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Reading a newspaper can save your life

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Phil Bremen

News is like food. A lot of people won’t even taste something they think they won’t like.

But like food, news also nourishes us. In fact, reading the newspaper can even save our lives – especially if we sample beyond the familiar.

For example, The Washington Post recently gave its readers an expert’s step-by-step formula for escaping from a car underwater. The story was inspired by the amazing survival of a 22-year-old woman after her car plunged off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

If I were still in the business of cranking out news stories every day, I might have thought to do that story myself. But I’m not, and I didn’t. As someone who drives a lot, I might have searched the Web for advice on how to get out of a sinking car. But I didn’t. Thanks to a newspaper, though, I now know how to survive another of life’s perils.

What a good newspaper does is sense what we’d want to know if we had mind to ask, then serve it to us, unbidden, on paper or on a screen.

This smorgasbord of information would be especially helpful for the young, but they are least likely to follow the news. For instance, I read last spring about a new federal program to make it easier to repay college loans. However, the newspaper story quickly added, many graduates don’t know about it.

To be sure, most news stories won’t lead us away from the precipice of debt, much less death. But day in and day out, news does provide a guide to successful living.

We see accounts of people who have overcome adversity or just plain applied themselves to excel in this sport or that career. They and those around them describe how they did it.

On the other hand, we also see a steady stream of reportage on people whose lives have gone off the rails. We learn what went wrong – and perhaps make a note to ourselves not to go that way.

Not long ago, I read about a man who has been arrested 115 times in 20 years. Most of those arrests, the newspaper reported, involved alcohol. Even a casual reader might be reminded of the perils of excessive drinking – and how difficult it can be for some people to stay sober.

Yes, reminded. Often what the news tells us is reinforcement rather than revelation.

Consider then-U.S. Rep. Christopher Lee. In June 2009, his byline appeared on an op-ed article in a newspaper in his district in western New York. His column warned teenagers that a few injudicious keystrokes on the Internet could ruin their lives.

Fast-forward to February 2011, when Lee abruptly resigned, clearly having ignored his own advice. The married congressman had emailed a shirtless photo of himself to a woman whom he met on Craigslist.

Anthony Weiner must have noticed. He also was from New York, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, and married. Yet just 4 months later, Weiner, too, resigned – after the disclosure that he had electronically shared lewd messages and photos with at least six women.

Now running for mayor of New York City, Weiner admits he has been sexting again. So, clearly, some of us don’t learn from sorry experiences, even our own.

But if we are both attentive and willing, we can fortify our defenses against causing havoc for ourselves and those who care about us. The news underscores those lessons again and again.

You may already appreciate that. You’re reading a newspaper.

Phil Bremen, a former newspaper reporter and NBC News correspondent, is an associate professor of telecommunications at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

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