Panning for Gold in the News Stream

July 25, 2014 Updated: July 24, 2014

Some days big, breaking news events mesmerize us: airline accidents, explosions, mass shootings, the -Gate scandal of the month.

We watch, listen, or read in horror, or morbid fascination, or anxiety. Some of us are jaded and take it all with a shrug. Some of us react by tuning out and dropping out of the news flow, preferring comedy and pseudo-news.

Most of us don’t go off the grid completely, but consume media in order to know what’s happening in the world beyond our line-of-sight. But how do we choose which stories to consume? Do we respond to the loudest voice, the biggest picture, the fastest talker? Do we skim or do we linger? Do we filter the news based on some criteria, and are those criteria conscious or unconscious?

Perhaps a theme from time management can help us here. You have probably, at one time or another, taken an interest in becoming more effective or more productive with your time at work. The calculus of time management theories, such as in Stephen Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” leads us to classify all tasks as “urgent” or “important” (or “both” or “neither”).

The theory is that if we spend more time focusing on the important, and less on the urgent, we will be happier and get more done in the long run.

Can we apply this principle—spend more time on things truly important and less on things merely urgent—to our consumption of news? Can we handle our news browsing the way we handle other tasks? 

These days, we can use the Internet to tune our news consumption, but even with the old technology of newspapers and magazines, we can employ personal filters. In your mind, as you scan the pages, you’re looking for the answer to “should I read that or not?” No one reads every article, but consider why you read one article and not another. Maybe you apply an instantaneous test of “boring” or “interesting.” Perhaps preceding that test with “urgent” or “important” (or both or neither) would serve well.

The Merely Urgent

Does the rash of plane accidents in recent months—set aside the planes that were shot down—indicate anything in particular? Each event is a searing tragedy for the victims’ families and friends, to be certain. But taking a step back, is this an ominous trend for safety in flying on an airline, or is it an unfortunate yet ordinary fluctuation over the course of time?

Thousands of airline flights take off and land without incident every day worldwide. We hear quickly about every one of the few accidents that occurs, and when there are a few more, it may set people on edge. However, flying is much safer than driving—we still have a greater chance of being killed when driving to the supermarket than we do after boarding a plan to London, on the average.

Airplane crashes as news are certainly urgent. But for most of us, with the exception of a small circle of people including the families, friends, and colleagues of the deceased, they are actually not important (the incidents in which planes have been intentionally shot down are different, and may be quite important). The accidents are not likely to affect you or anyone you know, they have no larger meaning in the context of the world we live in, and they have little lasting impact.

The Truly Important

Important stories, on the other hand, have significance beyond the fleeting moment.

Understanding the facts and the trends embedded in the important stories can open a window on the future, can help you understand yourself and others better, and can help you see how all the moving parts in the world connect, clash, or collaborate.

By all means, continue to read about airline accidents or where LeBron James decides to play next season. The day’s tragedies, comedies, and celebrity movements are a normal part of the news stream, and some may be important, now or later. 

The suggestion is to be more conscious about the types of news you consume, and devote more time to those stories that are important, but maybe not so urgent. A few important-but-not-urgent stories these days: GMOs, environmental degradation, and rumblings inside China.

If you want to “be proactive,” as all the time-management gurus advise, and “be ahead of the curve” in understanding your future, your family’s future, your business’s future, these are the kinds of important stories you should invest more time in as you consume the daily news.

John Nania is the editor-in-chief of Epoch Times.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Nania