Wednesday, December 19, 2012

On being a consumer of media:

My iPad is my favorite new toy. I used it the whole time I was in Palm Springs so I could flip through other people's creative work during workshop. I read short stories on my iPad under an umbrella on the patio. More than once I looked something up on it during a lecture.

The iPad is a strange device, though. As I've said before, it's all consumption, rather than production. Other than doodles, you can't really make something on an iPad. I don't think I truly came to appreciate the use of such a device until I was at my MFA residency, where ordinarily I'd need to print upwards of 250 pages to bring with me to various workshops or discussions. I'll admit it was really nice to carry one thing and to know all my notes, stories, and essays were right where I could access them anytime I wanted. It fit right in my purse, plus it's a cool, shiny doodad.

I'm a big time consumer of media, in general. I have no shame about it. I like that I can see the entire world through my iPad if I want to. I like that people are out there providing information and writing stories and taking pictures. I'm grateful for the digital age I live in, for the access I have to news and knowledge and the lives of my family, friends, former students, and colleagues through social networking sites. On a daily basis, I'm usually checking the news online, reading Facebook and Twitter statuses and browsing through photos on Instagram, watching informational, scripted, and reality television, listening to an audio book, reading a book on my Kindle, and reading a bunch of blogs. All of that, every day. From time to time I have a magazine in my hand, and I'd say I'm at the movies at least once or twice a month. I like to know what's going on in the world so I can talk about it. There's a lot of information in my life, but I feel like it's like anything else: you have to know your limits and what's going to work for you.

I had the TV on NBC in my hotel room last Friday morning as news broke of the shooting at Sandy Hook, and I saw the first AP photos on CNN's website; those few minutes of images sent me reeling for the next two days (enough for me to run a red light and almost cause an accident on Saturday) and I was in a highly emotional state about being 500 miles away from my kids. I wasn't reacting well to the news--I think it hit me from both sides, teacher-me and mom-me--and I knew it was affecting more than I could handle. I had no place to fit that information in my heart or brain. I couldn't see it anymore because I couldn't get those first images out of my head. I left the TV news off for the rest of the weekend.

Aside from my personal inability to handle seeing the pictures or video, I knew that any information that came out early on was destined to be wrong. If you haven't read Dave Cullen's book, Columbine, I can't recommend it highly enough. In Cullen's book, he examines how the 24 hour news cycle both created and then confirmed false "facts" after the shooting at Columbine because of the nature of its own spin. I knew that any early information that came out was probably speculation, anyway, or people parroting rumors back to the networks that they had read on Twitter. Just another reason to keep the TV  off in the early hours.

Once I got home Sunday night, I logged onto Facebook for five minutes. By then, my news feed was filled with statuses imploring that we focus on the tragedy through the lives of those who died rather than the notoriety of the man who killed them. And as I scrolled down the page, picture after picture of the victims appeared. While I understood the intent, seeing those victims--kids who were now gone intermixed with arguments about gun control and mental health and pictures of people's holiday cookies and decorations--was too much for me to bear. These tiny, innocent children, who lived quirky, funny, and loving lives just like my kids. These teachers who look just like my colleagues, who died doing what teachers do: making kids feel safe. I couldn't see it anymore. Overwhelmed, I shut it off, and I told myself I had to stay away from my news feed, too.

Sunday night, after just those five minutes, I couldn't sleep. I lay in bed and my mind took me to dark places not unlike what women with postpartum depression describe. Worst case scenario after worst case scenario played out in my head. Scenes of teaching. Scenes of vulnerability at school. Scenes of my children being at their school. Scenes of being with my children and unable to help them. Hormonally-driven, emotional, scary scenes. I finally took a Benadryl so I could drift into a heavy, dreamless sleep. Twice since Sunday, though, I've woken up in a sweat, an ambiguous feeling of fear startling me awake.

I'm aware this is about understanding myself and my own triggers. I take responsibility for them and I know when I need to be careful. I told E right away Monday morning that I was having a rough time of it, and I made an appointment with my therapist. No sense in just feeling bad or crawling into bed to hide under the covers. I don't mean for a minute to imply that what I was feeling was anything related to those directly affected. Not at all. But it was affecting me. And I don't want to get myself in such a state that the anxiety comes out sideways and I have a panic attack about something unrelated, either. And I'm thankful that there are people in my life who understand my limits enough to warn me about what's out there. K told me early in the week that the news shows had moved on to profiles of the victims, and that I should probably continue to avoid the TV news, if possible.

The thing is, I started to wonder about the news media's motivation for airing these extended victim profiles. Surely no victim's family was getting relief from having a camera thrust in their faces. And I'm sure there are networks that are well-intentioned, as so many people on Facebook, and they want to put energy into memory because it's preferable to hate or speculation or blame. I get that. And I get that when we don't have an answer for something, we search for a way to talk about it and sometimes it doesn't come out right. But the truth of it is also that when the news keeps you watching for days and days, they keep themselves in business. When they interview families and put up pictures of the victims ("grief porn," I heard a local talk radio host call it), they're selling ad time too. I hate to think that someone would sell one more Prius or can of Pepsi because of an ad that runs after a sit-down with a family who just lost their son or daughter.

It's weird, keeping the world at arm's length this past week. I keep wanting to check my news feed or open my regular news sites. Despite my questions, I don't begrudge anyone their decisions, but I do know what's too much for me to handle. For me, it doesn't take a news piece on the life of a little kid to make me feel like that kid was a beautiful, innocent person, just like my kids. And I didn't have to see any of the images to know those kids were taken way too soon through a senseless act. I felt it like a boot kick in my stomach the minute I heard "elementary school."

I wasn't going to post anything about this, just continue on my one-person mission to keep functioning, and return to the news after I was certain this had settled a bit. But today I read an article about the residents of Newtown, and their growing frustration with news organizations occupying their town. How they want the prying eyes to leave so they can mourn their dead. And I felt guilty, because even my reading about it meant someone was there asking, questioning, watching these poor people who had already lost so much.

As somebody who wants to make her life about producing media--writing is creating, after all--this is something I have to think about. About putting things out in the world and not being able to control how people perceive them, or consume them. And it's something I have to think about as a consumer of media, too. Those minutes and page views are votes. What I give my attention to gets noticed, tracked, catalogued. We live in a society where every tidbit gets filed somewhere. Watching, reading, seeing: these things are consent, or at least a nod to the fact that we want more of whatever it is we consume.

There are no answers because this is a terrible thing that defies logic. I suppose all we have is our ability to know what's right for ourselves. More information isn't necessarily better.

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