My phone kept buzzing on my desk with breaking news alerts, filling in the gaps of a developing story I desperately didn’t want to read. I dismissed the notifications one after another, purposefully, intentionally, until two days had passed and I finally sat down to read the details of what had happened that day at Stoneman Douglas High School.
I cried when I finally read the news, just like I thought I would. It was not only that the violence was horrible and senseless, and not only because my two youngest siblings who I adore attend a public high school in the United States; it was also because I felt powerless to do anything about this terrible news I was reading.
I had to ask myself a question—if I knew this news would be so difficult to read, if I knew it would make me feel helpless, why did I read it all? Reading the news rarely boosts my mood. Instead, it can send me on dark spirals, crying on my couch reading about the impact of automatic weapons, or impotently Googling “how to help Yemen.”
Are there things I’m better off not knowing? This isn’t an idle question. For perhaps the first time in human history, suffering goes beyond the tragedies that happen to us and to our loved ones. The advent of the twenty-four-hour news cycle projects for us a constant stream of suffering that we can tune in and out of, adjust to our preferences, and use to select for ourselves how much we will feel, when, and where, and for whom. Coca Cola ads beside images of Syrian refugees—what’s the difference between a witness and a voyeur?
I still believe that reading the news is important. But I also think we need to be careful about how we consume the unlimited stream of information and how we respond to it. If we want to read world news, in particular tragic news, in a way that’s helpful, productive, and not harmful to us, we must filter it through our individual experience and work. As you read the news and wonder about response, the following questions are a good place to start:
- Does this news affect or influence my own context?
- Can I personally affect or influence this situation?
- Does this situation teach me anything I can apply to my own context?
These three questions help orient me as I read news about tragedies like school shootings. For example, lax gun laws in the United States actually have a direct connection to violence in Honduras and Latin America—one of my contexts—not to mention the risk they pose to my family back in the United States. As a U.S. citizen and voter, I also have a direct way to influence this situation through supporting protests or advocating for better legislation. Even stories that are much farther from home, both literally and figuratively, can be illustrative to contexts where I do have influence. Recognizing this can fight against the feeling of helplessness or impotence that I otherwise might feel.
Each of us reads the news from a particular context, and through a particular lens. Part of that context includes the work we are already doing to combat suffering and injustice in the parts of the world closest to us, and we bring this experience to any story we read about suffering and injustice in other parts of the world.
If reading the news ever hurts your heart, chances are you are already involved in activism, volunteer work, or even the simple and radical work of being a thoughtful neighbor. You may tutor children, pick up trash, fundraise for cancer research, or work to save the whales, the bees, or your local historic district. The point is that before you read the news you are likely already doing something, and you are doing it passionately, creatively, and committedly. This is already the first step to responding well to learning about needs in other places.
As you read world news, pay attention to where your eyes are drawn, and where you tend to click. It’s likely that the stories that are most meaningful to you internationally have some connection to your work locally. Maybe an activist was killed in Central America for doing work that you are also passionate about. Maybe there is a famine in your neighbors’ childhood home, or an earthquake in a country where you once went backpacking.
Your instinct may be to want to help a country for as long as that country is in the news, until another country’s tragedies push it out of the spotlight. The news cycle, by nature, has a short attention span. But the world doesn’t need donors or volunteers with short attention spans, dropping well-intentioned projects at the first sign of tragedy elsewhere.
Of course, in times of great need, additional help and support will always be needed. But even then, this aid should be channeled through local people with who have the greatest amount of expertise and the deepest levels of investment. Support in times of great need should follow infrastructure that already exists, not flood a broken system with a thousand parallel responses.
In fact, the best response to tragedy all over the world is to do something (anything!), somewhere (anywhere!) but to do it very well. Study an issue deeply, learn its context intimately, commit to it doggedly, and as you do that work, keep your eyes open to the needs of others doing similar work in different contexts. The needs of the world are connected. Injustice anywhere, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, is a threat to justice everywhere, and the opposite can also be true. A step towards justice anywhere can have a ripple effect.
In the face of so much need in the world, and so many ways to hear about it, I like the words of Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. Because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”
Reading the news well and responding to it is not everything, but it is something—and so I won’t refuse.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).