Valerie Vande Panne

I gave up Twitter for Lent. You won’t believe what happened next.


I gave up Twitter for Lent.


I spoke with some journalist friends before Ash Wednesday, and the response was overwhelmingly: “You can’t give up Twitter. You’re a journalist!” and the occasional, “You’re Catholic?”


Well, I am a journalist, I am not Catholic (though I enjoy celebrating Lent) and it turns out I can give up Twitter, because I did. Just like I dumped Facebook years ago.


At first, it was hard. The first week, in fact, was almost excruciating. I hadn’t realized how much I’d come to enjoy the connectivity to a collective consciousness, the constant stream of news, the random interactions, the little hits of dopamine with every re-tweet. All of a sudden, I had a lot more time on my hands. What to do on public transit? Waiting in a long line? When I need a break from my own work?


In what began as a quest to stay current, I started reading a lot more news—just not what was coming through my Twitter feed. I spent more time on The New York Times, FOX News, and The Boston Globe’s websites. I also explored Bloomberg, Brietbart, and the Washington Post. I read the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and the Boston Herald. I listened to NPR and PRI. I watched Univision’s newscasts, and scrolled through TMZ.


I read local newspapers from rural Michigan, Florida, and Nevada.


I started checking out newsrooms. I paid visits to offices that, as a freelancer, I don’t normally spend time in. A privilege, for sure.


What I realized has changed how I view media, and my hard-working colleagues in it.


Here’s what I learned:


  1. International crises, Trump crises (painted as tickets to his exit or tickets to his martyrdom, depending on the outlet), and celebrity news were passed from outlet to outlet like herpes: A disease no one wants, and no one wants to admit they have, and no one will say where they picked it up from, but people need to pick it up and spread it anyway as if controlled by zombie bacteria. Passed through the intercourse of Twitter, its 400-600 word blister with a catchy hed gets posted at the top of homepages across the media landscape. Russia this, Trump that, Crises this, China that. Ben Affleck this, SNL that, the Weeknd this, Kardashian that. Syria!!! Click.


  1. If the holy trinity of mainstream news has become Trump crises, International Crises, and Celebrity drama (all resting on a smart foundation of Sports, or Art, or Lifestyle, just below the homepage fold), then the actual citizens of America, and their stories, are suffocated in this noise.


  1. Newsrooms are insulated, artificial environments. Journalists aren’t out on the street. They aren’t in court (unless it’s a sensational celebrity trial, like Aaron Hernandez, which they breathlessly live tweet) and they certainly aren’t out talking to real Americans in a place like Michigan—and they don’t get the cultural and class nuances in those states. Rather, they are in offices, having meetings about how to get people in places like Michigan to read, or listen to, their news. During one of my recent visits to an esteemed East Coast media outlet, someone suggested highlighting a story about a Muslim who was inspired by UFC Champion Conor McGregor, and everyone in the newsroom gasped—the air was sucked from the room. Arms folded across chests. People shifted uncomfortably in their chairs. I heard a few unconscious clucks of the tongue. They had just finished saying how they wanted to reach Middle America, yet could not bring themselves to hit an angle that would get Middle America to pay attention to—and actually care about and connect with—a Muslim. So, the story was posted, more or less, as “Muslim has a hard time traveling in the US.” I guarantee it failed to attract the Heartland clicks they so desperately crave. I imagine a didn’t-happen meeting on how the story did online: It’s not our fault no one in the Red States wanted to read the story; it’s the people in the Red State’s fault, for not caring.


  1. The people producing media—journalists, editors, producers—are plugged in. Constantly. They are viewing the world through screens. But the screen isn’t the real world. There is an entire reality that doesn’t happen in the Twitter feed and isn’t being reported on. This is the reality of, increasingly, low- to no- income citizens. The obvious answer is covering issues in a way that reflects the people—people want to see themselves reflected in media coverage, and they want to see themselves treated with dignity and respect. They want the truth about the policies and systems that impact their lives. Blight porn, hillbilly heroin, and further ghettoizing the marginalized is not the way to do this. Neither is parachuting in a journalist to Detroit (or Ohio, or Whereversville) for a day to champion some new plan marketed as a saving grace. Some of the absolute worst and most inaccurate reporting I’ve seen on Detroit has come from a famous and highly regarded “truth” telling outlet doing just that. The tough questions don’t get asked, because they don’t know what the tough questions are. And the parachuters are spoon fed sources to champion a false narrative. Don’t think America isn’t paying attention, because they are, and for every story the Blue Bubble media on the East Coast gets wrong, or half-tells, another person is further disenfranchised. This is a huge price to pay for the luxury of staying plugged in to a machine—and it results in click bait trash being force fed for those clicks: Enter a Kardashian, and exit really caring about what’s happening.


  1. Much of the news is opinion—especially online. “Oh but the Times” I can hear some say, as I type this, but look: Top of their homepage, on the right: Opinion. Top of everyone’s homepage it seems (except small, local papers) is Opinion. These are the tweetheads who spend their lives behind a screen, who are anointed with prime media real estate. I know, I know: CLICKS.


  1. Look at any major outlet’s homepages: Syria. Russia. Trump. Kardashian. Oh, here’s a story about Hillary Clinton modeling Katy Perry’s new shoes. Every three days: Heroin. Opioids. Pain. A Development That Will Change Everything. Bimonthly: Hitler. Squirrel Du Jour for every outlet to chase: Pepsiocalypse. United Airlines. Back to Russia. Today, even shopping mall and school shootings are relegated to the bottom of the page. But where is America? I promise you people want—and democracy requires—news that truly impacts and reflects its citizenry. Not homepages filled with echo chamber hot-takes of foreign conflicts and Donald Trump’s reality show. Certainly—and this is true—there is good reporting happening. But it shouldn’t be this hard to find when you’re not plugged in to the right people on Twitter (or Facebook).


  1. Remember that time the Twitter discussion was ending the Electoral College? Or changing the way the primaries function? Or promises to cover middle America more accurately? Twitter (and I suspect all social media) leads to the false sense of doing something about something that is upsetting. But in reality, tweet storms and twitching (bitching on Twitter) accomplish little more than a dopamine hit. #BlackLivesMatter is a great hash tag and an important movement, but how many police officers have been held accountable for their actions, and how many families have found justice in our courts since its inception? Preaching on Twitter—even with 20,000 re-tweets—is not the same as preaching on the Mount, or on the Mall to a crowd of 250,000.


What I realized in my off-Twitter time is that there is a whole world out here that is not represented online—and self-imposed siloes disconnect us all from ideas. News sites and their followers look down on and mock one another—Have you ever looked at FOX News’ homepage? When Trump bombed Syria, they were the only outlet I saw with top-of-the-homepage concern expressed, with comments against military action in the Middle East.


I also noticed local news outlets seem to be a heckuvalot better at covering America than big, mainstream East Coast outlets are. I learn more reading a small town Daily News or News-Journal than from an outlet out of New York.


Meanwhile, I hear people at the coffee shop, or the grocery store, complaining about Trump, or expressing extreme shock over something he said or did. I have news for them: As long as media keeps echoing on about Trump-Russia-Syria-International Crises-Celebrity news, the Blue Bubble people are going to be shocked—shocked!—in 2018 when the Republicans win, again. Not because Americans are a racist majority, but because America has not been accurately covered by the news outlets the Blue Bubblers are reading, watching, and listening to. I see this deception on homepages across the media landscape. And if an esteemed outlet can’t bring themselves to post a pull quote on Conor McGregor from a story on a Muslim—nay, can’t even bring themselves to include the quote in the story they post—coastal media has even farther to go to bridge the gap between Americans than Middle America does.


Will I get back on Twitter? Probably. But I won’t look at it the same way. It’s calming to not be on social media. I actually enjoy not being bombarded by news posted as snark. So much of it is nothing more than judgments passed from overly confident know-it-alls who are, more or less, using Twitter to fart in public. I’ll stick with the real world where, mercifully, people are civilized enough to keep their bile to themselves—or at least polite enough to excuse themselves before going to the rest room to put it where it belongs.

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