In the days following the September 11 terror attacks, I, like many people, found myself glued to the television and overwhelmed with fear and exhaustion exacerbated by the round-the-clock news coverage.
In particular, I remember exactly where I was sitting in my living room when a news segment showed parents, spouses and friends posting flyers desperately looking for their missing loved ones. A dam broke inside me, and I burst into tears. A few minutes later, I decided to unplug my TV for 24 hours. To my surprise, I felt like a different person within a few hours.
I am not someone who blames the news media for the world’s problems. However, I do think we ought to examine the effect 24/7 news has on our collective and individual psyches. This effect is, of course, exacerbated by social media, which presents us with waves of news even when we aren’t actively seeking it out.
While news media ideally should inform, media companies really make money by keeping our attention. The data clearly shows that our attention is far easier to attract and hold when the topic is something that appeals to our fears, worries or outrage—it’s just human nature.
Because we’re surrounded by reports of bad news, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we live in one of most objectively peaceful times in history, where humans are probably even nicer to each other on average than ever before. Plus, solutions to problems now arrive faster than ever—with the astoundingly fast development of Covid-19 vaccines being a great example.
The reason it doesn’t feel that way is that negative events, even ones with very small probability outcomes, are constantly showcased in real time around the world. This never happened in any prior era of history; because information traveled much slower and less far, most people saw the world through a much narrower lens. This was particularly true for children who received their news either through or with their parents, who could help them understand nuance and context.
But today, the news and social media cycle pulls our focus onto every tragic story, making us believe things are worse, or more imminently dangerous, than they really are.
For example, if a plane were to crash in the United States today, and kill all 200 people on board, this would lead every news broadcast for at least 24 hours. I guarantee that pretty much every American would be a bit more afraid to fly tomorrow after seeing those news stories. But those deaths, while tragic, would be disproportionately elevated in the minds of viewers, even though thousands of Americans die each day of other causes.
For example, here are some common causes of death, and the American daily death toll for each:
All of these causes of death would be deadlier than the hypothetical plane crash, but because they don’t lead the nightly news, our perception of danger of these things are lower.
In contrast, if the evening news was full of tragic stories of household accidents and weeping testimonials from family members, we would probably go through our days seeing danger in even mundane tasks, such as cooking dinner on the stove. Our risk would not be any higher, but our perception would be changed.
The news we consume each day curates a subjective narrative and reality.
Over the past few years, especially throughout the more active states of the COVID pandemic, every time I spoke with someone who seemed especially anxious or discouraged, I would ask them if they had been consuming a lot of news in the past few days or hours. Almost always, the answer was yes, it did not matter what medium.
The same principle has been true with the recent stock market pullback. I’ve noticed that people who have been consuming the most coverage of the market woes seem far more affected than people who have chosen to ignore all the headlines. This is especially true in cases where the person is not planning on taking any action in response to market shifts.
How we feel at any given moment, and where we choose to focus our time and energy, is greatly impacted by the information we receive. If our thoughts are negatively impacted by all the news we are consuming, it may be time to consider a news diet.
I cut my news consumption about 80 percent in the past month, both intentionally because I was overconsuming, and as a byproduct of travel. I can really feel the difference in my life. If you are willing, I recommend you consider doing the same.
Quote of The Week
“Bad news travels fast. Good news takes the scenic route.”