There is a new drug out on the market which is causing ‘a misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, and desensitisation’ — Jodie Jackson, 2016. This drug is consumed on average by 80% of adults in Western countries each day and is more popular than alcohol or even caffeine. This drug is subsidised and legally protected by many governments, and can be tailor-made and delivered on a mass scale to anyone with a social media account. This drug is the news.
Although many of us may be aware of the dangers of fake news, new research suggests that even true news can be dangerous, especially for our mental health. The vast majority of news seen online or on TV focuses on negative, sensational, and attention-grabbing stories. This focus distorts our view of humanity and causes us to believe that the world is a far worse place than what most statistics would suggest. Mainstream news is suffering from a deficit of perspective. The truth matters, but the truth can be harmful if we are not given the full picture.
There is growing literature which suggests that the news is a mental health hazard. In a study by Johnson and Daveyin 1997, people who were shown negative news stories displayed increases in anxiety, a lower overall general mood, and were more likely to catastrophise a personal worry. Some would say that this is, of course, a natural reaction when one escapes their own bubble and faces the facts. The news is simply revealing the truth: that the world is a terrible place, and society is on the brink of collapse.
To measure people’s overall sentiment with this gloomy view of the world, one survey of individuals in 28 different countries asked ‘Overall, do you think the world is getting better, staying the same, or getting worse?’ The survey found that the vast majority answered with ‘things are getting worse’. Amongst Australians, only three percent reported that things were getting better. Those living in developed countries also appeared to have a far more negative view of the world than those in developing countries. In the same survey, when asked about indicators of quality of life such as child mortality and absolute poverty, the vast majority of people around the globe believed these variables to be increasing or staying the same.
Astonishingly, this could not be further from the truth. Globally, over the past few decades, absolute poverty, child mortality, hunger, deaths from disease, and deaths from conflict have all decreased. Meanwhile, education, hours of leisure, income, life expectancy, and security have all increased. The average middle-class person in a developing country today enjoys a quality of life that would put the luxurious lifestyle enjoyed by John D. Rockefeller (the richest man in the U.S.A as of 100 years ago) to shame, mostly thanks to advances in technology. We are living in the healthiest, wealthiest, and safest time in human history and the majority of people do not realise it. As Max Rosser from Our World in Data says “we think more poorly than we should about the world we live in, and we think more poorly than we should about what people around the world are achieving right now.”
Evidence suggests that the media has a large role to play in building this pessimistic view that humanity has of itself. In 2018, a team of Dutch sociologists analysed how aeroplane crashes are reported in the media. Between 1991 and 2005, when the number of crashes steadily decreased, they found that the media attention for such accidents steadily increased. In another study from 2018, a team of media researchers similarly found that in times when immigration or violence declines, newspapers give them more coverage. This leaves us with the conclusion that there seems to be no relationship, or in fact a negative relationship, between news and reality. Although these events did happen and can be considered the truth, the way they lack perspective distorts reality for the average viewer.
The reason we are so susceptible to these doom and gloom stories is due to two psychological biases: the negativity and availability bias. The negativity bias describes how negative experiences of equal intensity to positive ones leave a far greater psychological impact on how we think and behave. For example, studies find that the negative traits of an individual impact our impression of them more than the positive traits of that individual. Availability bias describes how we believe that events that can be easily recalled occur more frequently.
By exploiting these biases, the news becomes about what is exceptional. You are far more likely to read a headline reporting on a recent homicide in a town which has not had a murder in the past five years than to hear the same report in a city with the highest murder rate per capita. As Charles Bukowski once said in Ham on Rye in 1982, “News travels fastest in places where nothing much ever happens.”
Social media may be exacerbating the mental health issues related to news consumption. In an increasingly competitive, attention-based economy, more and more news outlets turn to sensational ‘breaking’ and ‘urgent’ headlines. Headlines which are distracting, agitating, and more accessible than ever. Of course, much of the news today is still highly informative and useful. We live in an age when accurate information on any topic can be acquired in a matter of seconds. This can be and has been a great force for good. However, we should be more mindful of our news consumption and realise that the reality of the world lies beyond a few exceptional breaking news events. The truth matters, but the truth is nothing without perspective.
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