I CAN’T LIVE WITH OR WITHOUT YOU:
What to do with the news when you can’t bear to watch but want to keep up
I am losing count of the people who say they can’t bear to watch the news on TV anymore.
News of victory in the Battle of Waterloo took three days to reach Britain. Today we get real time footage of bombing campaigns. TV cameras filming the effects of war are supplemented by citizen journalists. People carry smartphones, and it is one click away from sharing what you film on them to broadcasting it to the world. We see the worst news, the most terrible footage, within minutes of it happening. Scenes of devastation; crumpled, dust-caked and bleeding bodies; and screaming, grief-stricken relatives cover our screens, often while we are eating and drinking. It is a toxic mix.
Most main channel TV news shows are thirty minutes long. It is impossible to condense the world’s news into so short a span. The hard truth is that there is so much more suffering we are not seeing; editors prioritise, and this means some parts of the world are not being covered, not least because budgets only stretch so far. Imagine if the currently murderous scenes from Sudan and its Darfur region were shown to us. And why is Ukraine taking such a back seat after nearly two years of headline coverage?
By contrast, good news has to jostle its way to the front, like a small child pushing through crowds of adults. And it rarely gets there. Usually, cheerful news is relegated to the end of the programme and concerns a plucky individual who has succeeded against the odds. Only rarely is it the story of a community doing things well together. And the idea of news about a country achieving great things is thought to belong to North Korea’s shrill and scary airwaves. The old mantra: if it bleeds, it leads, remains a reliable guide to the news we watch.
It's well known that the regular consumption of traumatic news leads to impotence because there is nothing we can do about it. At least, that’s the truism. The situation is more complex for a Christian because of their call to shape this world into the character of God through intercessory prayer. If we are led by the TV news, we will soon be left with a ‘to do’ list as long as the UN Secretary General’s. The sense of disorientation this produces is often shown in the public intercessions of our churches, where the same saying: ‘if it bleeds, it leads’, can be at work. We pray about the latest global tragedy, but then move on to the next, and the next, without staying in one place. It feels like we are on the tube, plunging through dark places before stopping and looking out at the next stop on the line before descending into darkness again, with no real sense of place or belonging.
It is said that all prayer begins in the beating heart of God, where in our stillness we hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit. If it starts routinely in the lead news item – however important any one issue may be – it is more likely to induce bewilderment and fragmentation in prayer, where we do not stay with, or understand, an issue because the next tragedy is calling us.
Maybe we need to be more intentional about our prayers. It’s a bit like giving to charity. We don’t respond to every high street chugger (charity fundraiser) or mailshot we receive. Instead, we plan how to give regularly. From time to time, we make exceptions because of a terrible natural disaster, but mostly we control how we care. Right now, at Advent 2023, peace in the Middle East is front and centre; no-one would argue with that. But we should not surrender our daily agency in prayer to the decisions of news editors.
God will prompt others to pray for the things we do not, just as he prompts us to pray for the things they do not. We cannot be messianic about prayer because only one man has that post: ‘it is Christ Jesus…who us at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us’ (Romans 8:34).
And in the meantime, while there is an off button for the TV, spare a prayer for the producers and content moderators who have to look at every piece of footage in order to filter what the rest of us see. No person can bear that for long, and yet they do – with all that means for their wellbeing.
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