If you feel worse for having watched the news, it’s not necessarily because the world’s going to hell in a hand-basket. It may be your brain saying ‘Give me a break!’
As concerned citizens of the world, we recognize our responsibility to stay informed, to understand the issues that face our society today. But we may need to find a better way to do that, a way that doesn’t mess with our minds, activating our negativity bias and setting our brains up to erroneously extrapolate that the horrible things we see on the news are happening everywhere all the time. Because apparently that’s exactly what the brain does! It creates a world view out of repetition. So the more bad news it sees, the more it sees the world as bad and getting worse.
But hey, you may say, there is a lot of bad news. Is there? The bulk of news reported is bad news, not because more bad things happened that day than good, but because bad things are actually rare, and rare things are newsworthy. Notice how on nightly news shows, they offer a little token feel good piece at the end — a sweet aftertaste. They could easily have filled the whole show with such pieces, ad nauseum!, but that wouldn’t be good business.
Sure, they could keep us watching by showing cute animal videos, but there is a journalistic negativity bias against good news. Author Steven Pinker says that journalists “believe that any positive development is not serious journalism but is corporate public relations or government propaganda.” So viewers/readers get traumatized by all the world’s sorrows and forget about all the world’s joys.
Pinker points out that most statistical data shows the world is becoming better with less crime, less war, fewer people living in poverty, etc. Hard to believe. A little time travel back to the ‘good old days’ might help us see our own times in historical context. If we really want to be well-informed we might want to include books and documentaries that tell us about the lives of others in our communities and around the world, so that we more deeply understand the joys and challenges of life today. Why would we ever rely solely on one or two sources for our understanding of the world we live in? Especially if they profit from keeping our negativity bias activated?
My husband’s earliest career was working as a television news film editor. He knew well the motto ‘if it bleeds it leads’. Beyond that, he witnessed how parts of stories, maybe important parts, would end up on the cutting room floor, making for unbalanced reporting. (After a decade in the industry, he couldn’t take it anymore! He found a career more suited to his talents and disposition.)
Anyone who has lived through a disaster knows how national reportage on a local event is often distorted. For example, the October 17, 1989 earthquake in the SF Bay Area caused a lot of devastation – a portion of the Bay Bridge collapsed, an East Bay freeway collapsed, San Francisco’s Marina District lost a lot of buildings to fire, some buildings in other areas were damaged and 67 people died. There was lots of horrifying and heartbreaking video footage to show. But by repeatedly showing just these images and not showing any assuring images of all the places where no damage was done, the news reports had people across the country thinking that all of San Francisco had crumbled and was up in flames. Distant friends and family thought it was a miracle that we survived. Yet we, like most other residents in San Francisco and surrounding communities, suffered no damage whatsoever. But that’s not ‘news’ even though it’s important information — proof that ‘news’ is not about information but about fueling fear and ratings.
That was thirty years ago and news reportage, with all the competition for viewers’ attention, has become even more aggressively negative, using heart thumping music to activate fear, over-using the words ‘Breaking News’ and lots of other gimmicks. They have set off an epidemic of FOMO – fear of missing out, creating a whole industry of 24/7 news to serve it.
There are times when most of us feel compelled to stay glued to the news, like when the twin towers fell and it was beyond anything we could ever have imagined to watch such massive destruction and such devastation and loss of life, trying to make sense of it and what it might mean for our country and the world. A more recent personal example was last November when my daughter and I stayed on the phone together every day as we watched the streaming of news and daily press conferences in Butte County as the Camp Fire raged in a community we had come to love.
But those are the exceptions. Most of the time we are offered up these images to satisfy some inner craving to be scared, shocked and horrified, to have our inherent negativity bias justified.
There are times when, if we are citizens in a democracy and have a vested interest in the well-being of our country, that we need to watch, for example, the upcoming debates so that we know the various viewpoints and can assess the candidates or ourselves rather than trust the news or candidate ads to point us in any direction.
But other times, oftentimes, we do ourselves a disservice by making heartbreaking news a habit. It’s worth changing the channel in our lives, discovering other more reliable sources for information that matters, using the time we save to listen in and reach out to others to work toward creating the world that reflects our best fearless intentions. And relaxing! Just relaxing and enjoying being alive! Summer’s here and the time is right to take a break and find the joy in this moment right now just as it is.