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 just on what you read in the news, then you would have a pretty poor opinion of humanity.

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 the most stress hadn’t witnessed the explosion, nor did they know someone who had died in it. The most stressed people were the ones 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 draw us in over happy ones.

Having a vocal and active press is also an important part of any 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 flooding us with negative stories, the news twists the way that our minds work. As thinkers like Steven Pinker remind us, the world is actually healthier and more peaceful than ever.

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 good journalism, then the news is still the best guide to making sense of our world. Without the media to warn us about Covid-19, it might have been even more dangerous.

You Decide

  1. How do you normally feel after reading or watching the news?

Activities

  1. Design the front page of a newspaper which focuses on good news.

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. Constantly listening 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 any benefit to knowing nothing about events 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 that only focused on positive news would be a good thing. It might stop us from questioning the problems that do exist in the world.

Word Watch

5G
The fifth generation technology which mobile phone companies began using worldwide in 2019. It allows faster internet and phone connection and has no link to the coronavirus outbreak.
Conspiracy theory
Explaining harmful or tragic events as the result of the actions of small, powerful, or sinister groups, when other explanations are more likely.
Current affairs
Important events that are happening in the world right now.
Evolved
Developed gradually.
Negativity bias
The theory that things that are negative have a greater effect on our mental and emotional state than positive things.
Press
Generally means newspapers and magazines (as opposed to TV and radio).
Democratic
Something democratic is based on the idea that everyone should have equal rights and should be involved in making important decisions. In a democratic country, people vote for politicians to represent them in government.
Hold the powerful to account
Making powerful people, such as politicians, explain and take responsibility for their actions and decisions.
Reinforcing
Strengthening.
Echo chambers
A metaphor to describe a situation where, especially on social media, everyone agrees with one another – so the same idea echoes – and you don’t hear different opinions.
Steven Pinker
A Canadian-American psychologist and popular science author. He believes that the world is getting better.
Propaganda
Information, especially of a one-sided or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view.

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