I’m one of those unfortunate people who deal with times of great stress by sleeping less, not more. I’m also doomed to relieving that stress kinetically — not by eating, not by talking, but by moving. A lot. Thus I found myself at the gym far too early yesterday morning, attempting to operate complicated machinery (i.e. the elliptical) on only a half cup of coffee. Danger, Will Robinson, danger!

The real hazard, however, lay directly in front of me. About ten feet away from the cardio machines, located so that you cannot possibly avoid watching them, is a row of three TVs. I realize this is small compared to some gyms, but trust me — it’s a lot to handle for someone who has never watched much TV, especially when my defenses (read: caffeine levels) are down.

So there I was, in a weakened state, halfway watching CNN and some other news show while trying my best to wake up before yoga class. Both TVs were muted and had the captioning on, so I managed to switch back and forth between the two pretty well. (The third didn’t have the captions turned on, so I figured I was off the hook on that one.)

Towards the end of my workout, I lost track of the captions and decided to just watch the images instead. On the left, there was CNN, with a story about the troops in Iraq and a potential drawdown. On the other TV, there was a story about a movie premiere or awards show, showing quick clips of the stars on some red carpet or another.

Despite the huge difference in content, there was almost no way to determine the stories’ context using visuals alone. How was I supposed to know that Rob Lowe was any less of a priority than the soldiers? Even with the sound off, I could almost hear the serious music playing in the background and the anchors’ gravely earnest commentary, whether it be about troop withdrawal or Rob Lowe’s newest acting efforts.

After about thirty seconds, I was totally overwhelmed by the visual influx, which coincided nicely with the end of my workout. As I stepped gratefully off the machine, it occurred to me that in the modern media world, this is par for the course. People are always multitasking, fitting in the news wherever and whenever they can: at the gym, in the car, at the office. My husband, one of the most well-informed people I know, considers the idea of actually sitting down with a paper to be completely outdated. Why digest yesterday’s news in a sedate physical format when he can access Instapundit, well, instantly? No thank you.

To keep up, the media have to portray the news in a more and more frantic manner, and turn little things into huge blowouts when there’s nothing else to be discussed. (I know this is not a huge revelation, and has been stated elsewhere in much more eloquent form. Like I said, I’ve never really watched much TV, so it’s taken me a while to catch on.)

So the question is this: when everything is portrayed as a matter of life and death, how do you know which is which? More importantly, how do you pay attention long enough to access the stories that are neither spectacular nor good-looking, but just plain old hopeless and depressing?

The good news is that people are coming up with some fairly innovative ideas to combat the information overload. I’m thinking in particular of the partnership recently formed between Google Earth and the UNHCR, which will use Google’s satellite technology to raise awareness about refugees in Colombia, Iraq, and Chad.

At first, this effort struck me as hugely ironic. These are people who literally struggle for survival on a daily basis. To them, this technology and the people who will be using it are almost entirely theoretical and out of reach. How exactly is that supposed to help again?

That said, I do have to admire the reasoning here. As I found out in the gym, seeing pictures on the news just isn’t enough. No matter how graphic or moving they are, they flash on and off in an instant, and are immediately superseded by whoever happens to have a new movie/girlfriend/illegitimate child that week. By giving us an in-depth portrait of what it’s like to actually live in a refugee camp, perhaps this Google Earth initiative might reach past the numbness of a media weary populace and inspire action.

Maybe so, but the cynical part of me can’t help thinking that this new collaboration will only affect those who are already aware of the situation. Who else would sit down at their computer and seek out such thoroughly depressing statistics and photos? Surely it’s much easier and more entertaining to read People magazine online, or even Instapundit for that matter.

Probably, but you’ve got to start somewhere. Otherwise, people will continue to tune out, just like I did. They will jump off their elliptical machine in their safe, far away gym and go on to yoga class, wondering what the hell Rob Lowe had to do with troop withdrawals, anyway. Or was it Tom Cruise, or Brangelina? I can’t even remember now. Clearly, I’d better drink more coffee next time I go to the gym.