[This is a slight deviation from the mission of the blog. I wrote this article a few months ago and I am sharing it here, because I think the message is important. I also welcome your feedback! Thanks.]
NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS
Why Television News is Making You Crazy
Melissa K. Randles
A few years ago, I worked in an office building where, in the lobby, two televisions constantly displayed a round-the-clock news network. My coworkers and I used to play a game we called “Good News.” The object of the game was to be the first person in the office who spotted a positive news story playing on one of the TVs and to share the heart-warming tale with the rest of the team. We started this game on a Monday morning. By late Wednesday afternoon, only one of my fifty coworkers had received credit for pointing out a story about a heroic dog that saved his owner from a house fire. Never mind that the canine had perished during his act of heroism; this was the closest we had come to a happy story all week, and I was not inclined to argue. Eventually, the “Good News” game lost its appeal, largely because there did not seem to be any.
These office hijinks piqued my interest on the subject of television news. With all the negative stories piped into households and businesses through the news, I wondered what effect all this could have on human psychology? That is what I set out to discover. What I found was this: Watching television news directly contributes to anxiety, stress and a general belief that the world is unsafe.
Before going any further, it is important that I clearly define the scope of the phrase “television news” in this context. Television news refers to daily, sometimes hourly, news broadcast on both national and local networks. The content of these broadcasts often includes, but are not limited to, live and taped interviews, video feeds of events, “on-the-scene” reporting, and pre-recorded pieces which are shown as part of a larger story. An anchor, or a team of anchors, typically host the broadcast and provide snippets of news stories along with video or photograph images of the event in question.
As for what stories make it onto the news, that has been a subject of some debate. According to the experts, the prevailing methodology for determining what makes an evening broadcast has been the following maxim: “If it bleeds, it leads.” What this amounts to, they say, is a team of journalists looking for the most violent, gruesome stories possible to pump into the family room TV every night. Positive stories do not hold the attention of an audience and thus the news focuses on subjects that will, however disturbing they may be. If you think about your own experience watching the news, how often have you heard the phrase, “Viewers are advised that the following segment contains graphic images that may not be fit for all ages”? Knowing that, consider how many times you have ever changed the channel or left the room after such a warning. If you’re like most people, you almost never do.
With a steady diet of negative news available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (thanks to networks like Fox News and CNN), it begs us as viewers to question what all of this harmful information is doing to our minds and, more specifically, to our emotions. In a 2007 study, researchers found that after watching a short news clip concerning a negative subject (murder, theft, natural disasters and the like) participants reported very high levels of stress, and continued to feel somewhat emotionally disturbed even days later. However, when participants were taken through a guided relaxation exercise after watching a similarly troubling news clip, they reported much lower levels of stress. From these results, the research team drew the conclusion that not only is watching the news a mentally taxing activity, but that a “buffer” period is needed to reduce the negative psychological effects. Just take a moment to consider that – the fifteen minutes you spend watching the news is disruptive enough to your mental processes that it could take twice as long to undo the effects of what you have seen.
Unfortunately, the negative effects of television news do not end there. In a 2002 study researchers set out to explore a concept referred to as the “optimism gap.” This idea is a psychological phenomenon that says people will generally rate their own surroundings as relatively safe, but the world outside as a dangerous place. In a series of interviews, the research team asked individuals about the relative safety of their community and the United States in general. In addition, participants were also asked how often they watched television news. The research team found that those individuals who reported watching television news most often also indicated the greatest amount of anxiety associated with locations outside of their own, sharing their perception that the country in general is a dangerous place. Not only that, but the individuals who watched the news most often were also more likely to hold those beliefs very strongly and be less likely to waver upon repeated questioning. So, not only do you end up feeling anxious after watching the news, but xenophobic, as well.
There are those who argue that watching the news provides perspective and allows individuals to better engage with world events. However, little evidence exists that this is the case. Even studies that have been conducted to try and prove this point has produced no compelling data. For example, a recent research program attempted to draw a correlation between adolescent civic engagement and the frequency they watch the news. The results did not produce a strong argument for any such a connection. Watching the news may give you something to discuss the next time you’re confronted with a group of strangers and need to make small talk, but you have to ask yourself – is it worth the negative effects?
All of this begs the question: if we are not any more well-informed by watching the news and doing so causes psychological harm, why continue? My answer is: Don’t. I do not mean that individuals should not attempt to be informed on what is happening in the world around them; however, I do think there is an opportunity to cut out the negative, and, therefore, damaging, sources of information. Digital technology, RSS readers and other “news feed” programs such as Google Reader have made it so that everyday consumers can pick and choose the information they want to see. With these tools, one can read about gardening, technology news and other life-affirming and positive sources rather than focusing on the violence, disaster and crime-ridden source that is television news. With all the world at our fingertips, there is no reason I can see why anyone should have to watch television in order to stay informed on what is happening in the world.
It is common knowledge that certain foods are bad for us – if we eat nothing but fats and sugars, our bodies feel the negative effects of those choices. The same applies for information. We have a choice in our daily news “diet” and if we continue to fill our minds with the unhealthy products of television news than we will feel the effects for years to come. However, if we start making better choices and using technology to help us curate a healthier diet of information, we will all find our minds to be a healthier place. If we start becoming as deliberate about what we put in our minds, as what we put in our bodies, is possible for all of us to finally get some “Good News.”