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Creek Running North

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September 26, 2005

Prelude to an anatomy of bad news

I became editor of Terrain, a small-circulation monthly environmental newsletter, in May 1992. It was the first job I'd taken in the field of journalism. Today, 13 years and change later, I have work done with several other publications under my belt. A small, regional web magazine, a high-toned dot-com startup, an award-winning quarterly, a radio talk show heard throughout California, a column syndicated throughout the Knight-Ridder chain. I've done a couple other jobs here and there, and some freelancing.

Most of the publications I've worked for have done advocacy journalism in the environmental field. What this means is that I have spent a significant part of each day for the last 13 years and change feeling obligated, first thing each morning, to look for as much bad news as I could find. Most of the publications I've worked for have been severely underfunded. That means that once I found the bad news, there was often nothing I could do about it. Page real estate or freelance volunteer writer bandwidth or just hours in the day have forced a rather brutal triage in what bad news I can address. The rest just sits in my brain, unanswered.

This steady diet of force-fed bad news has taken its toll. No, burnout isn't looming in my life. Burnout is, in fact, an old friend. I burned out twice before I left Terrain in 1997, once again the first time I tried to work at Earth Island Journal, and I've had a few minor episodes between then and now. I have my burnout under control, mostly, and I only take it out for a walk when it really needs one.

But the news has worn a mark on me like glacier-borne gravel polishing a boulder. I can tell you in some detail, for instance, the field marks that distinguish debilitating depression from a mere overwhelming sadness. I can describe four or five different kinds of jaded. I can tell you where the stereotype of Journalist as Alcoholic comes from, and why it's a wise career strategy.

Bad news is seductive. If you read the earlier posts on this blog, for instance, you will see a peculiar detachment from the grand events of the day. This was deliberate. I needed a place somewhere to write about things not having to do with the Bush Administration. I spent every day writing the howls of outrage; I needed some place to write about kingfishers and egrets.

Obviously that didn't last long, and I have to remind myself every so often these days that this blog is named for a creek that has not run through its pages in some time.

I have been working, this past year, on an idea, a germ of an essay, on the anatomy of bad news. I decided to begin in earnest when Iris Chang killed herself. The rampant speculation that a short, intense lifetime of reporting bad news had stolen her will to live turned out not to be precisely accurate, but the unanimity of the early reporting of her death told me that the notion of Deadly Bad News was worth exploring, especially in the wake of the Bush re-election. I did a little research. I talked to some people I know who have exposed some very bad news indeed to a jaded public. I was ready to start writing.

And then a massive tsunami struck the north parts of the Indian Ocean, killing hundreds of thousands of people. My initial reaction to the news shocked the hell out of me. I realized I needed to do some thinking before I wrote. The bad news, obviously, has not slackened since December 26.

And now we have lost a major US city, and I spent that week watching the horrifying news out of New Orleans instead of writing my article on two entire ecosystems between my home and that city going extinct.

It is time to start writing, whether or not I am ready.

Over the next few days, I'll be putting together a series of blog posts on the anatomy of bad news. I'm breaking the ideas up into small pieces in part as an attempt at kindness to my readers - bad news is best swallowed in small bites - and in part because that's how bad news arrives, mostly. My goal is to spark a bit of discussion about the effects that this non-stop diet of bad news has on all of us - because I know damn well I'm not the only one feeling it - and to explore the jadedness, the cynicism to which we are all prey from time to time in response to bad news.

Posted by Chris Clarke at September 26, 2005 01:52 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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More science journalism, good and bad
Excerpt: As long as I'm mentioning good science journalism, let me toss out another name: William Souder. He's a Minnesota journalist who has talked at my university, and is the author of A Plague of Frogs: Unraveling an Environmental Mystery (amzn/b&...
Weblog: Pharyngula
Tracked: September 26, 2005 11:05 AM
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Well, thanks. For the rest of the day I'll be thinking about poor Gary Webb.

And yeah, I'm feeling it.

Posted by: Roxanne at September 26, 2005 06:28 AM
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Chris, I admire your intent to follow the trail(creek) where it will lead you. I admire your drive to write something meaningful that may also, in the process, help you understand the path you life has taken.

For my own sanity, I take regular breaks from bad news -- one week a month. During that week, I don't turn on the radio, read any blogs, watch tv news or open our measly local newspaper. It's a fast from news -- a drastic diet I force upon myself.

It helps.

I have enjoyed reading about egrets and kingfishers and your dog companion. I think I'll miss the lack of bad news in your blog as you post your bits and pieces of bad news anatomy. Still, I wish you luck in your task.

Posted by: maureen at September 26, 2005 07:59 AM
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It is time to start writing, whether or not I am ready.

You and me both. Somewhat different paths, but stemming from the same basic awareness of the toll this is taking. I'll be reading whatever you write.

Posted by: beth at September 26, 2005 08:20 AM
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You know, most of the time it's not the bad news that bothers me. Not that I want yet another mess to ponder and then clean up - nobody hopes for another Iraq or another natural disaster - but I keep thinking that one of these days our culture will finally have the blindfold stripped from our eyes, and we'll be forced to get on with the business of repairing the incredible amount of damage we've done to the planet and to each other; that we'll begin to live of substance and meaning and purpose.

And then, when the dust clears from the latest horror (whatever that happens to be) only to reveal the same toxic mindset as existed before, I'm first astonished, and then saddened and depressed. Not depressed in the clinical sense, but in the sense that I'm a member of a species that seems to view consumption as our highest calling and that regards lemmings as role models.

But fuck depression. Fuck it. We have work to do and there's no hope at all if we start feeling sorry for ourselves.

Posted by: tost at September 26, 2005 08:41 AM
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I think I'm there with tost; it's not so much the badness of the news, but the sort of apathetic paralysis that follows it, and the anxiety that goes with wanting to fix things but not having the power or knowledge to do so. It also goes along with periodically wondering if I'm a freak for getting wound up about these sorts of things, while "everyone" seems to be perfectly content with the way our world is working.

To repeat a by now well-polished chestnut: thank heavens for blogs, and for blog friends.

I'm also struck by what I don't think is an apology, really, but a discomfort about alternating more light-hearted posts with those dealing with the Doom and Gloom. I'm struck by it because it's something I wrestle with regularly, a sort of vague unease with the notion that I can post about relatively frivolous (seemingly, anyway) topics at virtually the same time that I'm posting ones filled with anger, fear, sadness and outrage.

I used to wonder if it was an indication of some sort of multiple-personality syndrome. Now I suspect that it's more a coping mechanism, one that my grasshopper mind has seized on as most suited to itself. I _don't_ think about the bad stuff 24/7; I believe that if I did, I would be crazy. So having a blog that reflects the multivariant ways my brain works is a good thing, a reminder that while there are enough horrors in the world to worry every waking moment, a healthy mind can't focus on them to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes you have to break to do the laundry, you find yourself laughing at a funeral, and sometimes you just need to hunker down with something small and wonderful to remind yourself why it's all worth it.

I don't know if I look forward to your posts, in a positive sense, but I do look forward to reading them and the thoughts I know they'll jiggle loose.

Posted by: Rana at September 26, 2005 12:06 PM
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Though there isn't much in this to relieve environmental woes, some people might find encouragement in the email series "Heroic Stories" - about real people doing good things. To subscribe (for free) send a blank message to or visit . (No, I'm not affiliated with this project except as a subscriber.)

Posted by: Pierce R. Butler at September 26, 2005 12:45 PM
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I make it a strict principle, and have for years, not to take in more bad news than I can do something about immediately. You know, send the five bucks, or write the congressman, that sort of thing. That means I take in maybe half an hour of news per week.

I don't see any good reason to take in more, and I see lots of good reasons not to. Once I'm at saturation point, as far as what I can do, taking in more has nothing to do with helping the world, and everything to do with habituating my mind to passive anger.

I appreciate that there are people like you who have to keep this stuff washing through your minds, and I'm very grateful for it. I've marvelled at you being able to march on through it.

Posted by: dale at September 26, 2005 03:00 PM
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One of the local TV news stations here in Orlando did a report yesterday about Post Traumatic Stress afflicting folks who have been affected by Katrina and Rita. The report also briefly mentioned that the idea of "second-hand" PTSD is also being studied. My rogh sense of what was reported was that folks who are watching the disaster news too much can show effects of PTSD.

No idea if that's bullsbhit, but it sounds like something worth investigating.

Posted by: MoXmas at September 26, 2005 03:15 PM
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MoxMas, I have been in therapy for PTSD for a couple years now and my trauma therapist has told me about that on a number of occasions - there was many documented cases of PTSD among children watching the news about 9/11 - mostly those in the NY area, because the idea of it being so close to home made it more traumatic.

Posted by: Craig at September 27, 2005 02:26 PM
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were. there were.

Posted by: craig at September 27, 2005 04:38 PM
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I ceased watching TV ten years ago
and stopped reading the weekly news magazines then as well
to give myself writing time

I get my bad news from the internet
where I also get the good news I don;t make for myself
or find in my back yard

I have within
a Wqeeping Woman
who never lacks for things
in the world to weep over

she weeps for all the rest of me
so the rest can get on with
being joyful
and attentive to all the Wonder
that is not sorrowful

alas I have no woman
who makes all there is to weep about

but it is enough
to be sane in the midst of insanities

and wild in the midst of
what passes these days for civilized

Posted by: suzanne at October 12, 2005 11:11 AM
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