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This Just In: Keep Your Focus Amid Breaking News

How to stay informed without sacrificing your academic work.

November 14, 2017
 
 

Deidra Faye Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate in Higher Education at the University of Mississippi. You can find her on Twitter at @DeidraJackson11.

Turn off the TV. Don’t listen to the radio. Don’t click on that link. Shut down social media. If that’s all it took to disengage from the 24/7 news cycle, then this post would end right here.

But for us avid news consumers and former journalists, it isn’t that easy, even as our dissertation defense dates and academic writing deadlines loom large. However, there are ways to survive these news-rich days and still be a productive graduate student.

In conducting research for this post, I landed on an entertainment website with a bold headline plastered on a deep red “breaking news” banner on the top of the page that read something like this: Top public official did such-and-such questionable thing to the consternation of many. This recurring theme and other angst-causing stories in many global and national news outlets have had me looking like that poor cat reacting to scary scenes from the movie Psycho. I’ve been stressed and distracted. Though I could easily pass the New York Times’s weekly news quizzes, I was falling short of my daily dissertation writing goals.

After several months of floundering in my scholarly work, something had to give. Consuming a constant diet of disturbing news was blocking me from writing consistently. I could either continue following reported threats of discharged nukes and diminishing health services or I could ignore them for now, resume my research, and increase my page count.

But I couldn’t do both.

It wasn’t easy, but, in the choice between finishing my dissertation this millennium or not, I learned to kick my hard news habit to the curb. GradHacker already has discussed many ways to beat procrastination and overpower low motivation; here are some strategies to prevent the Fourth Estate from stealing all your valuable attention.

Set your timer. Consider a Pomodoro Technique for weaning yourself off too much news coverage. After those intense 25-minute bursts of academic writing, relegate some of your five-minute breaks to catching up on short news snippets. Your scholarly work holds sway during these sessions, but it’s okay to briefly check in to ensure that the world isn’t teetering on the edge of oblivion.

Be intentional. It may seem counterintuitive, but, if your research topic allows it, use the news to serve your scholarship. When it comes to doing purposeful research, try adopting a posture set by behavioral economist and Nobel Laureate Richard H. Thaler, who said, “Make your research about the world not the literature.” After recently watching Ken Burns’ documentary, The Vietnam War, one of my colleagues, a creative writer and faculty researcher, injected more authenticity into his work after concluding that the protracted conflict wasn’t as much a part of his characters’ dialogue as it should have been.  Although he hadn’t initially included the war talk, he was open to making a change to his story; being deliberate in this way, and after viewing the docudrama, he consciously decided to make its subject a part of his story.

Stick to the list. Handle the news the way I do a big box store: get in, get what you need, and get out. Keep your news-following on a strict need-to-know basis.

Connect with your allies. I have mixed emotions about engaging in occasional news talk with friends and family. Most of my peers go out of their way to avoid discussing the current state of global and national affairs and regard our campus environs as safe spaces to escape such madness. But when you’re in the zone and deeply engaged in research and writing, don’t forget to stay in contact with your closest supporters. Be mindful of how constant news consumption may be taking a toll on your health. It’s important to practice self-care. Seek a listening ear or counseling if you need to.

As we progress in graduate school and endeavor to complete our research projects, focusing on media coverage of some of the most serious issues around us – ongoing disasters, mass shootings, political upheavals, human rights concerns, major education and other funding shortfalls, and so on – can seem overwhelming and appear much more consequential than reaching our writing and research targets. And it’s not always easy to turn off the news, especially when it affects us or the people and places we care about. In the midst of our studies, it’s why many of us turn to the media for answers.

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie All the President’s Men. Two Washington Post reporters, believing their lives to be in danger, ask their editor if they should keep chasing the Watergate story. The newspaper editor at the time, Ben Bradlee, played by the actor Jason Robards, replies, “Nothing’s riding on this, except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country.”

As emergent scholars, sometimes it seems strange for us to plug away on our writing and research while unnerving things happen around the world and close to home.  Courtesy of the news, we have virtual ringside seats to events occurring on all corners of the Earth. I remind myself that my tenure as a graduate student and researcher is fleeting, but the news – much of it troubling – will always be with us. Therefore, we have to make the very best of it and strive to reach our academic goals.

Is breaking news breaking you as a grad student? What are your experiences? How have you backed away from the news or effectively worked it into your academic routine? Share your thoughts in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Alan Levine and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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