The amount and speed of information coming out about COVID-19 are mind-numbing. While some of us may be glued to our TV or Twitter feeds in a state of anxiety and terror, others may have chosen to check out completely. The thing I still find fascinating about the novel coronavirus is the fact that the entire globe is affected—none of us is an outsider. Yet since this crisis began, I’ve wondered if there is a better, and perhaps more Buddhist, way to consume the news.
I was twelve years old on 9/11. In the weeks following that day, I learned that of the 2,977 people who died, 50 were from my hometown of Manhasset, a small hamlet on Long Island. While the grown-ups around me navigated the mourning and economic fallout, I traversed my own muddy swamp: the middle school cafeteria, which I found to be a remarkably effective petri dish for culturing misinformation, not unlike today’s social media. It took me years to understand why anyone thought that Indian people like me had anything to do with the attacks.
I learned to keep my mouth shut most of the time, but some questions in me couldn’t be silenced. I wondered, for example, why people do the things they do in times of crisis. Why respond with anger when you’re actually frightened? Why ignore reality when it could benefit from your assistance? Why hide when what you really want is to connect?
As a teenager, I began practicing Soka Gakkai Nichiren Buddhism with my family. As an adult, I entered into a career in journalism, which gave me another set of tools to seek answers. Journalism taught me to sort fact from fiction—a skill that has come in handy in the last few months. In seeking to be more discerning in how I read the news, I put together a handful of guidelines, inspired by my Buddhist mentor, Daisaku Ikeda, the leader of Soka Gakkai International (SGI)—and by the things I’ve learned from working in the 21st century news world.
First, I offer this prescription: be mindful of your news consumption. Nearly two decades after my experience in the middle school cafeteria, 2020’s global coronavirus pandemic has filled the internet and airwaves with exchanges of misinformation and blame, both driven by fear of the unknown. But this time, I have Buddhism—and my mature, adult brain—to rely on as I navigate these murky waters.
Probably the most useful bit of advice I can offer may sound like the most simplistic: confirm your intentions before you check the news. My intentions are based on my Buddhist values—I often turn to Ikeda’s writings on “global citizenship,” which can be defined as a genuine concern and effort to establish peace in the world. I believe that to truly practice global citizenship, our interconnectedness should be a consideration in all of our actions.
These days, I like to think of consuming the news like consuming food. Just as we ought to be mindful about what, how much, and at what times of day we eat food, we can be mindful about which news sources we turn to, and when and how often we turn to them. We can establish a media diet based on clear intentions—for instance, to stay up to date on efforts to flatten our nation’s curve, to inform ourselves of important precautions—instead of overeating or getting stuck in a “filter bubble,” or at the whims of pre-determined algorithms. We must also aim to seek out news sources that are wholesome in content, committed to ethical journalistic standards and fact-checking.
I also set limits for what (and when) I consume. To avoid getting sucked into reading endlessly about things that cannot yet be confirmed, I decide beforehand how long I’m going to be reading or watching. Before I start looking for articles, I identify specific questions I’m looking for the answers to—such as to what extent should I socially isolate, where can I buy such and such—so that I know where to look and when I can stop. For more general news updates, I try to stick with 1-3 news reputable news sources and check them in the morning and evening—but no more. Instead of constantly refreshing the breaking news feed, I spend more time consulting sources that involve deeper thinking, like podcasts, videos, and essays.
In order to understand how different communities have been affected, I try to consult local sources in addition to bigger news websites. This means I search for reporting from the communities around me. These sources tend to offer more than just reporting, too—they also show me how I can help, providing information on how local food banks and neighborhood groups are collecting and sharing resources despite social distancing.
Still, it’s good to burst your news bubble. While staying local is important, it’s also necessary to evaluate American news media by comparing it with foreign outlets. For me, this means seeking out dependable international sources to add to my media diet. Overall, I try to make sure that I am reading something local—something immediately relevant to me, my close friends, and family; something national; and something international.
I also follow the leaders in their respective fields: I want to stay up to date on the latest knowledge and precautions so I can be a source of sound information for the people around me. So I subscribe to updates from my relevant local authorities and follow experts I trust, such as economists, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and scientists who are modeling the outbreak, or journalists who are doing thoughtful reporting. To this end, I regularly update my social feeds with people and sources I find helpful and unfollow anyone too unhelpful. I check these once a day and no more. Likewise, I try to compile resources for my own social media followers by sharing things I find useful or encouraging.
These values provide a compass to navigate my way through misinformation, and an anchor when I’m confronted with dizzying amounts of information. The media can be as overwhelming as a middle school cafeteria—but it’s not all bad. “Buddhism teaches that both good and evil are potentialities that exist in all people,” Ikeda has said. “Compassion consists in the sustained and courageous effort to seek out the good in any person, whoever they may be, however they may behave. It means striving, through sustained engagement, to cultivate the positive qualities in oneself and in others.” Reliable news (and learning how to read it) can actually do more than bring us information about the environment in which we live—it can offer us clues about how to become positive actors in our communities.