it turns out that I’m not that discontented with my current level of informed-ness. I haven’t missed a major news story – or most minor ones – and, when I need clarification, it usually comes from dinner discussions with my husband or other friends. I get far more from talking about current events and hearing other people’s opinions than I do from numbing my brain with the same ol’ same ol’ from major news sources.

Most of all – and, boy, is this a tough one to announce, knowing my in-laws read this –I’m just not much of a news junkie. My husband, I think, would keel over if he were not radically over-informed about anything and everything going on in the world. For many people in my orbit, it’s a source of pride to have an informed opinion on every single topic. I’m sheepishly discovering I’m just not one of those people.

There’s a balance to be had, between ignorance and obsession. I like to know what’s going on, often in the vaguest sense, and if something moves me or is of particular interest to me, then it seems effortless to find out more. Forcing myself to KNOW THINGS just breeds annoyance and, honestly, I’m not sure it’s making me a better person. I’m certain that others would beg to differ but, the weird thing is, I’m okay with that.

This is one of those changes that I realized I was doing because I felt I was supposed to, not because I really wanted to. Because I like the idea of being “better informed” – whatever that means – much more than I like doing what it takes to qualify. Those changes never seem to stick with me. They never feel good and they never feel right. And maybe, of all the facts that I crammed into my brain this week, that’s the one that I need to hang onto.