How too much news can mess with your head

Kim Jong-un: The impact of the news that does not affect us directly is a psychological mystery. © Getty

Does news warp the mind? Our brains evolved to pay attention to threats, but we are constantly bombarded by negative stories. The 24/7 news cycle might be distorting our vision of reality.

The number of cases keeps going up. Millions will be forced into poverty. Presidents brag about taking dangerous medications.

If you based your vision of the world solely on what you read in the news, then you would have a pretty poor picture of humanity.

Even before the current pandemic, the news depicted life as a series of celebrity scandals, terrorist attacks and politicians telling lies.

During a time of high stress – like the global outbreak of a deadly virus – it is natural to seek out information that might help keep us alive. Experts say that reading the news allows us to feel in control, when the world feels especially chaotic.

Chinese researchers have found those who felt knowledgeable about Covid-19 “can better shield their emotional well-being” regardless of whether, in fact, they did know more than others.

But understanding something that baffles many health experts is difficult, so we often look for shortcuts – explanations that seem too good to be true, and often are.

David Icke, a former Hereford United goalkeeper who believes that lizards run the world, has said that 5G masts cause Covid-19. The actor Woody Harrelson and the boxer Amir Khan also helped spread this conspiracy theory.

Yet even without falling for fake news, current affairs can hurt us.

A recent study found that after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, those who suffered from the most stress were neither those who witnessed the explosion, nor those who knew someone who died. It was those who watched the news for at least six hours each day after the attack.

We have evolved to notice threats so that we can avoid them. This negativity bias means that worrying stories always have a stronger pull on us than happy ones.

“There are advantages to being an animal that prioritises negative information,” says Stuart Soroka, a University of Michigan professor. “We are living, and always have lived, in a very information-rich environment. We can’t pay attention to everything.”

Having a vocal and active press is also a central aspect of a modern democratic society. How else will you hold the powerful to account?

As the writer Paul Hiebert points out, “Bad news is actually good news because it shows society still cares when bad people do bad things.”

So, does news really warp the mind?

Information overload

Yes. By reinforcing our existing beliefs in echo chambers or by overwhelming us with negative stories, the news provides us with an inaccurate image of the world and twists the way that our minds work. As thinkers like Steven Pinker remind us, the world is actually healthier and more peaceful than ever. If the news is helping you understand a situation, it is good for you. If not, you can look away.

No. So long as you aren’t falling for fake news, what is being reported is still true. If you learn to tell the difference between propaganda and journalism, then the news is still the best guide to making sense of a complex and fast-changing world. We need good reporting now more than ever. Think of how even more dangerous the coronavirus would have seemed had the media not been there to warn us about it.

You Decide

  1. How do you normally feel after reading or watching the news?
  2. Should news organisations be responsible for more than simply reporting on stories?

Activities

  1. Design the front page of a newspaper that focuses on good news.
  2. Choose a recent news story – for example, one you may have seen posted on social media – and rewrite it, adding more context, so that it paints a fairer and more realistic picture of the world.

Some People Say...

“A newspaper is not just for reporting the news as it is, but to make people mad enough to do something about it.”

Mark Twain (1835–1910), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
“People will always want bad news because they don’t want those bad situations to happen to them,” says Jill McCluskey, a professor of economics at Washington State University. Repeated exposure to bad news really does mess with our minds. A 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association found that even though 50% of Americans say that the news causes them stress, one in 10 adults still check it every hour.
What do we not know?
Whether there is a real benefit to knowing nothing of what happens in the outside world. It is also very difficult to test. If you live with other people and access the internet, there is no escape from information, good or bad. We do not know if news outlets that only focused on balanced, accurate, positive news would be a good thing. They might risk making us complacent, when overly negative stories made us wary.

Word Watch

5G
The fifth generation technology for cellular networks; mobile phone companies began deploying it worldwide in 2019. It will allow faster internet and phone connection, furthering the advance of the internet of things. It has no link to the coronavirus outbreak.
Conspiracy theory
An attempt to explain harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of small, powerful, or sinister groups, when other explanations are more likely.
Negativity bias
The theory that things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on one’s psychological state and processes than neutral or positive things.
Echo chambers
A metaphorical description of a situation where, especially on social media, people only encounter views that reflect and reinforce their own.
Steven Pinker
A Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. A well-known intellectual, he believes that the world is getting better.
Propaganda
Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

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